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A Major Flaw in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

March 28, 2019

The element missing in trafficking in persons (TIP), is prevention.

Recently, I have done much research into TIP efforts globally. And I have reached a potentially unpopular conclusion: how the money is being spent will never stop the problem and the amount expended is nowhere near as much as the tragedy requires.

Furthermore, there is little work to prevent trafficking from initially occurring.

Before continuing, I must clarify: I have friends working in anti-trafficking fields, and there are literally thousands of people around the world in the TIP field doing important and wonderful work. This post is not a slam or a criticism on their current efforts or on anyone battling this evil scourge.

Rather, my thoughts are coming from the mindset of evaluation and improving their labors.

Let us unlock my statement. Most money spent on anti-trafficking exertions, from governments to NGOs to the private sector either raise awareness, go towards law enforcement (prosecution, training police or similar), or fund survivor rehabilitation. All of those elements are necessary and needed in this war. But we lack hard evidence of those interventions’ successes.

Little research exists on the effectiveness of TIP efforts.

If you think this could not be the case, take a few minutes here.

I could find only a few studies in my extensive research examining TIP’s efficacy. What I discovered, however, is many people working in the sub-sector saying that good data about human trafficking and interventions is difficult to find and hard to convey.

There are good reasons for lacking quality data. Survivors are reticent to speak about their trauma. They suffer many social stigmas when they are rescued. The perpetrators are shadowy figures and those involved in the trade in human beings are usually hidden. The whole enterprise is hush-hush and out of the spotlight.

Some recognize that data evaluation of the value of anti-trafficking efforts is wanting. Which raises the question: if seemingly no one knows whether the money being spent is making a difference, why do organizations and people fund the struggle?

I think the answer is comparable to the ‘War on Drugs.’

We feel like we have to do ‘something,’ and that not taking action would be morally or ethically wrong. But just as the ‘War on Drugs’ has failed, so too has the ‘war on trafficking’ at a meta level.

For all the money spent on TIP, the problem grows yearly and ensnares increasing amounts of people. It is estimated that the trade in human beings is nearly a $150 billion-dollar enterprise. And this is a conservative estimate.

This brings us to another problem.

This is a list of US government agencies and initiatives involved in the fight against human trafficking. What I had trouble finding was the total amount of money the USG spent on anti-trafficking efforts in a particular year. The budget numbers I have seen from individual agencies demonstrate that the total amount is not parallel to the problem.

The drug business is worth nearly $600 billion (again a conservative estimate) and the amount of money spent countering drugs is more than $1 billion per year.

Many Americans believe trafficking happens ‘over there,’ and not in their communities.

People do not realize the problem’s universality. Therefore, they think that for example, implementing, a $25 million-dollar project in South Asia raising awareness and helping identify victims of trafficking will make a tangible difference. Twenty-five million dollars is not a small amount of money. But it is a pinprick, barely a pebble in the vast ocean of trafficking.

Trafficking is less visible to the public compared to the drug trade, whose stories fill our newspapers. One rarely hears about trafficking except for a random survivor’s story or awareness-raising efforts. Recently the arrest of the New England Patriot’s owner Robert Kraft brought human trafficking to the headlines.

But if trafficking received similar press coverage as drugs, we would all view the problem differently.

Trafficking is a global problem and it happens everywhere.

Another common fallacy is that sex-trafficking is the dominant form of human trafficking. That is 100 percent false.

Many more people are trafficked for labor than for sex.

But the more salacious story is sex trafficking and it gets coverage. Again, this does not minimize sex trafficking and its devastating effects. What I am saying is that the misconception that all human trafficking is sex trafficking is not only wrong but harmful.

Focusing only on sex trafficking can easily blind one’s eyes to labor bondage, substantially more pervasive.

Anti-trafficking spending is not making the problem smaller. An element of the fight against human trafficking that is absent and rarely discussed is prevention. Is there a way to use big data to identify potential human trafficking victims?

Anti-trafficking efforts require a transformative solution, but the current actions barely impact the overall situation. Click To Tweet

Perhaps a strategy similar to the law enforcement “Broken Window Theory” could be utilized. This is where patterns of criminal behavior are correlated with specific vulnerabilities of people at high risk of being coerced into trafficking.

By far the most dominant and headline-catching work against trafficking is arresting those engaged in it. But here’s the problem: merely removing a predator from an environment without changing the underlying situation which allowed trafficking to flourish will not preclude another predator from taking the first one’s place.

No matter how many human traffickers are being imprisoned, unless society eradicates elements drawing the trafficker and changes the incentives for their presence, there will always be more.

Returning to the failed “War on Drugs,’ more than one-third of all people undergoing punishment in the U.S. criminal justice system are there for drug-related offenses.  However, the proliferation and usage of illegal drugs continue unabated, growing yearly.

Why then would we think that merely jailing traffickers would stop the problem? Global efforts at arresting those involved in human trafficking are minuscule. Yet, governments claim small victories, calling it progress when a country arrests and convicts handfuls of people for human trafficking yearly.

Global TIP efforts must focus more resources on identifying ways to eliminate the problem and the environment in which it thrives. If the current distribution of efforts and money remains unchanged, the problem will worsen, entangling more and more people and destroying their lives.

1 Comment
March 28, 2019 at 9:58 pm

Great article buddy! When I think human trafficking, I always think of sex trafficking and never labor trafficking (eye opener). It amazes me how prevalent this issue is yet it seems like a hopeless cause. I think you made the point that throwing more money at it and arresting more people won’t really do a thing. I agree! It’s a much more complicated scenario and I wish there was a simple answer beyond what anti-traffickers are doing now.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!