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The Importance of Research
September 11, 2015

A guest post by SOLD’s intern, Bunty Drewitt, reflecting on what she has learned during her tenure with us.


As I approach the last days of my internship at SOLD, I have begun to reflect on my work here and draw some conclusions. My main assignment at SOLD was to help SOLD prepare to enter the research world of human trafficking as we begin conducting our own studies. During this process, I have spent most of my time reading numerous articles, journals, and reports on human trafficking and have concluded that there is a dire need for the funding and conduct of more objective, quality, evidence-driven research of of human trafficking.

Human trafficking statistics are most indicative of this research gap. They are both staggering and staggered. In articles citing the scope of human trafficking, often the figures regarding the number of victims vary within the tens of millions. Whether it’s 20 million or 30 million, the discrepancy is clear. How do scholars determine these numbers?

For example, Kevin Bales claims there are 27 million slaves in the world. The United Nations estimates there are 30 million. The International Labor Organization (ILO) put the number at 21 million. Neither Kevin Bales nor the ILO nor many other agencies putting out statistics on human trafficking cite sources or provide explanations as to how they arrived at their numbers.

The problem is that there is no agreed-upon, transparent method of measuring the issue of modern slavery/human trafficking, which leads to inconsistent and often misleading analysis of the issue. For example, the International Labour Organization declared that there were 2.45 million people trafficked into forced labour in 2005. Now, they cite that 21 million people are victims of forced labor, which, according to the ILO, includes most victims of trafficking and slavery. This increase has led many to conclude that trafficking and modern slavery is growing. This conclusion is most likely untrue as only in recent years have governments become aware of trafficking within and across their borders. Consequently, most have only recently begun to track and prosecute traffickers, while many still have not. We need to distinguish between whether human trafficking is growing in scope or is merely being further uncovered.

Another example of the limitations of our research and knowledge about human trafficking is seen in the 2015 Global Human Trafficking Report, which says that 79% of human trafficking is sexual exploitation, and only 18% is forced labor. In recent months, more and more labor exploitation has been exposed, casting doubt on these statistics. The report even admits their statistics “may be a misrepresentation because forced labour is less frequently detected and reported than trafficking for sexual exploitation.” The UNODC confesses that the report both increases understanding, and “exposes our ignorance.” The organization wisely continues to implore governments and social scientists to improve information gathering and sharing.

I would like to make clear that this article is not meant to discredit previous research, it is merely to point out that human trafficking research has only been conducted for the past 15 years, and human trafficking is a highly clandestine enterprise, and one of the most difficult crime networks to track and observe fully due to its shifting, amorphous nature. Another major problem in the anti-trafficking movement is the lack of clear definitions and classifications. Legal definitions of trafficked victims are ambiguous and often do not distinguish a trafficked victim from a smuggled victim (which requires consent). Research also faces the daunting task of creating clear definitions that are holistic and do not exclude exploited peoples whose governments have deemed them outside of the classification of trafficking victims.

In order to create quality evidence-based research we must admit the drawbacks and limitations of human trafficking research. We must critique past research, and move forward into more sound practices. We must educate the public of human trafficking’s complexities, and not generalize or sensationalize it.

Misleading portrayals of human trafficking lead to faulty and incomplete policies and programs to combat human trafficking. We need to realize and emphasize the crucial relationship between research and policy. Without quality research, countries cannot produce effective anti-trafficking policies, and will not until more funding and attention is brought to address the lack of quality, evidence-driven research.

The United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) emphasises the need for research funding. “Even with limited funds and victims in urgent need, it is necessary to spend resources on rigorous anti-trafficking research to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of anti-human trafficking policies and programmes. While researchers, practitioners, and donors differed on a number of issues, such as the resources needed to undertake quality research on human trafficking (adequate time, adequate funding), all agreed that rigorous, ethical research must form the foundation of anti-trafficking policies and programmes.”

A recent Guardian article expresses the need for organizations like SOLD stating that “countless global prevention campaigns aim to protect vulnerable people from exploitation, yet there has been little robust research into their effectiveness. We simply do not know what works. There has also been far too much simplistic focus on raising awareness, as opposed to addressing the root causes of vulnerability.”

With this, we hope our supporters will journey with us. As we grow into a leading human trafficking prevention organization, help us continue to stay grounded in the truth. By conducting research, we are quantifying our prevention model, which we hope to share with other organizations seeking to prevent child exploitation in other areas.  Additionally, we plan to evaluate our program’s longitudinal efficacy through studies that will help us discover new areas we can support our children throughout their development.

Research is not sexy. But it is necessary. At SOLD, we seek to understand the risk factors of human trafficking in order to address them and thus prevent children from falling prey to traffickers. To achieve this, we must pursue research because it allows us to understand the problem more deeply and fully.

In the words of the Executive Director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, “If we do not overcome this knowledge crisis we will be fighting the problem blindfolded.”

— Bunty Drewitt

The SOLD Project, Intern

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