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A favourite piece of research for Swedish model advocates throws up a few surprises

Guest post by @pastachips

Does legalized prostitution increase human trafficking?“, a 2012 study by Cho, Dreher and Neumayer, is cited everywhere as evidence that ‘legalised prostitution’ increases trafficking into the sex industry. This article from last month is a recent example. The study’s conclusions have already been called into question, basically because the paper doesn’t distinguish between different meanings of the word trafficking, either in terms of taking account different countries’ laws – are we comparing like with like? – nor in terms of making a distinction between something-that-might-be-legally-trafficking-but is-essentially-undocumented-migration, and something more like cross-border kidnapping. Making that kind of distinction is pretty important if you’re trying to say something coherent! As is comparing like with like! The papers’ authors caution against treating its conclusions with too much weight, noting that “the quality of data is relatively low”, and that more research “will require the collection of more reliable data to establish firmer conclusions” (p26), but I think their data is actually way worse that they’re letting on.

They focus in on comparing Denmark, Germany and Sweden, and tell us: “in terms of human trafficking victims, the ILO estimated the stock of victims in Germany in 2004 to be approximately 32,800 – about 62 times more than in Sweden” (p25). I looked up their reference for that 32,800 figure, and found that the ILO paper cited as the source – Danailova-Trainor & Belser, 2006doesn’t even mention Germany. I discovered that by reading it, but you can also test it by clicking through and doing a command-f search for the words “German” or “Germany”, which you might reasonably expect to occur in a document that mentioned Germany.

The same 2006 paper is also cited as the source for the numbers on Denmark, where the claim is made that “… the ILO estimates the stock of human trafficking victims in Denmark in 2004 at approximately 2,250, while the estimated number in Sweden is about 500”, and the bracketed reference reads: “Global report data used in Danailova-Trainor and Belser, 2006” (p24). Again, I looked for those numbers (or any mention of Denmark) in vain in the Danailova-Trainor & Belser 2006 paper. I also checked out the “Global Report” mentioned as the source for Danailova-Trainor and Belser’s data, which I figured was probably a reference to the ILO’s 2005 report titled ‘A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour’ – there’s nothing else published that it plausibly could be; I checked. The 2005 Global Report doesn’t contain any country estimates, let alone numbers like those cited by Cho, Dreher and Neumayer.

I assumed that the 32,800 figure regarding Germany must have come from somewhere, so I dug around for ages on the ILO site, and found that the ILO seems to mostly resist giving country-specific numerical estimates (cf this 2005 report on trafficking in Germany, which really won’t be drawn on numbers). The only figures I could find for trafficking in Germany in 2004 were these official lists of identified victims that put the 2004 number at 972 (for all officially identified trafficking victims, not just sex trafficking victims). Obviously a list of ‘officially identified’ victims is unreliable – for instance, surely everyone knows these lists massively under-represent the number of men trafficked into agricultural work. But I feel like at least that list has an available methodology, which you could for instance replicate to see if you would get a similar number, or critique or challenge (as I would). How do you assess the validity of the process which produced an unreferenced 32,800, that appears to have come from nowhere?

It’s probably worth noting that I’m not invested in “defending” Germany’s record on ‘sex trafficking’ (scare-quoted because I think a lot of what is referred to in that phrase is more complicated that is generally allowed). I’ve focused in a bit on Germany because the study does. I don’t support Germany’s legal model in terms of sex work, and nor do any sex worker-led organisations in Ireland or the UK that I’m aware of; sex workers are perfectly capable of articulating why and how laws like those in Germany harm us, and disproportionately harm the more marginalised of us. I just feel like having references that go somewhere is quite a low bar in terms of the social sciences – especially when you’re citing very large numbers that apparently don’t appear anywhere else! – and I’m pretty surprised that the Cho/Dreher/Neumayer study seems not to clear that bar.

I also noticed that the study’s info on sex work laws around the world (167 countries! such big study wow!) is from, uh, 1995. (See p46.) The authors of the study are aware of some potential problems with this, noting: “for some countries, prostitution law changed during the 1996-2003 period: … Germany (2002), Denmark (1999) … Netherlands (2000), New Zealand (2003), and Sweden (1999). Our results are robust to the exclusion of these countries” [emphasis mine; some countries removed because if you want to see the full list you can follow up my reference] (p37). Norway implemented the sex purchase law in 2009; Iceland in 2007. In short, the effects of the ‘Nordic model’ are not actually included in the data of this study, and nor is the effect of the New Zealand model. “Our results are robust to the exclusion of these countries”. This might arguably make the study a not-totally-solid citation for you, if you’re looking to argue that the Swedish model is great and the New Zealand model is 💩. Here’s maybe the most interesting surprise. Cho, Dreher and Neumayer include a handy list of all the countries they’ve “looked at” (scare-quotes because hmmm), sorted into categories according to whether those countries have “very high”, “high”, “medium”, “low” or “very low” trafficking ‘inflows’. (See p44.) Sweden is listed in the “medium” category, along with … New Zealand.

