A street view of Harare, Zimbabwe.  Worsening socioeconomic conditions have made many Zimbabweans targets for human trafficking.

According to recent studies, most Americans associate the term “slavery” with the transatlantic slave trade that ended in the 1860s. The number of enslaved in 2016, however, totaled over three times the total number of those enslaved between the 15th and 19th centuries. Generating $150 billion in profits annually, modern slavery drew renewed attention in the early 2000s, yet the problem only continues to grow. Covert by nature, human trafficking is difficult for governments to tackle and can easily go unnoticed by authorities.

For 15 years the U.S. State Department has issued a Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report analyzing the state of global slavery and ranking countries’ compliance with international humanitarian law. Unfortunately, the report lacks an in-depth analysis of the root causes of slavery. The lack of research, both quantitative and qualitative, has been pointed out by experts who believe the report’s reach is not extensive enough to eliminate modern slavery. The U.S. State Department has pushed back against criticisms of the report’s findings, but even amongst supporters of the Trafficking in Persons Report, one sentiment is shared: there is not enough data. Without a true understanding of the nature of modern slavery, the problem will be impossible to successfully fight.

The New Slave Trade

Modern slavery is difficult to dismantle because researchers have been unable to isolate and collect data on its causes. Whereas the transatlantic slave trade thrived on otherness defined by race, modern slavery exploits the most vulnerable victims, regardless of what factors make them vulnerable. Professor Eric Edmonds, an expert on trafficking and an economics professor at Dartmouth, has studied these vulnerable populations in hopes of identifying root causes of modern slavery. In an interview with the HPR, Edmonds discussed his work combining data on rescued child slaves with data on the communities these children come from. He stated that “family dissolution and paternal disability stood out as strong markers of vulnerability to trafficking. A lot more work could be done in this area, but data is scarce.”

Systemic social, cultural, and economic policies and power structures disadvantage certain groups, including those who are impoverished, disabled, or ethnic outsiders. In Pakistan, for example, Muslims have enslaved over 30,000 Christians as a source of forced labor. As a religious minority in Pakistan, Christians are especially vulnerable to enslavement. Globally, however, modern slavery does not exploit one religious group in particular; it preys upon those who lack security, education and economic opportunity. As Edmonds explained, “Ultimately, a lot more needs to be done to understand vulnerability to trafficking in sending areas.”

Globalization and technology dramatically changed the dynamics of slavery, and have made the modern slave trade increasingly more profitable and easier to participate in. Manufacturing advancements have incentivized poor countries to offer even cheaper labor, and the Internet has allowed consumers to purchase sex slaves without fear of prosecution. Dr. Louise Shelley, Director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, outlined this side of the Internet in a preview of her new book on illicit trade. “Over a two-year time frame traffickers spent about $250 million to post more than 60 million advertisements. Mapping the networks in the deep and dark web has revealed the global expanse of the traffickers.” Attempts to thwart modern slavery through the methods that ended the transatlantic slave trade are therefore ineffective. In 1850 the average slave cost $1,000 to $1,800—3 to 6 times the average American annual income at the time, the equivalent of nearly $50,000 today. Today, that average cost has dropped to $90. Slaves, formerly viewed as long-term investments, are now disposable. When they stop generating profits, due to injury or contraction of an STD, they are often murdered.

In response to the evolution and growth of slavery, the U.S. State Department began studying the issue in 2001, and has published its findings in an annual TIP report. The State Department heralded the report as “the world’s most comprehensive resource of governmental anti-human trafficking efforts.” Countries receive a tier ranking—tier 1, tier 2, tier 2 watch list, or tier 3—depending upon whether they meet minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), and whether the number of trafficking victims in their country is increasing. Countries categorized as tier 3 have made no effort to comply with minimum standards of the TVPA, and may be subject to U.S. sanctions.

TIP Report Under Fire

Although the TIP report has sparked action in the form of increased legislation and national action plans, it has not been lauded by all. Some foreign governments have questioned the objectivity and research methods of the State Department, pointing out that the United States did not include itself in the report until 2010—nine years after the report began. Even the U.S. Government Accountability Office went as far as to argue that the State Department “does not comprehensively describe compliance with the [TVPA] standards, lessening the report’s credibility and usefulness as a diplomatic tool.” Other countries object to the report’s bias due to cultural differences. Child labor is common and acceptable in Brazil and Guyana, and debt bondage is part of Nepal’s economy. These cultural practices shape their TIP rankings, and countries have pushed back against a point system they perceive as ‘westernized.’ By its own admittance, the State Department recognized in the 2016 report that “significant gaps in knowledge remain,” highlighting the need for more refined research methods. However, analyzing and improving those research methods is difficult, since the State Department did not publish raw quantitative data in its report.

