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What We Don’t Know About Traffickers
September 22, 2022

There’s still so much we don’t know about traffickers. While much attention about trafficking is still heavily focused on how much trafficking there is, in our experience of more than a decade in the field, this is not the most interesting or useful question to focus on. If we want to bring an end to trafficking, we need to know a lot more about traffickers: who they are, how they got there, and why. To assess how effective prosecution is, we need to know what percentage of people arrested on trafficking charges have even been formally tried and convicted for those offenses. Let us explain.

This is How to Dig Deeper into Learning About Traffickers

For the longest time, traffickers have been treated almost like the “black box” in trafficking data–the unknowable part, or even the assumed part. It’s as if we assume there will always be traffickers, that their motives are clearly about greed, and that there’s nothing much more worth knowing about them. Data on traffickers instead focus on their methods, the forms of trafficking they perpetuate, who they target, and some basic demographics like gender and age. 

However, rare studies like one conducted by Blue Dragon in Vietnam call these assumptions into question and demonstrate the importance of asking what brought traffickers to trafficking. They find that many traffickers in their region come from the same background as their victims: poor, less educated, ethnic minorities sidelined from socio-economic opportunities. In this sense, the same thing that makes people vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking also puts people at risk of becoming perpetrators. It’s possible the only difference comes down to chance and what opportunity presents itself. Some are even young–only teenagers. Our colleagues at The HUG Project and LIFT International confirm that they are seeing more young traffickers in Thailand too, teenagers not even realizing that what they are doing is trafficking. 

If traffickers and their victims share the same risk factors, this makes an even stronger case for the importance of prevention–suggesting that improving opportunities for those most vulnerable in society may reduce trafficking from both the victim and the perpetrator side.

But to know this with certainty, we need prosecutors to collect and share more data about the traffickers they come across. We need to know:

  • Basic demographics (things such as gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, and citizenship status)
  • Socioeconomic information (meaning: education, income)
  • Pathway to trafficking (for example, who recruited them and how, or whether they were former victims of trafficking themselves)
  • Recidivism status (meaning: how many are repeat offenders, and if they are repeat offenders, what was their previous conviction and punishment)
  • What role they played in the trafficking hierarchy (for example, were they freelancers, or did they work for organized crime; were they low-level traffickers such as recruiters or transporters who may not have even known the extent of what they were doing, or were they fully aware?)
  • And what they do with the money earned as traffickers (for example, does it buy a luxury lifestyle or does it go to supporting family).

Even in getting all this data, it’s important to remember that it’s potentially skewed towards traffickers that law enforcement officers were able to catch. For example, it might be more likely representative of low-level traffickers, but not powerful bosses.

We Also Need to Assess Prosecution and Conviction

Much of the available data on prosecution and conviction is simple numbers on how many prosecutions or convictions have been carried out, which only tells us whether these numbers go up or down in any given year. However, without any other contextual data, this becomes very difficult to derive meaning from these numbers. For example, did numbers go down because they were less effective at arresting or investigating cases? Or did numbers go down because instances of trafficking went down? These two possibilities present two very different scenarios. 

Furthermore, even these “simple numbers” on prosecution and conviction rates muddy a more complicated story. Pursuing trafficking cases in court is actually a very complex process. Trafficking cases often require a much higher burden of proof than other cases of exploitation. Libel and defamation protections also create incentives to pursue trafficking cases in other jurisdictions or other venues or in other ways (for example, as civil lawsuits instead) because, politically, it’s easier. So given considerations like what available evidence there is, what the victim or client is willing to go through, and the complexity of the context, trafficking cases might not always be counted as trafficking cases. They might be charged as lesser, more “getable” offenses, to get a win rather than pursuing a riskier prosecution that’s more likely to lose.

Having data on things like how many potential trafficking cases prosecutors handled, how many of those actually led to convictions, and on what charges they were successfully prosecuted would start to paint a more detailed picture of the world of trafficking and exploitation. Indeed, thinking about trafficking as part of a broader spectrum of exploitation, in general, could bring a lot more nuance and clarity to the phenomenon. We also could assess whether harsher punishments have done anything to reduce recidivism. Knowing whether recidivism rates are higher amongst those with lighter sentences would help make this case–or if the data don’t support that, then we may need to rethink this approach.

We might never know how many trafficking victims we don’t know about. We might never get truly accurate numbers on trafficking instances. But there’s still a wealth of information we could get if only we asked the right questions.

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