Now, I don’t think that’s actually meaningful! Because I think that the data used to produce the conclusions of this study was 🌸 garbage 🌸. In general I think you get information that’s meaningful about sex work, trafficking, migration and exploitation by asking migrants who sell sex about their experiences and their policy suggestions. This study is a good example of that. But if you do think the conclusions of the study are meaningful – for example, if you’ve cited this paper as part of your argument in favour of laws like Sweden’s – then it should probably concern you that a study-you-apparently-consider-reliable ‘reveals’ Sweden is actually no ‘better’ at tackling trafficking than New Zealand. Whoops!

I know “the point” of this study is that it’s not “just about” individual countries; it’s trying to see patterns on a macro scale. But – that’s kind of a design problem with the study? In order to have relevance to policy debates, you have to organise your data in a way that is coherent with the terms of the debate – or at least, not egregiously incoherent. The global sex worker rights movement isn’t arguing for the (massively varied!) laws that this paper puts in the pile it calls “legalisation”; we’re not campaigning for “oh, laws that look something like the ones they have in Nevada, or Amsterdam, or Germany, or New Zealand; the details don’t matter, we don’t really mind”. We do mind! We’re trying to work towards (and improve on) the sex work laws they have in New Zealand. Sorry if this idea is complicated, but: aggregate data from Germany, Denmark, New Zealand and the Netherlands doesn’t make sense if no one is arguing in favour of the legal system in Germany, Denmark or the Netherlands, and when people who are pro-criminalisation refuse to understand this, they don’t derail us so much as make it obvious that they don’t care about the detail of the laws because they won’t be affected by them. Which isn’t that great an advocacy look, tbh. My focus on comparing New Zealand to Sweden in this study’s (broken and out-of-date) data isn’t because I’m scared of what will be ‘revealed’ by the aggregated global data (except in the sense that I’m finding this study scarily incompetent); but because I think it makes sense to talk about legal systems in a way that’s precise enough to be coherent.

Plenty of people have cited the Cho/Dreher/Neumayer paper as if it closes the argument, or as if it has some kind of weight or meaning. People who have been using it (presumably without reading it) probably need to decide whether the study – once read beyond the abstract – shows that New Zealand and Sweden have pretty much the same outcomes in terms of ‘sex trafficking’, or whether it’s actually so unreliable and badly put together as to be functionally useless (ding ding ding). While they decide which angle to take, I’m gonna write to the journal that published this paper and raise a few concerns.

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On trafficking stats and Irish media fail

It’s a source of constant frustration for me that Irish journalists take such a wholly uncritical approach to the spin coming out of the TORL camp. Statistics are blandly repeated as if there was no reason not to believe them, their logical connection to the TORL argument taken for granted; there is never any questioning as to whether they would really support that argument even if they were true. I’m not suggesting this type of “churnalism” is unique to Ireland, of course, but it’s too widespread here to attribute only to individual reporters or specific news organisations. Whether due to editorial direction or sheer laziness, the Irish media have essentially acted as the PR wing of the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, doing their work for them by treating their every press statement, every stunt as it was the result of some real journalist’s investigative work.

The latest example of this was the media coverage of this Ruhama statement. The headline, of course, is no different to what Ruhama have been saying for a few years now, and I’m not quite sure why RTÉ thought it merited a whole video report. (Contrast with their total failure to cover a genuinely newsworthy event – the launch of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland’s policy paper a few days earlier.) I suppose the “hook”, if they needed one, was the claim that if the Oireachtas doesn’t hurry up and introduce a ban on paying for sex, there will be an influx of clients from up north in June when the Six County ban comes in. Ruhama spokesperson Sarah Benson says she knows this by reading online forums, where the clients are supposedly discussing their plans to become cross-border sex tourists once that law comes into effect. And this right here is a perfect example of how an unquestioning media becomes a propaganda delivery machine – because if they’d gone on those forums themselves they’d have seen plenty of clients discussing their intention to continue visiting escorts after the law is brought in, and even sharing tips on how to get around the law. Some do say they won’t risk it, of course, but the full picture is considerably more complex than the “pimps and punters will come south” rhetoric we’ve been hearing since Stormont passed the bill – and our journalists would find this out pretty quickly if they would just do the barest bit of research now and again instead of letting themselves be spoon-fed all the time.

