E.g., 06/04/2023
E.g., 06/04/2023
Human Trafficking: The Need for Better Data

Human Trafficking: The Need for Better Data

Human trafficking involves controlling and exploiting people after transporting them to a new location, often beyond the borders of their homeland. In this modern form of slavery, traffickers use threats, intimidation, and violence to break their victims' will and resistance.

This trafficking in humans has become a global business, reaping huge profits for traffickers and organized crime syndicates, generating massive human rights violations, and causing serious problems for governments. Despite the magnitude of the problem, however, it has only recently seized policy makers' attention. As recently as 10 years ago, the expression "human trafficking" rarely appeared in migration policy debates. Today, however, trafficking is one of the major concerns of both governments and organizations active in the migration field, and has become a priority for those working in many other policy areas such as human rights, health, law enforcement, and social services.

"Few governments systematically collect trafficking data."

There is still very limited information on the scale of trafficking, how it works, and the most effective means to halt it. One of the biggest knowledge gaps lies in the area of data collection. Despite the growing literature on trafficking, relatively few studies are based on extensive research, and information on the actual numbers of people trafficked remains very sketchy.

Policy makers and analysts are now asking what can and should be done to improve information on trafficking. A key part of this investigation involves understanding why gathering reliable data has proven so difficult.

Re-defining Trafficking

Perhaps the most basic step toward collecting sound data has been simply to define "trafficking." As researchers and policy makers from diverse countries and international bodies have tried to harmonize their approaches to trafficking, a common definition has proved vital.

In fact, the international definition of trafficking as a distinct phenomenon has emerged only in recent years. Until the mid-1990s, trafficking was often viewed as a form of human smuggling and a type of illegal migration. A clear and distinct global definition of trafficking has only been available since the December 2000 signing of the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, which lays out the following:

"'Trafficking in persons' shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation."

"Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs."

The protocol further says that anyone subjected to the kinds of coercion and manipulation laid out in the definition cannot "consent" to being exploited — thus eliminating the legal grounds for traffickers to defend themselves by claiming they had willing victims.

Smuggling vs. Trafficking

One obstacle to creating a workable international definition of trafficking is the fact that various crimes — especially people smuggling — tend to overlap. For this reason, the UN protocol draws a key distinction between "trafficking" and "smuggling," defining the latter as the "procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident."

The definition is intended to distinguish smugglers, whose main occupation is transporting migrants via illegal channels, from traffickers, who combine transportation with exploitation. Categorizing these crimes can be difficult, however, and some commentators argue that creating a workable distinction between smuggling and trafficking is impossible. They point out that many "smuggled" migrants are exposed to abuse and exploitation either while being transported or on arrival, confounding attempts to paint neat lines between smuggling and trafficking.

Other commentators believe, however, that applying sharper definitions is key to gathering accurate data. Without drawing such distinctions, they argue, the data will not support the research needed to understand current trends and create policies that deter and penalize traffickers while protecting victims.

Magnitude and Meanings

Before proceeding into the complexities of gathering data, it is important to note the scale of global trafficking — or rather, to acknowledge the sheer immensity of a phenomenon that has so far mocked efforts at large-scale quantitative analysis.

"An estimated 120,000 women and children are trafficked into Western Europe each year"

Given the fairly recent acceptance of the new international definitions of trafficking and smuggling, it is perhaps unsurprising that few governments systematically collect trafficking data. In fact, many countries mix data related to trafficking, smuggling, and irregular migration, meaning that figures are often little more than estimates. Furthermore, the available data usually concern the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation. All of this makes understanding the magnitude of trafficking a tricky business.

At the global level, the most widely quoted figure concerns the number of women and children believed to be trafficked worldwide each year across international borders. In 1997, U.S. authorities estimated that 700,000 to two million women and children were being trafficked in this way each year. No explanation has been given as to the assumptions underlying such estimates. Moreover, such numbers are widely regarded as very conservative because they do not include trafficking within countries, nor do they take into account the trafficking of men.

