If we want to fight human trafficking, we should start by trying to understand it. Here, five studies on just how little we know, and how complex the problem is. (Hint: It’s not always about sex, and it isn’t as organized as you might think.)
In November 2012, on Capitol Hill, Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal, Republican senator Rob Portman, and celebrity Jada Pinkett Smith launched the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking. The announcement, from Senator Blumenthal’s website, reads in part: “Human trafficking is modern-day slavery—a horrific crime that occurs across the world and the nation. According to anti-trafficking groups, 27 million people are held captive in human trafficking networks around the world.”
That sounds terrible. The trouble is, we don’t know if it’s true.
We do know that people around the world are forced into labor and sex slavery against their will—a situation that politicians and advocates across the ideological spectrum agree is reprehensible. But though we make declarations and pass laws, we in fact know very little about the scope and nature of trafficking. In part, this is because technical and political issues make trafficking data notoriously (in many cases irresponsibly) bad. When the European Union, for example, tried to estimate the extent of trafficking in 27 nations, it had to rely on self-reported data from those nations, which differed in their definitions of trafficking; some were even reporting “presumed” victims. Add to that countries such as Argentina and the Dominican Republic, which, according to the Georgetown professor Denise Brennan, report numbers that are unreliable because of the threat of United States economic sanctions.
By its very nature, trafficking is a clandestine, illicit activity. The result is numerous unsubstantiated claims, repeated and reified, but little reliable information with which to start devising effective solutions. Last May, in our Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, we featured research that, through localized fact-gathering, showed how complex and confounding quantifying human trafficking can be.
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