But what really needed interrogating in that article is the assertion that the 82 victims of trafficking assisted by Ruhama last year were “mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa”. In itself, there’s nothing remarkable about that statement – there are certainly plenty of African women in Ireland, and most of them would have required visas to come here (a trafficking risk factor) and most of them would have no entitlement to work here on arrival (also a trafficking risk factor). So in that sense, it’s perfectly believable that they would be overrepresented in trafficking statistics.

But to state the obvious, a large number of African trafficking victims in the Irish sex industry would mean a large number of African women in the Irish sex industry – and this is where questions start to arise. Using the advanced search function on Escort Ireland, I come up with a grand total of three Sub-Saharan African women advertising tonight. Even accounting for the fact that some might have given a false nationality, there’s still a loooong way to go to reach “mostly” out of 82. Africans are not known to be over-represented in street prostitution here, and while we know some direct provision residents are forced to sell sex, the indications are this is mostly because of our appalling government policy of not letting them do any other work and forcing them to live on €19 per week – not because they have been trafficked here for prostitution.

So if we assume that 82 figure is accurate (or if it’s only the “tip of the iceberg”), then this conclusion logically follows: there is a lot of sex trafficking going on that has nothing to do with the online escort sector, nothing to do with street prostitution. It could be, as a 2012 report on sex work and trafficking in London suggested, that the market for African women operates through word-of-mouth community networks – making such cases particularly difficult to detect.

But that leaves us with another question, which is: why is it that these women are so much more likely than women of other nationalities to seek the assistance of Ruhama? Are trafficked African women somehow more likely than other trafficked women to escape their predicament and make their way to All Hallows? Are trafficked women of other nationalities drawn to different services, or to none at all? Or could it be that there just really isn’t much trafficking in the more visible sectors, so there aren’t as many non-African victims who need these services?

These are questions that need to be asked, particularly in light of the looming law change. If most sex trafficking really is taking place in a closed migrant community setting – or by other means that don’t require an Escort Ireland profile – then criminalising Escort Ireland customers won’t do much of anything to stop it. It would be the legislative equivalent of looking for a lost item in a room you didn’t lose it in just because the light is better there.

And even if that’s not the case, the fact remains that there’s a striking discrepancy between the nationalities of most of Ruhama’s clientele and the nationalities of most visible women in the Irish sex industry – a discrepancy that surely has practical significance in terms of what kind of services and prevention measures are needed. It’s worth interrogating regardless of what it means for the usefulness of the proposed law. Irish journalism really needs to start unpacking these TORL soundbites, instead of just swallowing them whole.

More on sex trafficking in Sweden, from the Swedish police

Just over a year ago I wrote this post, analysing the Swedish police’s annual human trafficking report for 2011. A few months later, the 2012 report was published in Swedish; I didn’t have the time to Google Translate it so I figured I’d wait until the English version came out. Unusually, though, it never did. And now, I see the 2013 report is available – but again, only in Swedish. Perhaps the powers-that-be in Sweden have realised these reports aren’t exactly helpful to their international propaganda campaign.

So, Google Translate it is.  As it turns out, much of the 2013 report just repeats more-or-less-verbatim what I already quoted in my summary of the 2011 report (and I really do encourage you to read that, particularly if you still buy the TORL disinformation). But a few things jumped out at me from Section 3.1 of the current report, the section on “Human trafficking for sexual purposes”:

sex trafficking is not just an urban phenomenon but … these crimes also occur in small towns throughout Sweden (p.15)

They probably said that in the last report too, but it strikes me now how similar it is to Diarmuid Martin’s widely-reported New Year’s Mass, in which the Archbishop of Dublin solemnly informed us that trafficking is happening in every nook and cranny in Ireland. Hype about the spatial distribution of sex trafficking is an interesting subject in and of itself, though not one I’m going to spend any time on here.

In 2013 the police established a total of 41 complaints concerning trafficking for sexual purposes. … The above statistics can be compared with the situation in 2012, when 21 reports of human trafficking for sexual purposes were established. (p.15)

I’ve said repeatedly that I think trafficking statistics are pretty much meaningless, because they only measure what officials detect and identify as trafficking, which doesn’t necessarily coincide with the actual amount of activity taking place that fits the legal definition of “trafficking”. But let’s be honest – if this was a Dutch or German study showing a 95% increase in sex trafficking in a single year, don’t you think we’d be hearing all about it from the Mary Honeyballs and Rhoda Grants and Equality Nows of this world?

