Expert Commentary

Human trafficking and the “new slavery”: Definitions, enforcement, understanding

2014 paper in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science that explores current debates and findings relating to the area of human trafficking.

Trafficking in Persons report, 2014 ( U.S. State Department)
Trafficking in Persons report, 2014 ( U.S. State Department)

Few human rights and social justice issues have generated more recent worldwide attention than human trafficking. A 2014 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) highlights just how pervasive the problem is, with victims found in 124 countries despite widespread criminalization of such acts. In 2014, the U.S. State Department estimated that there are more than 20 million victims of trafficking worldwide. (Also see global enforcement data, as well as a comprehensive 2013 U.S. Institute of Medicine report about U.S.-related trends and issues.) Advocates, activists and policymakers continue to work to find the best policies to combat the problem, despite the many obstacles and questions. Does legalized prostitution actually contribute to increased sex trafficking? How effective have recent enforcement efforts been? How do you contend with the $150 billion in illegal profits generated from forced labor?

The answers to these and other questions are still mired in debate, curbing potential policy solutions. Despite countless studies on the issue, disagreement remains between academics, activists and policymakers on the parameters and scope of human trafficking. In a 2014 paper published in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science, “Human Trafficking and the New Slavery,” Lauren A. McCarthy of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, asserts that these questions must be answered before meaningful change is achieved. By examining the existing scholarly research, McCarthy delineates several key areas of debate.

These include:

  • Current definitions and measurements of human trafficking lack clarity and consensus. The most widely accepted definition of human trafficking comes from the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (known as the Palermo Protocol). However, several nations have added components that go beyond the initial definition, complicating cross-national comparisons, especially in quantitative studies. Scholars doing qualitative research have widened the scope of activities included under the definition of “trafficking.” This approach is not without obstacles, however, such as access to victims and ethical and legal considerations.
  • The focus on sex trafficking, as seen in reports such as the United States Department of State Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, can obscure understanding of other forms of trafficking. A focus on sex trafficking often identifies victims as a young female taken across borders. This depiction excludes victims of labor exploitation, especially of men and boys, and exploitation within state borders. It also takes attention away from migration and labor policies and their effect on the experience of those trafficked. McCarthy notes the work of the Hague’s Monika Smit, who found that in the Netherlands, male victims of trafficking were rarely made aware of potential protections available to them.
  • The line between trafficking victims and those with power and agency is often blurry. The Palermo Protocol does not precisely distinguish between a victim and an empowered agent, according to Carolyn Hoyle and Mary Bosworth of Oxford University and Michelle Dempsey of Villanova University. They note that a woman who willingly agrees to work in prostitution can still be deemed a trafficking victim under certain conditions.
  • Trafficking is generally framed as either a problem of security and organized crime, or one of human rights, with drastically different research and policy implications. A focus on organized crime leads to increased border control and criminalization, while a human-rights frame leads to a focus on rehabilitation for victims. Most states have used the security frame and thus victims are protected as a byproduct of the criminal process, as better protected victims are often more helpful in an investigation.
  • Research on who commits these crimes and why has found that trafficking often has high payouts with relatively low risk. Siddharth Kara of Harvard Kennedy School estimated that perpetrators worldwide made $91.2 billion in profits as of 2007. In 2005 Patrick Belser of the International Labor Organization noted that sex trafficking netted $27.8 billion in profits while labor trafficking generated $3.8 billion. Studies have also found that women play a significant role in trafficking, as recruiters, trainers and organizers.
  • Proponents of the human-rights framing of the problem caution that measures such as aggressive border control may cause more damage to those already victimized by trafficking. Annie Gallagher of the United Nations and Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch found that, in Cambodian and Thai shelters, victims removed from trafficking are confined to shelters for extended periods with little freedom of movement.
  • At the same time, both the security and human-rights framings are “criticized for ignoring the structural problems that may encourage migration and/or trafficking in the first place…. Rather than adjust migration policies to take into account the effects of globalization on the demand for cheap labor and the increasing supply and mobility of that labor, countries have instead left in place or created restrictive migration regimes.”
  • A 2011 paper for the Center for European Governance and Economic Development Research by Seo-Young Cho, Axel Dreher and Eric Neumayer found that developed countries exhibit the most commitment to protecting victims and prosecuting and preventing trafficking, with less commitment in South Asia and the Middle East.
  • There was a correlation found between nations with a higher commitment to women’s rights and those that combat human trafficking. Paulette Lloyd of Indiana University and Harvard’s Beth Simmons and Brandon Stewart note that nations are more likely to adopt criminalization policies if neighboring states also do so, as they are concerned that strict regional policies will push trafficking into their nations in turn.
  • Data indicate that while the vast majority of nations have laws in place criminalizing human trafficking, the number of prosecutions is limited. The Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University found that, as of 2013, 182 countries have policies to prohibit trafficking, but a 2014 U.S. State Department TIP report found that there were only 9,460 prosecutions worldwide in 2013, with only 5,776 convictions. McCarthy cites numerous studies that found problems with the criminal justice system, including victims’ unwillingness to cooperate with law enforcement agents, agents who are unable to properly identify victims and law-enforcement biases toward stereotypical victims, to the exclusion of “non-traditional” victims, such as those of labor trafficking.
  • Definitional problems also plague the criminal-justice process, as judges often have difficulty applying laws in real-life situations. Angelo Constantinou of the Open University of Cyprus found that in Cyprus, testimonies of sex-trafficking victims are often disregarded if the judge does not find their behavior to align with that of a traditional “victim,” such as shame, remorse or trauma.

“As research on criminal justice policies is beginning to show, law enforcement officials have had difficulty finding, identifying and prosecuting cases of trafficking, in no small part due to stereotypes about what “real” trafficking is and what ‘real’ traffickers look like,” McCarthy notes. She concludes that, although exploring these many questions will be difficult, “without continued focus on uncovering the complexities of trafficking and more clarity in defining the problem, it will be difficult to find and implement appropriate and effective policies. The ‘new slavery’ will continue to flourish as it remains a high profit, low-risk endeavor that enables opportunistic criminals to take advantage of vulnerable populations and exploit them in sectors where there is high demand for cheap labor.”


Keywords: human rights, prostitution, human trafficking

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