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2011 State Department Trafficking in Persons Report: A need for more evidence

2011 State Department Trafficking in Persons Report: A need for more evidence and U.S. accountability, by Ann Jordan


On June 28, the State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report). While the TIP Report contains many important observations, reflections and recommendations, it falls short on at least the following three counts.

1. It fails to meet the standard set by President Obama for evidence-based policy making.

2. It offers insufficient discussion of the critical issue of ‘root causes’ or ‘factors making people vulnerable to trafficking’.

3. It fails to acknowledge U.S. accountability for the trafficking of workers by U.S. government contractors and, instead, lays much of the blame at the doorsteps of governments in developing countries.

These three shortcomings raise serious concerns about the approach being promoted by the State Department in this TIP Report and in its diplomatic efforts and funding decisions.

Failure to engage in evidence-based policy making.

The myth of the so-called Swedish model: The TIP Report states that “[s]ome [people] work to combat root causes – to end the demand for commercial sexual exploitation” (p. 15) without any discussion or evidence.  The TIP Report does not name the “root cause” being addressed but it seems to assume that ‘demand’ for paid sex is THE cause for women selling sex (instead of, say, poverty or lack of other options?). Nonetheless, it promotes the myth – or at least the unproven strategy – that arresting clients will stop prostitution and also stop trafficking into prostitution.  Despite numerous claims from supporters of the so-called Swedish model (in which clients are prosecuted and sex workers are not), there is no objective, methodologically sound, replicable research demonstrating that the Swedish law is responsible for any changes in the incidence of prostitution or trafficking in Sweden.  In fact, the Swedish government reports admit quite frankly that important data is missing and that the government cannot draw clear conclusions or cause-effect relationships:

  • The Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare concluded that “[w]e cannot give any unambiguous answer to [the question of whether prostitution has increased or decreased].  At most, we can discern that street prostitution is slowly returning, after swiftly disappearing in the wake of the law” (p. 33). The Board concluded that “[n]o causal connections can be proven between legislation and changes in prostitution” (p. 46).
  • 2010 report also admits that “it is difficult to determine whether changes in prostitution are a result of the ban or of other measures or circumstances.  It is also difficult to know with any certainty how prostitution and trafficking might have changed if there had been no ban [on the purchase of sex]” (Swedish Institute 2010, p. 35).

It is particularly problematic that the State Department has adopted a legal strategy without first engaging in ANY serious discussion or analysis of the consequences of the approach.  The TIP Report does not present any evidence linking the criminalization of clients directly to a change in the behavior of adults who sell sex.  It does not even identify the root causes of prostitution or attempt to link those root causes to the ‘end demand’ approach. The State Department should ask and objectively answer the question of how arresting clients would impact adults who are selling sex in countries with different economic and social structures and economies.  Would it cause all sex workers to stop selling sex (which is the goal of the Swedish model) and lead sex workers to find another way to make a living? Perhaps they would go to law school or open a business or sell food on the street?  Or, perhaps they would be forced to live on the street without any income.

What alternatives are there for the millions of adults selling sex around the world?  If they have very few or no alternatives, will they continue in sex work but be forced to work more clandestinely to protect their clients from arrest?  Would the law simply turn out to be another opportunity for the police to shake down street-based sex workers and their clients?  The TIP Report fails to ask or answer any of these questions.

It also fails to consider whether governments offer sufficient support to help people transition to other livelihoods. Would India have enough resources to help millions of women survive without selling sex? Even the U.S. has never made a serious commitment to provide the millions of dollars needed to support programs to assist sex workers in the U.S. who want to transition to other work and to prevent runaway youth from turning to prostitution to survive.

Since the State Department has not engaged in any serious critical enquiry along the above lines (at least not publicly) and, more importantly, has not produced any evidence in support of its belief in the ‘end demand’ approach, it should cease from promoting this ‘one size fits all’ myth.

Unproven ‘prevention’ practice. The TIP Report also argues that “[p]ublic awareness of human trafficking – including awareness of warning signs and required responses – is critical and must be ongoing.” (p. 18).  However, I am not aware of any research demonstrating that public awareness campaigns (including those funded by the U.S.) are effective in preventing people from deciding to migrate for work.  While campaigns might have a temporary role in raising awareness and causing people to think twice about migrating, this only lasts for the duration of the (typically brief) campaign. Since people are usually trafficked by someone they know, they ignore ‘warning signs’ and if they need to migrate for work, they may be willing to take risks despite warning signs. This is not to say that some campaigns might not actually work briefly.  There simply is no evidence on which ones work and which ones waste money. Why, then, is the State Department still promoting these campaigns?  The U.S. should not be promoting or funding campaigns until there is real evidence of the impact (or lack of impact).

It should be apparent by now that I strongly support more critical thinking and independent evidence so that we can develop a body of research around the question of what works and what does not work. I had hoped that the President Obama’s call for more evidence on the actual impact of U.S.-funded programs would work its way into the State Department’s Trafficking Office but, to date, I have been disappointed.  True, the Trafficking Office is calling for more impact evaluations of its grant-funded programs, which is excellent news.  But this is not enough.  It needs to ensure that its own statements, recommendations, and observations in speeches, reports and other materials are based on objective, replicable evidence and, if none is available, to say so.

Ideas are the seed from which good projects develop but evidence is better.  As Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed:  “everyone is entitle to his (or her) own opinion but not his (or her) own set of facts.”  Right now, the State Department is disseminating too many opinions; it needs more facts.