As in 2012, there was also in 2013 a return to more brutal methods in trafficking cases. (p.16)

Hmmm. Is this the “normative effect” Minister Fitzgerald tells us she expects from the law?

According to Europol … the victims of sex trafficking brought into the EU from third countries particularly come from Nigeria. This is the case even in Sweden. (p.16)

TORL supporters in Ireland have repeatedly claimed that this is the case in Ireland, too, which again undermines the argument that a country’s prostitution laws make the difference.

In cases where women are exploited in prostitution in Sweden and able to be contacted by the police or NGOs they are offered the opportunities for support and assistance. If they are not willing or able to cooperate with law enforcement authorities in an investigation of human trafficking/pimping, they may in some cases be inadmissible under the Aliens Act. [Footnote: According to Chapter 8, Section 2, first paragraph of the Aliens Act, “an alien is inadmissible if it can be assumed that during their stay in Sweden they will not earn a living in an honest way.”] (p.17)

Let’s condense that a bit: “In cases where women are exploited in prostitution in Sweden but not willing or able to cooperate with law enforcement, they may be deported, because we don’t want their kind here.” Such a caring compassionate approach to “women exploited in prostitution”, isn’t it?

Some victims told police that were they exploited in prostitution by sex-buying men, pimps and traffickers in several other EU countries before they were transferred to Sweden. According to Europol, it is common for criminal networks engaged in human trafficking to move victims from country to country and often within countries. This is how traffickers regularly offer men the sex-purchase of new women and maximize their profits. (p.19)

I think this is quite noteworthy, in light of previous claims that traffickers avoid Sweden because they can’t make any money there. 15 years of the sex purchase ban, and police say that traffickers are still moving victims to Sweden in order to “maximize their profits”. What does that tell you about how effective they think their law really is?

Another subsection looks at the online sector, and the last paragraph merits quoting in full:

National Police can confirm that subjects relating to the purchase of various sexual acts, escort services and prostitution activities still, despite a ban on the purchase of sexual services, engage men in Sweden. On the site Sexwork.net and on the discussion board Flashback are hundreds of pages with thousands of discussion threads about these topics. Some of the threads contain reviews, written by sex-buying men, of women who are exploited for prostitution purposes. The reviews related inter alia whether the woman corresponds to the man’s expectations of the sex purchase, her appearance, physical attributes and her willingness to perform the “services” as promised on the website. That the woman ordered is actually offered is also important information for the sex-buying man. Moreover they exchange male sex-buying experiences such as how they can avoid detection by the police or family members, or avoid being exposed to robbery or extortion. The language used by these men in reviews is often highly sexualised, derogatory and abusive towards women. The threads on the web forum Sexwork.net are divided into different regions; Sweden, other Nordic countries, the Baltic States, Europe and Thailand. (p.21)

I think that pretty much speaks for itself.

Now, a couple points on what’s not here. One of the most striking revelations of the report I reviewed last year was the near-trebling of Thai “massage parlour” brothels in Stockholm between 2009 and 2011-2012. There are no up-to-date figures in this report, but it does confirm those findings. So, for any pro-criminalisation people who were hoping the 2013 report would say “er that was wrong and actually there really are no brothels posing as massage parlours in Stockholm”: sorry to disappoint.

And finally, there’s a whole subsection – 3.1.3 – devoted to “Support for voluntary return and reintegration of persons trafficked for sexual exploitation or prostitution”. It takes up approximately one page of the overall five-and-a-half page section on sex trafficking. Curiously, there is no section on integrating trafficking victims into Swedish society. But then, we’ve already seen why that is: because their only value to Sweden is as a law-enforcement tool. It seems the Swedish state uses them for its own purposes, and then discards them like unwanted goods.

I’d call that exploitation.  Wouldn’t you?

ETA: The Swedish police have now released a press statement on this report, which can be read (in Swedish) here. This part of the statement is notable:

Human trafficking for sexual purposes makes most people think of foreign girls and women who are lured into sex slavery, something that the progress report also describes. But there is also a domestic problem in which minors, mostly girls, living in Sweden sell their bodies on the net. …

There are many who do not understand this explosion of girls who sell their bodies on line, says [Detective Inspector] Kajsa Wahlberg. These young girls have a need to be seen and get confirmation, while there is a great demand for young bodies.

