Trafficking estimates/guesses/fantasies, with and without sex and slavery

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For at least ten years international organisations have been trying to figure out how many people are trafficked: over specific borders, within particular regions and worldwide. I completely understand everyone’s frustration that someone like myself is not able to provide the real numbers. But no one can, since undocumented migrants who have been smuggled across a border (or forced to cross one against their will) do not register their presence anywhere official, and trafficking victims are a subset of undocumented migrants. (Some try to estimate the latter, see here.)

Nowadays anti-slavery activists are saying that trafficking is not just about migration but people forced to work in very bad conditions. Counting those people is equally difficult, though, since workers in the underground economy also aren’t registered as such officially, which means there are no databases to consult, which means everyone is guessing about how many there might be. One can do a decent count in a limited local area, but how long would it remain true? Mobility characterises informal labour.

Some people call all sex workers victims of trafficking. The problem with counting these is that sex businesses, whether clubs, brothels, bars, escort agencies or massage parlours, are mostly not licensed worldwide – even where they are supposed to do so legally. The result is that sex workers are also not officially registered as such and thus also cannot be counted.

Protocols to the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime (Palermo 2000) attempted to distinguish between two types of illegal movement across borders: smuggling and trafficking. The distinction is supposedy that the smuggled person is conscious and willing and the trafficked person is not. The trafficked one is supposed to have been coerced and forced, lied to and duped, totally innocent of any knowledge of wrongdoing, not complicit in any way. Well! It is quite difficult to find undocumented migrants who are not complicit in some way, who did not know or suspect something about what was being done to get them moving and working outside their home countries. Smuggling is also not easy to define and sort out. Organisations trying to count get confused.

The above UNESCO graph from 2004 demonstrates the huge range between estimates of trafficking victims across a range of organisations. Whenever you see a chart in which one estimate is twice the size of another, you know something is fishy. In this case, the first question to ask is: How did each organisation define trafficking? Despite repeated and ongoing efforts to reach consensus on a definition, there is none.

The next questions to ask are: What method did they use to count? Where did they get the data? Whom did they consult and whom did they not consult? The US Trafficking in Persons Report is notorious for never giving this information, for simply saying they rely on informants, who can be embassy personnel, local police, CIA agents and so on.

There may be less flagrant disagreement amongst all these organisations nowadays, though I doubt it. Deconstructions of the numbers have been published in numerous places: in the Guardian, by the US Government Accounting Office and in among others. But to make matters worse, many of those doing the counting are now switching terms to talk of slavery: At the BBC World Debate on trafficking in Luxor, one estimate for slaves worldwide was 2.5 million, whilst Free the Slaves gave 27 million – meaning there is as little consensus for that definition as there is for trafficking. Free the Slaves’s Kevin Bales admitted basing figures on media reports a few years ago - well, what can one say? It is all a right muddle.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


7 thoughts on “Trafficking estimates/guesses/fantasies, with and without sex and slavery

  1. Kris

    Yes, counting prostitutes is difficult.

    Bureau Beke (in the report ‘Kwetsbaar beroep’) tried to count the total number of window prostitutes on a yearly basis in Amsterdam through extrapolation. They arrived at a minimum of 1000 and a maximum of 3000. On a daily basis it seems to be more easy: around 600.

    It seems that you can only give orders of magnitude. That’s the best you can have.

    You can dowload the report here:

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  3. Asehpe

    When evaluations are so difficult, the honest reaction is to admit it, and try to find ways to address this problem. That this so often fails to happen in the rescue industry indicates the extent to which it is emotion-driven rather than fact-driven. It is as if it really weren’t important to then if there are thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, or tens of millions of victims; the mere existence of the possibility (plus its theoretical explanations via radical feminist theories) is sufficient. When theory is at stake, actually trying to be careful with the data seems less important. A real pity.

  4. Laura Agustín

    in a pinch some will say ‘if we manage to save even one child it is worth it’, but most would rather believe that the problem is gigantic, and that not being able to get proper data is itself an indication of the size of the problem.

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