In an interview with CNN following the release of the 2016 TIP report, Susan Coppedge, U.S. Ambassador At-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, discussed a renewed focus on funding research and data that identifies vulnerable populations and indicators of vulnerability. Yet according to a study conducted by the Institute for the Study of International Migration, research reports by intra-governmental organizations, international NGOs, and the United Nations account for nearly 90 percent of the literature on human trafficking—with merely seven percent authored by the U.S. government. Furthermore, much of this research is of questionable quality: the methodological challenges of identifying the root causes of slavery make it difficult to obtain reliable data.

Who Writes the Literature on Human Trafficking

Source: Institute for the Study of International Migration

Establishing the number of trafficking victims was a part of the presidential directive in 2001, and though the capabilities appear to exist, little progress has been made. Hidden populations have been quantified and monitored through capture-recapture methodology and respondent-driven sampling. Using these methods, the United Kingdom determined the number of homeless within the country as well as their movement. The methodology has further been used to track illegal prostitution across several countries, and some researchers say it could be translated to monitoring enslaved populations.

A Data-Driven Future

In regards to causation, TIP reports have offered little analysis of substance. The 2001 TIP report stated, “Root causes of trafficking include greed, moral turpitude, economics, political instability and transition, and social factors.” Those causes have not drastically changed through the past 15 years. The country narratives section of the TIP report explains culturally-specific causes, even if they are not quantified. Yet as Ambassador Coppedge has stated, properly quantifying root causes of modern slavery is the future.

One productive method of identifying these causes is to compare countries’ TIP status with their performance in other indexes. For the past 20 years, the Heritage Foundation has published an economic freedom index, measuring countries’ market liberties and government regulations. The data, in categories ranging from labor freedom to corruption, is averaged and countries are ranked according to their degree of overall economic freedom—free, mostly free, moderately free, mostly unfree, or repressed. When the data is compared to TIP tier rankings, there is a clear correlation between a country’s economic freedom and the extent of its human trafficking problem. Of the countries that received a free rating, 60 percent were tier 1, while none were categorized as tier 3. Similarly, mostly free countries stood at 66 percent tier 1, without a single tier 3 country. Of the economically repressed countries, 46 percent were tier 3 and none received a tier 1 ranking. It appears that countries that promote economic freedom have populations more resistant to trafficking.

Economic Freedom Level by Tier

Source: U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, Heritage Foundation Economic Freedom Index

Poverty, one of the largest causes of modern slavery, is also rampant in tier 3 countries. On average, 39 percent of tier 3 countries’ populations are below the UN poverty line, according to CIA income data. Zimbabwe, a longtime tier 3 country, is reported to have an alarming poverty rate of 72.3 percent. A lack of sustainable economic growth has forced its citizens into debt bondage and exploitative labor conditions.

Across the United States, data-driven studies have shown their effectiveness in reducing trafficking. Harvard University recently released a study that followed the work of an NGO in India. The organization used a community empowerment model that first identified at-risk populations, and then customized preventative methods according to their vulnerabilities. Across the four-year study, human trafficking dropped at a statistically significant rate. The study proved the effectiveness of an approach customized to a population’s specific vulnerabilities, such as level of literacy, level of poverty, caste, and gender.

While it has long been apparent in the United States that community based anti-trafficking projects have higher success rates, these local models have the potential to be translated to a national level. Rep. Kristi Noem (SD-R) has been a vocal supporter of the anti-trafficking movement in the United States. She remains hopeful that the 115th Congress will continue to offer more help to victims. “We’re committed, not only to preventing trafficking, but making sure victims have the resources they need to rebuild. Many escape only to face significant barriers in housing, education, and employment, making them vulnerable to exploitation. There is a role for communities and public policy to play in the recovery process as well.” A number of anti-trafficking bills have already been introduced this session, including the CATCH Traffickers Act and the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. Edmonds added that he is “extremely optimistic about the scope of technology to improve our ability to identify where trafficking victims are in receiving areas and when families in sending areas are vulnerable.”

Despite having implemented anti-trafficking policies and protocols such as the TIP report, the U.S. government has not been able to gauge their effectiveness or target assistance to vulnerable populations. The TIP report has, however, proved useful in shedding light on trafficking and encouraging governments and NGOs to collaborate to end slavery worldwide. Although the number of slaves continues to increase, the number of enslaved rescued in 2016 nearly doubled from the previous year, indicating a promising future. As Secretary of State John Kerry stated in the 2016 TIP report: “The magnitude of the challenge is real, but make no mistake: So are the opportunities for progress.” The U.S. State Department continues to claim that identifying slavery’s root causes on a smaller scale is a priority. With the release of the 2017 TIP report expected this summer, it will soon be apparent if those intentions have translated into real progress.


Image source: flikr / Gary Bembridge

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