This law is an abject failure. How can anyone claim otherwise?

Comparing “trafficking” statistics: why it’s a waste of time

I thought it might be useful to make a simple chart to demonstrate why it’s meaningless to claim that one country has more trafficking than another, based on their official statistics. Seeing as this comes up all the time.

You can click on it to enlarge:

Trafficking definitions

There are a few explanations and disclaimers I need to get in:

  1. The chart is based on my own interpretation of each country’s laws. There is undoubtedly scope for disagreement in some of the details – but not, I believe, on the overall picture.
  2. The big centre column refers to adult trafficking only. I included an age qualifier for Germany because its law treats 18 to 21 year old adults as children.
  3. For “Elements of Trafficking”, I’ve used the three-part schema derived from Article 3(a) of the UN Trafficking Protocol. The headers are a common shorthand and are not to be interpreted literally (“control” doesn’t only mean actual control but can include deception, for example).
  4. Even within a single element, definitions can vary widely; eg, in the UK the “movement” element strictly requires travel, while the Irish definition adheres more closely to the broader Protocol criteria.
  5. Finally and most importantly, the chart reflects what the law actually says – not necessarily how it’s interpreted in practice. It’s theoretically possible that the reporting bodies in each country actually apply a more uniform definition in the process of collecting statistics. But that’s for the people who put faith in the official stats to demonstrate – and to my knowledge, not one of them has done so.

All that said, I think this chart makes one thing crystal clear: when countries tally up their “trafficking” figures, they aren’t necessarily counting the same thing. And unless these distinctions are controlled for in comparative studies, which they haven’t been so far, the evidential value of those studies is pretty close to nil.

 

Sources:

Ireland – Criminal Law (Human Trafficking Act) 2008

UK – Sexual Offences Act 2003

Sweden – Chapter 4 § 1 a of the Penal Code (2010:371) as translated in this Swedish police report

Germany – §232 StGB Criminal Code (original German here; translations courtesy of Ralph in this comment, Sonja Dolinsek of Menschenhandel Heute and Google Translate)

Netherlands – Article 273f of the Criminal Code

The EU report on trafficking in human beings

Posted on

Last month saw the publication of the EU’s first Trafficking in Human Beings report, which is billed as an attempt to “collect comparable data on trafficking in human beings at the EU level”. The report is (properly) littered with disclaimers, such as this one in screaming bold type on page 30:

More reported cases do not necessarily mean an increase in the actual number of victims. This may indicate an improvement in the reporting rate of the phenomenon or a change in the recording system

Unfortunately, however, when it came to the press release, the European Commission decided to go for the handy soundbite – and so we’ve been deluged with headlines like “Human trafficking increased by 18%” when of course, the report doesn’t show it did any such thing.

For all the faith put into that 18% figure, though, most of the newspaper and NGO reactions don’t evince much interest in the rest of the data. I’m going to put this down to simple laziness – it’s a whole 94 pages they’d have to wade through, poor dears – but it’s also the case that if all the statistics were accepted as readily as the “18% increase” has been, it would be a little bit inconvenient for some of those with an interest in this area. This table on page 31 shows why:

Trafficking01

Contrary to what we’re constantly told by the anti-trafficking movement, the most recent figures make it hard to discern any link between trafficking and the legal status of sex work. The Dutch rate is very high, but the Cyprus rate is higher – and Cyprus has much stricter laws than the Netherlands (brothels are illegal, for one thing). Romania, where sex work itself is illegal, is nearly as high. Hungary (legal), Portugal (legal) and Lithuania (illegal) are tied for last. Austria and Germany are also relatively low – in fact, Germany and Sweden are tied, at 0.8 per 100,000.  And the German rate has remained more or less constant over the three years surveyed, while Sweden’s has quadrupled.

Don’t think we’ll be reading that in the next Turn Off the Red Light press release.

I’m being mischievous, of course, because as I’ve already said, the data don’t – and can’t – show the actual number of trafficked persons in each country. So we can’t really say that Germany, Austria and Sweden have more or less the same trafficking rate. But let’s be honest here – had the table shown Germany and Austria to be right up there with the Netherlands, and Sweden way down on its own, is there any doubt we’d have heard all about it from the prohibitionist groups?

But sex workers’ rights advocates shouldn’t leap on those figures, either, because truthfully the whole report is pretty hopelessly undermined by its methodological weaknesses. These include the following:

Different countries provided different sets of data. On page 30 we are told:

Ten EU Member States provided data on identified and presumed victims, 15 EU Member States provided data on identified victims only and two EU Member States provided data on presumed victims only. The participating non-EU countries provided data only on identified victims.

