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Human Trafficking: Questioning the Numbers
April 18, 2016

SOLD DataBig data, metadata, metrics, numbers, stats — these days measurement is king. When Andrew Forrest, one of Australia’s wealthiest men, decided to join the fight against modern slavery, Bill Gates’ advice to him was to find a way to measure it, because if you can’t, “it doesn’t exist.” Thus, the Global Slavery Index was born.

We at the SOLD Project get this. Whether updating our donors or trying to measure our impact, we gather and report data all the time, and we’re often impressed by how data collection methods continue to be refined. Nevertheless, there are some areas where trustworthy data is still incredibly hard to get.

Two such areas happen to be human trafficking and sex work. Alas, Thailand offers a great example.

In 1992, Thai Police estimated that 800,000 prostitutes were currently working in Thailand. In 1995, a Coalition against Trafficking in Women (CATW) map stated that the estimated number of prostitutes in Thailand was between 300,000 and 2.8 million. (In order for the higher estimate to be true, every female between the ages of 15 and 29 years old and living in an urban area in Thailand would have to be a prostitute.) In 2003, a Thai government report stated that only 81,384 sex workers worked in Thailand at that time. A 2013 estimate put the number of children (under 18) involved in the sex trade at 60,000, which would make the overall number much higher. However, even in 2003, some activists and organizations believed the number of Thai sex workers to be well above 2 million. The contemporary slavery researcher and expert Kevin Bales estimated, in 2003 as well, that the number of sex workers in Thailand was between half a million and a million.

How many sex workers are there in Thailand right now? A lot. How many child sex workers? Way too many. Other than that, it’s hard to say with any certainty.

The issue isn’t better when it comes to trafficking victims. As a UNESCO Bangkok report states:

In 2001, the FBI estimated 700,000 women and children were trafficked worldwide, UNICEF estimated 1.75 million, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) merely 400,000. In 2001, the UN drastically changed its own estimate of trafficked people in 2000, from 4,000,0000 to 1,000,000.

When highlighting the problem of modern slavery on SOLD’s website, we note that Thailand has an estimated number of 475,300 modern slaves. This claim is based on data from The Global Slavery Index, a respected index produced by the Walk Free Foundation. While we feel fine using this number because it helps communicate the immensity of the issue very quickly to a culture with the attention span of a two-year-old (sorry, what were we talking about again?), we also recognize that the data is not as clean as we would like given that no one has figured out a perfect methodology.

With the help of Gallup Inc., the Walk Free Foundation was able to conduct random sample surveys in Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nepal, Nigeria, Russia, and Pakistan. Well and good. Random sample surveys are a good way to gather data on many social issues.

When it came to the other 160 nations it reported on, however, including Thailand, the Index had to use secondary sources. While the methodology the researchers used (clustering countries by key vulnerabilities, geographies, etc.) is good, given the data they had available, it’s not ideal. For Thailand (in cluster V), the data sets used for extrapolation weren’t even secondary sources from Thailand itself but came from Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Qatar. Until random sample surveys are administered across Thailand, we should be skeptical of this estimate. In fact, given the clandestine nature of modern slavery and human trafficking, even random sample surveys can’t present a full proof picture.

The point is not to suggest that it’s impossible to gather trustworthy data on this issue. The Global Slavery Index is working towards this and many other researchers are as well. In fact, we’re excited to be partnering with Liberty Asia to help with this in our own small way. Rather, the point is to highlight that while data can help us understand the scope of modern slavery, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation, we’re not at a place yet where we can present most of this data as if it’s conclusive.

That’s okay.

Unfortunately, we at SOLD witness the problem of modern slavery, human trafficking, and commercial sexual exploitation all the time. Even though nobody has figured out a perfect way to measure it yet, we know it exists. And, more importantly, while estimates are important for highlighting the immensity of the problem, we’ve always been aware that these issues don’t come down to abstract numbers but to the exploitation of actual girls, boys, women, and men, and what we can do to prevent it.



Dan Olson is SOLD’s inhouse writer and researcher.

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