Narrowing it down to a more regional perspective, in March 2001, the European Commission reported that "an estimated 120,000 women and children are being trafficked into Western Europe each year." Again, it is unclear how these figures were reached. In a 2000 report on trafficking in EU member states, Europol, the EU's law enforcement agency, comments that while the overall number of victims trafficked in the EU is still unknown and only estimates are available, "What is clear is the fact that the number of victims is much higher than the official statistics from investigated cases in Member States."

At the national level, a 1998 study of 25 European countries by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an international body working with migrants and governments to provide humane responses to migration challenges, found that only 12 could produce data on cases of trafficking in women, and only seven on cases of trafficking in children. Eleven countries were able to supply data on the number of convictions for offences related to trafficking in women, with the combined total of convictions in 1996 standing at less than 100. Recent IOM studies in other parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia, South Korea, and Russia have produced similar results.

IOM, for example, collects both qualitative and quantitative information on trafficking based on the numbers of trafficked people it assists. IOM's trafficking database includes information on the number of victims assisted, their country of origin, age, travel route, and the manner in which they were trafficked. In 2001, IOM provided assistance to 1,324 victims of trafficking, and in 2002 the figure is expected to rise to 2,200.

When examined in detail, the IOM data point to new trends. For instance, they show clearly that there is considerable trafficking within Central and Eastern Europe, and not only between the East and West. In 2001, the majority of trafficking victims assisted by IOM came from Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine. In the majority of cases, the women had been trafficked to countries and provinces in the Balkans, especially Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. IOM data also indicate that trafficking is occurring between Central and Eastern Europe and Asia. For example, in 2000 IOM assisted Romanian and Moldovan women who had been trafficked to Cambodia.

In the countries of origin of trafficking victims in the developing world, it is more difficult to obtain data. Nevertheless, there are many indications of a growing problem. For example, in February 2000, Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, hosted the first pan-African conference on human trafficking. The conference was opened by Nigeria's President Olusegun Obsanjo, who reported that 1,178 Nigerian women and children believed to be victims of trafficking were deported from states abroad and returned to their homeland between March 1999 and December 2000.

Although most trafficking data refer to women and girls, there are reports of boys being trafficked. For example, over the last 10 years nearly 2,000 boys have reportedly been trafficked from Bangladesh to the Persian Gulf states to work as camel jockeys, since they are the lightest possible riders for races.

Why So Little Sound Data?

Besides the scale of trafficking, there are many other reasons for the scarcity of data. Among the most important are the victims' frequent reluctance to report crimes or testify for fear of reprisals; disincentives, both structural and legal, for law enforcement officers to act against traffickers; a lack of harmony among existing data sources; and the unwillingness of some countries and agencies to share data.

It is likely that the majority of trafficking cases remain unreported because the victims fear retaliation by the traffickers, who are often affiliated with organized crime syndicates. In addition, they may fear government penalties because of their status as undocumented migrants. Those brave enough to testify against traffickers may simply find themselves deported. The combined affect of these fears is to quiet the victims, lower the number of reported cases, and limit the data available to researchers.

Lack of data can also be attributed to the low priority placed on fighting trafficking by law enforcement officers, who face two major disincentives. First, legislation for prosecution and victim protection is often lacking, inadequate, or not implemented, making the conviction of traffickers very difficult and often impossible. Second, trafficking convictions are often, though not always, based on witness/victim testimony that may not materialize if the victims are likely to be deported. The net result is that the police often prefer not to go after traffickers at all, knowing that a great deal of effort only rarely results in a conviction.