This alone would make it impossible to get a cohesive account of trafficking, or even just of detected trafficking, across Europe. It certainly renders a comprehensive cross-country comparison untenable. (In case you were wondering, though, all the countries I’ve mentioned so far provided data only on “identified victims” – except for the Netherlands, which only gave “presumed victim” data. More about this later.)

Different countries use different definitions. The Commission seems to have attempted to get around this, by reminding countries of the international definition of “trafficking” when sending them the forms to complete, but the methodology problem is unavoidable. An “identified victim” is, according to page 22,

a person who has been formally identified as a victim of trafficking in human beings according to the relevant formal authority in Member States

and that inevitably introduces an element of subjectivity into the data, because not all member states strictly apply the international definition when deciding whom to identify as a victim of trafficking. In fact, I doubt whether any of them do – and they are inconsistent in the manner and degree by which they diverge from the international definition. So when we look at that table and see that Ireland has more than twice the rate of “identified victims” as Greece, for example, we have no way of knowing whether that’s because Irish police genuinely detected twice the rate of people who fit the international definition, or whether the Irish police identified people outside the international definition, or whether the Greek police declined to identify people inside it.

This problem is magnified for those countries that include data for “presumed victims”, that is:

a person who has met the criteria of EU regulations and international Conventions but has not been formally identified by the relevant authorities (police) as a trafficking victim or who has declined to be formally or legally identified as trafficked.

Here, member states are essentially being asked to submit data on people who were trafficked but were not identified as trafficked. To identify unidentified trafficking victims. There’s something a bit Schrödinger’s Cat-like about this category; it just doesn’t seem to lend itself to any real scientific measurement, at all.

If the data had been collected on a forward-looking basis, it might almost be workable. That is, if countries had been told that, for the future, they would be asked to record details of not only the people who they formally identified as victims of trafficking, but also of people who they would have identified as trafficked but for some insurmountable obstacle (such as that the person themselves told them where to stick their “trafficking victim” status). You’d still have the subjectivity problem, but at least you would know that the records were being kept on an ongoing basis, with the member states knowing exactly what they were to look out for.

But that’s not how this was done. Instead, as explained on page 17,

The questionnaire was sent via Eurostat to the National Statistical Offices of the EU Member States, EU Candidate and Potential Candidate countries and to the EFTA/EEA (European Free Trade Association/European Economic Association) countries in September 2011. It included the appropriate tables, a list of common indicators, definitions and guidelines for collecting the statistical data as well as the country codes to be used and a template for providing metadata.

So countries were asked to collate retrospectively their data on people who they had identified as unidentified trafficked persons. And then to pick out of that data only the people who fit the “common indicators, definitions and guidelines”. But who’s to say that the data were initially recorded in such a way as to make that possible? If the authorities weren’t already aware they were going to be asked to provide data on people who they’d declined to identify as “trafficked”, you have to wonder whether they’d be quite so diligent in their record keeping about those people.

Did I say “authorities”? Oh – here’s the next problem:

“Presumed victim” statistics were supplied by a wide variety of sources. According to page 23:

Data on ‘presumed’ victims on trafficking in human beings may be available from national rapporteurs (or equivalent mechanisms which tend to act as national coordinating bodies), victims assistance services, immigration services, labour inspections and border guards.

I don’t think I can really overstate this point: there is no possible way to get anything like a reliable, consistent overview when you throw out to your data collectors that they can get their information from pretty much anywhere they can find it. And as it happens, some of the key data sources are pretty questionable. For example, in the Netherlands the source is CoMensha, a national agency, which according to page 39:

does not have a formal assessment based on specific criteria by which the registered person’s status as a victim can be verified.

In other words – as I discussed in this post – CoMensha simply records the alleged cases that are referred to them, without actually investigating whether there’s any substance to the allegations. The Dutch figures in this report, therefore, are based on little more than rumour. No wonder they’re so high.

Also problematic is the Latvian information, which according to page 38 is

provided by the NGO Resource Centre for Women “Marta”, which provides assistance for presumed victims using alternative financing.

Marta is a prohibitionist organisation, and one that therefore has an interest in finding trafficking victims. In fairness to them, there’s nothing in the data to suggest they’re inflating the numbers; Latvia’s overall rate is the same as Germany’s and Sweden’s and only a minority of these fall into the “presumed victim” category. Nonetheless, their objectivity as a source has to be doubted.

