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The Data We Need
October 22, 2020

Everyone who has looked closely at the issue of human trafficking knows there’s a data problem. It’s impossible to know exactly how many victims there are, which leads people to rely on estimates. Some estimates are derived as closely as possible from available sources like calls to national trafficking hotlines, which obviously is a select and possibly biased sample. Some are so weirdly cobbled together as to be essentially useless. Trafficking is a policy problem that eludes attempts to accurately quantify. So, for decades, because we have to act even in the face of uncertainty, we’ve all been working mostly in the dark.

However, the number of victims is not the only potentially useful, interesting, or important piece of information we need. There are some kinds of data we could work towards that would help us better understand how well we’re responding to trafficking. In a perfect world (from a data standpoint), there would be transparency and access to this kind of information. 

Here is some of the data we wish we could get

How many victims found by law enforcement – news articles will share how many suspected victims were found in a trafficking case, but there’s very rarely follow up on what came out of the investigation and how many were discovered to be truly trafficking victims. Earlier this year, Germany found a shockingly huge online network of 30,000 suspects, but we haven’t yet seen any follow up sharing how many victims were involved or identified.

How many cases led to prosecution – it’s unclear what proportions of arrests for trafficking lead to prosecution, and whether the barriers to prosecution and getting the appropriate evidence to secure a conviction are well suited to serving justice and as a deterrent to trafficking. The Trafficking in Persons Report tells us numbers of cases, prosecutions, and convictions per year, but we can’t know the trajectory of individual cases (assuming this process takes time, an arrest might happen in one year, the prosecution and conviction in a different year, for example). Case tracking, and getting the perspective of investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and other participants in this part of the process could be enlightening. 

How many led to conviction – likewise, it’s unclear what proportion of prosecutions lead to an actual conviction. Related questions would be about recidivism rates (and comparisons across differing lengths of incarceration) to determine whether prosecution & conviction are serving as a deterrent. Do more arrests work as a deterrent? Does longer sentencing help? What about programs like “johns classes” or a restorative justice approach, as is being tried out in some areas with cases of intimate partner and sexual violence? Systematic study would be helpful here.

Breakdown of victim recruitment methods – we know quite a bit from ad hoc data sources about how victims have been recruited, but a more systematic study would be helpful, especially as traffickers adapt over time, and technology plays an increasingly important role

Breakdown of survivor outcomes – we have data from interviews with survivors, but from a policy perspective, it would be useful to have more systematic follow-up with survivors to learn more about where they ended up, whether they were successfully able to rebuild their lives, or whether they ended up back in a trafficking situation (if, for example, the root cause such as poverty was never properly solved)

More information on how foreign victims are handled – how many are allowed to stay in the country after their case has been adjudicated, or are deported/repatriated, where they stay while their cases are being handled, and how arduous it is for victims to clear administrative hurdles or their records


These kinds of data would help us answer questions like: How well are we serving victims? Do more arrests or longer prison sentences serve as a strong deterrent against trafficking? Does what we think we know about victims (why they are vulnerable, or how they are recruited) hold up with a more systematic review? Are there bureaucratic processes that unwittingly make combating trafficking more difficult, and how can we address this?

But there may be valid reasons this data is unavailable

Operating within the constraints of the real world, there are a lot of reasons this kind of data isn’t more available. Government agencies might not be well equipped to collect this kind of information. Though the definition of trafficking seems quite specific, there also can be slippage in how it’s applied. A lot of systems are decentralized, making it difficult to share it systematically. There are lots of incentives to not be transparent about it–a simple one being that law enforcement might not want to share too much about what they know because traffickers might adapt, thus making it more difficult to catch them. And there is varying political will to deal with the issue as a whole. 

Having perfect information sounds great, but we also have to be forthright about other important democratic values that might come into conflict–such as individual privacy protections, and a belief in the importance of federalism and decentralization of power. Criticisms about the misuse of data and estimates are valid, but ought to be tempered with realistic expectations about what data can–or should–be collected and shared. If this sounds messy and complicated…welcome to the world of anti-trafficking.


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