Workplace issues among law enforcement agencies may also contribute to the lack of data collection. One study of police practices in Germany, one of the few countries to publish annual statistics on the magnitude of trafficking, found a decline in the number of people trafficked between 1994 and 2000. However, researchers attributed the perceived decline to a lower number of victims registered, partly resulting from fewer police investigations due to:

  • Understaffing of police units concerned with trafficking offences
  • Shifting of focus to associated criminal elements that can be tackled more easily
  • Assignment of police concerned with trafficking to a wide range of duties, making it almost impossible for them to detect and prosecute trafficking offences
  • Execution of a significant proportion of large-scale investigations by organized crime units rather than trafficking units

Whether caused by weak legal frameworks, reluctant witnesses, or internal police issues, the end result of hobbled investigations and prosecution of traffickers is less access to sound data.

Data Discrepancies

Despite the lack of data from law enforcement sources, other new sources of data are emerging as more agencies around the world take action to combat trafficking. The U.S. government alone reported that in 2001 it supported over 110 anti-trafficking programs in around 50 countries. In Europe there are numerous agencies implementing programs to fight trafficking. However, no single agency acts as a focal point for the collection, collation, or harmonization of statistics on trafficking either at national level or at a regional level, presenting policy makers with a significant degree of uncertainty.

Moreover, it is often the case that existing data are program-specific. They are frequently based on the varying definitions used by each individual agency. They may also only cover those receiving certain types of assistance, e.g., persons participating in voluntary assisted return programmes, or those accommodated in shelters for victims of trafficking. Each agency gathers data according to its own needs, and the same individual may appear in data produced by more than one organization.

Data also varies according to the resources of the organizations concerned. Some are better financed and accord greater priority to data collection than others. Some NGOs register first contacts with victims, others monitor hotline calls or those eligible for temporary residence permits. Some agencies compile data over a one-year period, while others produce statistics covering the duration of a specific project.

Hoarding Data

Another problem is that at the international level, the sharing of information on trafficking tends to occur on an ad hoc basis, especially between countries of origin and destination. This is true for both governments and international agencies.

The reasons for this reticence are varied. Some countries regard data on human trafficking as classified information, and therefore do not share it. Other states have data protection laws prohibiting the dissemination of personal information, while some ministries simply adopt a policy of restricted distribution. Authorities in destination countries may be reluctant to share information with source countries whose authorities and law enforcement agencies are suspected of involvement in trafficking.

Some agencies, for their part, are reluctant to release data simply because of concerns about its quality. NGOs may be reluctant to share data for other reasons, e.g., to protect the confidentiality of the trafficked persons they assist.

Confronting the Data Shortage

Although the array of obstacles to collecting accurate data on trafficking is daunting, significant work is underway to sidestep or eliminate such problems. The effort is likely to gather strength from two sources: an overall increase in government and multilateral efforts to combat trafficking, and more deliberate institutional strategies to systematically deal with trafficking data.

The growing political importance of the battle against trafficking was exemplified by the largest-ever European Union conference on "Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings," which was held in Brussels in September 2002. The event, organized by IOM on behalf of the EU, brought together over 1,000 representatives of European institutions, EU member countries, states applying for EU membership, and relevant third countries. The delegates were drawn from governments, international institutions, and nongovernmental organizations. The conference produced the "Brussels Declaration," which outlined a set of policy recommendations to the EU on trafficking.

In the United States, too, trafficking has been rising on the political agenda. In October 2001, the State Department created the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and in June 2002 the department published its second report assessing the efforts of 89 countries to fight trafficking. This report is the most comprehensive anti-trafficking review to be issued by any single government (see map for details of the State Department's rankings).

This greater focus on trafficking is likely to help fill the knowledge gap in various ways, whether through better data collection and dissemination by individual governments' programs, or by cross-border, inter-agency coordination that fosters better data sharing and analysis.

Besides the overall efforts to boost the anti-trafficking fight, there are more deliberate efforts to systematize the collection of data. In this vein, the United Nations Population Division organized an inter-agency meeting in July 2002 to discuss ways in which data on international migration could be improved and made more widely available. The conveners emphasized that scarce and unreliable data had made systematic coordination among data collectors and analysts a top priority.