To take a final example, page 39 states that Finland’s number of presumed victims

includes all cases who were directed to reception centers on the basis of suspicion of human trafficking.

Does that sound like a rigorous effort to make sure only the cases that fit the Commission’s specified criteria were reported? Not to me it doesn’t.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made the point. There’s just too much variation across countries, and too loose standards within countries, to consider this a reliable measure of the amount of trafficking in Europe. The report is of (limited) interest for what it reveals about the countries’ data collection processes, but overall you really get the sense of this being a box-ticking exercise for Brussels bureaucrats more than anything else.

I’ll just finish on a couple other matters I found worthy of comment. Firstly, on page 24 it states:

Data is to be collected on the total number of female and male victims

The binary (and I’m guessing cis-centric) approach is unfortunate, as even though the figures aren’t reliable it would still be interesting to see how many trans* persons were recorded. But the only reference I can find within any of the country data is in the British records, on page 39, where it says that one adult trans* woman was identified. Unfortunately, it manages to say this in a grossly offensive way.

There are also figures on “suspected traffickers” and “prosecuted traffickers”. It’s not clear exactly what threshold was required for the first category, but one thing I found interesting was that non-EU citizens accounted for 55% of the former but only 24% of the latter. The reasons for the discrepancy aren’t explained. It could be that non-EU citizens are more likely to go missing before they can be prosecuted, of course, but there could also be a greater tendency to suspect them without any real proof. This is something that merits further research.

And finally, a word about citizenship and labour market status. On page 52 there’s a table (Table 6) that breaks down all the identified and presumed victims, by year and by citizenship. So I did a little numbers exercise. First I counted all the identified victims by country (I didn’t count the presumed victims, because for all the reasons explained above, I think those numbers are too messy to be of any real use). Then I subtracted the internal trafficking victims (as listed on page 53, Table 7). And then I totalled up the remainder, put them into geographical categories and worked out the percentages of each.

The disclaimers first. The numbers don’t quite add up, because I came up with a grand total of 12,261 identified victims in Table 6, whereas the Table 2 combined figure for identified victims is 13,424. I’m not sure where that missing 1,163 went. There also seems to be a minor discrepancy in the Table 7 figures, since I end up with –2 cross-border EU-15 citizen victims in 2009. I couldn’t subtract the child victims, as there’s no breakdown by “identified” and “presumed” nor any indication of how many were working-age children. And of course, all the problems with the data I’ve already discussed still apply. But bearing all that in mind, I still think the results are stark enough to be worth pointing out. Of the identified victims of cross-border trafficking in the three year period:

  • 37% were Romanian or Bulgarian
  • 58% were from outside the EU/EEA
  • 5% were from the 2004 accession countries
  • <1% were from the EU-15

Thus, 95% were from countries barred from all or most of the EU labour market during the data collection period – and nearly everyone else was from a country barred from much of the EU labour market during the data collection period. This isn’t quite as dramatic as it seems, because it still only accounts for just over half the identified victims – the internal trafficking rate is surprisingly high, which is something else that merits investigation (though as the number is very high in some countries and negligible in others, I suspect it mainly comes down to definitions). Notwithstanding those limitations, though, I think it’s safe to conclude that cross-border migrants in the EU are far, far, far more likely to experience trafficking if they don’t have labour market access in the country they’re migrating to.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer, wouldn’t you? But EU states just don’t seem to get it. They consistently wring their hands about the trafficking problem, but stubbornly insist they just can’t relax their labour migration policies – without seeming to make the connection between the two. At some point they’re going to have to admit that if they really want to address the issue, they’ll have to stop making it all but impossible for accession state citizens and non-EU citizens to legally work in their countries. Or else admit that they aren’t really that bothered about trafficking after all.

What happens to the victims?

Regular readers may have noticed by now my deep scepticism that Sweden’s sex purchase ban has actually reduced the amount of sex trafficking to Sweden. There are a couple of reasons for my suspicions. First, as I wrote in this post on another blog, the definition of “trafficking” is so easily (and so often) manipulated to suit particular agendas that I’m automatically sceptical of any claims made about it, anywhere. (Actually, I’m increasingly coming around to doubting the usefulness of the term at all, but that’s a subject for another post.) The second is that when you strip away the Swedish spin and look at the number of trafficking cases their police are actually finding, as detailed in a number of my posts on this blog, it becomes pretty obvious that the country is in a state of collective denial.

But let’s assume for a moment that I’m wrong, and that the ban actually has had the claimed effect on sex trafficking to Sweden. Obviously, if you’re a member of a Swedish government party or a police official coming under pressure to “solve the trafficking problem”, this looks like a very good thing. But here’s a question I’ve never actually seen answered (or even asked) by the law’s advocates: what happens to the victims?

Because there seems to be this assumption that if sex traffickers can’t get their victims into Sweden, they’ll just give up and go home. Why would that be? There’s nothing special about sex trafficking into Sweden that would lead traffickers to make a career change if they couldn’t do it anymore. So what would they do instead?

One well-noted side effect of the almost singular focus on trafficking into the sex industry is the tendency to overlook this type of exploitation in other sectors. In fact, trafficking for non-sexual purposes wasn’t even criminalised in Sweden until 2004 – two years after sex trafficking was specifically outlawed, and five years after the sex purchase ban was introduced. Yet Swedish police reports confirm significant incidences of other types of trafficking:

The fifth item there is “Human trafficking for other purposes, total”, and as you can see the numbers are actually higher than for the second item, “Human trafficking for sexual purposes”. The usual caveat about actual vs detected cases applies, but it seems to me there are one of two possibilities: either the chart understates the amount of sex trafficking and there is actually far more than the Swedish police know about (in which case the law really is a dud, at least from that perspective), or trafficking for non-sexual purposes is a bigger problem than sex trafficking. And if the latter is true, then that suggests that to the extent (if any) that the law has reduced sex trafficking, the traffickers are simply placing their victims into other industries. (For those who are tempted to believe that this in itself is a victory, on the theory that any type of trafficking is better than sex trafficking, please do some reading on the abuse faced by migrant domestic workers and then come back and tell me that sex trafficking should be “solved” by shifting victims into that sector.)

An alternative possibility is that sex traffickers haven’t changed industries at all, but merely destination countries. This in fact is the position advanced by the Swedish government, which regularly compares its “foreign prostitute” count to that of its neighbours in order to promote the deterrent effect of the law (although, as Laura Agustín has pointed out, it’s relied on erroneous data to do so). What if we assume that the law actually has reduced the number of migrant sex workers in Sweden compared to its neighbours, and that this in fact represents fewer sex trafficking victims (an unsafe assumption, but one we’ll make for the sake of argument)? Well, again, this is all very good from the Swedish government’s perspective: it makes those victims someone else’s problem. But what does it do for them? And why is this issue so thoroughly ignored by the law’s advocates?

“But it isn’t,” abolitionists might protest. “We want all countries to adopt the same law, so that there is no other country the traffickers can go to.” But if that’s the best they can come up with their plan is doomed from the start. Realistically the law is not going to be adopted in every single country, and even if it was it would not be identically enforced everywhere. Sex traffickers would simply find the countries where it was easiest to get around the law at any particular point in time, and operate there. If anyone has any doubts about this just bear in mind the apparent displacement (as noted here) of migrant sex workers to Sweden after Norway adopted its own sex purchase ban.

Some abolitionists, it seems, aren’t even aiming as high as a worldwide ban. I can’t find the page now, but a week or so ago I read an article advocating the spread of the Swedish model in order to make Europe a cold house for traffickers, or words to that effect. Think about that for a minute. Even if we got past the problem of non-uniform laws and enforcement, where do they want the victims displaced to? Iran?

I’m not suggesting there is no place for criminalisation in counter-trafficking work. There is – for genuine cases of exploitation. But if we are actually interested in preventing people becoming victims, and not just keeping those victims out of our backyards, we simply have to go beyond deterrence strategies aimed at traffickers and service users in particular sectors. We need to look at structural issues, issues around development in source countries, the interrelationship between sex trafficking and trafficking for non-sexual labour, inadequate labour protection for workers in general and migrant and sex workers in particular, and how fortress-like border policies drive labour migrants and refugees into traffickers’ arms.

These are not easy issues to address, especially given the lack of political will to address them. But how much easier would it be to pressurise countries to address them if abolitionists weren’t giving them an easy way out by allowing them to say they’ve done their bit by cracking down on prostitution?

The simple fact is that even if the sex purchase ban worked to prevent sex trafficking to Sweden, there is no reason to believe it has prevented a single person from being trafficked. None whatsoever. It is not, in any sense of the matter, a solution to the trafficking problem. And it is diverting people’s energies from looking for real solutions. Trafficked persons, and persons at risk of being trafficked, deserve better than being told we’re “helping” them by trying only to keep them out of our country.