The need for better coordination of existing data is particularly applicable in the case of information on human trafficking. As the number of counter-trafficking programs increases, an increasing amount of statistical data on trafficking is becoming available from a variety of sources, and it is likely that such data will improve as more NGOs, intergovernmental organizations, and others step up their efforts to combat trafficking.

However, a mechanism to coordinate and standardize these disparate data collection systems and various indicators of trafficking is still lacking. Much more will have to be done in order to improve the comparability of the limited amount of statistical data currently available from a wide variety of agencies.

An example of what may be possible to achieve is the establishment this year of a "regional clearing point" in Belgrade for the Balkans. This project, which was established within the framework of the Balkans Stability Pact Task Force on Trafficking in Human Beings in July 2002, aims to create a regional database on trafficking. By collecting and analyzing information gained from a wide range of sources, the project intends to foster a comprehensive understanding of human trafficking throughout the Balkans. This type of project, which is managed under IOM auspices, is to be extended to other regions where IOM implements counter-trafficking programmes.

Another realm exists in which more systematic efforts can be made: Existing sources of information on trafficking, including possible indirect indicators, have yet to be fully exploited. Although there are relatively few statistics relating directly to human trafficking, there may be other indicators that suggest the occurrence of trafficking.

Examples of potentially untapped indirect indicators on trafficking include the number of missing persons. For example, in Lithuania it was recently reported that the number of missing persons had tripled since 1989, in a trend believed to be linked to the growth in trafficking. Another more controversial indicator is the number of migrant women working in the sex industry in a particular country, a possibility highlighted by studies on prostitution in Europe. As Europol points out, "[N]ot all foreign prostitutes are victims of trafficking, but a sizeable proportion is probably exploited to some degree." This kind of statistic may be relevant, therefore, in discussions about the likely extent of trafficking.

Looking to the future, commentators are also pointing to the need for more research on good data collection and analysis policies. Researchers will be attempting to answer the question of why Germany, for example, has been able to publish statistics on trafficking since 1994, a feat accomplished by few other industrialized countries.

Another strategy still waiting in the wings is that of supporting poor countries' data collection efforts - one of the key recommendations to emerge from the UN Population Division's 2002 inter-agency conference. Participants in the event highlighted the need for international organizations and governments to provide greater technical and financial assistance to developing countries in order to enable them to collect better migration data.

In the long run, superior data will only emerge when the gravity of trafficking is fully recognized and acknowledged by all authorities concerned. Unless governments and law enforcement agencies are prepared to combat trafficking more vigorously and, at the same time, to provide adequate protection to the victims of trafficking, the majority of trafficking cases will continue to go uncounted, the victims uncared for, and the traffickers unpunished. Going forward, it all depends on sound polices based on good data.


Annuska Derks. 2000. "Combating Trafficking in South-East Asia: A Review of Policy and Programme Responses," IOM Migration Research Series, No. 2, Geneva.

Europol. 2001. "Crime Assessment: Trafficking in Human Beings Into the European Union," The Hague.

Donna Hughes. 2002. "Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation: The Case of the Russian Federation," IOM Migration Research Series, No. 7, Geneva.

International Organization for Migration. 1995. "Trafficking and Prostitution: The Growing Exploitation of Women from Central and Eastern Europe," Geneva.

International Organization for Migration. 2000. "Migrant Trafficking and Human Smuggling in Europe", Geneva.

Liz Kelly and Linda Regan. 2000. "Stopping Traffic: Exploring the extent of, and responses to, trafficking in women for sexual exploitation in the UK," Home Office, Police Research Series, Paper 125, London.

Frank Laczko, Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels and Jana Barthel. 2002. "Trafficking in Women from Central and Eastern Europe: A Review of Statistical Data," in New Challenges for Migration Policy in Central and Eastern Europe, eds, F. Laczko, I. Stacher and A. Klekowski von Koppenfels, Asser Press, The Hague, forthcoming, 2002.

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