Lack of sufficient focus on root causes or the factors making people vulnerable to trafficking

The TIP Report makes important contributions to the discussion of the plight of workers in the global supply chain as well as workers hired by government subcontractors.  However, the TIP Report continues to omit any meaningful discussion about the conditions in countries of origin and destination that render people vulnerable to forced labor.  For example, the TIP Report does not mention the impact of restrictive labor migration policies on migrant workers, the need for research to identify and develop targeted assistance to vulnerable populations or how the failure of many governments to protect basic rights fuels outmigration.

The TIP Report does make one interesting proposal about how to solve the problem of excessive debt owed by migrant workers to labor brokers for overseas jobs. It argues that governments in countries of origin “could provide small-scale loans to cover travel costs and protect workers’ rights while they are abroad” (p. 24).  However, since the majority of migrants are unable to obtain visas to work abroad legally, is the State Department seriously asking governments to assist citizens with financial support to migrate to the U.S., even without proper documents?  This would be a useful alternative to borrowing from a potential trafficker but it still ignores the basic question of how to prevent the vulnerability of undocumented migrant workers en route and in their U.S. destination.

Silence on issue of U.S. accountability for the plight of contract workers

The TIP Report faults governments in the developing world that “encourage labor migration as a means of fueling foreign exchange remittances, yet they do not adequately control private recruiters who exploit migrants and make them vulnerable to trafficking” (p. 18).  However, the U.S. government should not be so quick to lay the blame at the door of governments in the developing world as long as the U.S. does not have a good record itself on the recruitment of its own foreign laborers.  The New Yorker Magazine recently published a damning report of an investigation into the recruitment of foreign workers into Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. subcontractors.  Reporter Sarah Stillman’s article “The Invisible Army: For foreign workers on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, war can be hell” reveals a total lack of accountability on the part of the U.S. government for the conditions under which contractors recruit, hire and treat foreign workers working for the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan:

  • Workers are told they are going to work in one country and not told until arrival that they are going to Iraq or Afghanistan (Note:  this is not a new technique as Cam Simpson reported in a series of articlesin the Chicago Times in 2005 on the plight of Nepalese workers recruited by contractors to work in Jordan but ending up in Iraq).
  • Promised salaries are not paid – “they were to earn as little as two hundred and seventy-five dollars a month…a fraction of what they’d been promised.”  And, instead of the $1538 a month promised, workers earned $350.
  • Accommodation is “soiled mattresses with twenty-five other migrants.”
  • Contracts require 12 hour working days, 7 days a week.
  • A subcontractor accused of human trafficking violations continues to receive U.S. contracts.

The report continues with extensive documentation of abuses, lack of oversight and ongoing contracts to dodgy contractors. This outsourcing of labor continues and yet the government takes little responsibility for what happens with the workers who support U.S. service members in these two militarized zones:  “A spokesman for U.S. Central Command [in Iraq] acknowledged that it “does not play a formal role in the monitoring of living conditions on U.S. bases,” although each base has a military chain of command responsible for “working with the entities involved to insure minimum standards are met.”

Obviously, the State Department’s accusations against some other governments certainly has merit, but it is not made with ‘clean hands.’  The U.S. government (and other governments of countries of destination) is also liable for the same failures because it does not ensure the workers who are hired to work for the U.S. government by subcontractors are treated fairly and equitably according to U.S. labor standards.

Just as manufacturers who sell products produced through a chain of contractors are now being called upon to be responsible for the situation of workers along the chain, the U.S. government must also ensure that the workers who are hired by subcontractors to work for Americans are provided with the same rights and protections as other workers in the U.S. The trafficking of migrant workers by government contractors will not end until governments in countries of origin and destination coordinate their efforts and, most importantly, until governments, such as the U.S., that use contractors to hire workers for government-related jobs, monitor and control the activities of the contractors, establish safe mechanisms to report on worker abuse and punish violations through criminal prosecutions and contract terminations.

Thus, the U.S. government should follow its own recommendations to other governments:

  • “require that government contractors and subcontractors ensure that employees are not hired or recruited through fraudulent means or the use of excessive fees. Such policies would increase transparency and make it more difficult for unscrupulous labor brokers to use debt bondage as a means of providing cheap labor for government contracts. This is particularly important for third-country nationals, who are often imported for large construction projects and who are more susceptible to exploitation due to distance and isolation, language barriers, and dependence on the employer for visas or work permits, among other factors” (p. 19).

Hopefully, next year’s TIP Report will present more evidence-based information and models for prevention as well as information about the concrete steps the U.S. has taken to ensure that the government is protecting the rights of migrant workers hired by U.S. subcontractors and punishing the criminals responsible for the abuse, exploitation and forced labor of those workers.

Ann Jordan is the Director of the Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor at the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, American University Washington College of Law.

Here are some research links:

Anti-Trafficking Enforcement in U.S. is an Abysmal Failure : Ms Magazine Blog

It’s been over a decade since the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) was passed into law, and a new report from the Bureau of Justice Statisticsreveals that astonishingly little has been done since.

The TVPA defines a human trafficking victim as

A person induced to perform labor or a commercial sex act through force, fraud, or coercion [and] any person under age 18 who performs a commercial sex act.

According to the report [PDF], federal task forces funded by the TVPA opened only 2,515 investigations of suspected incidents of human trafficking between January 2008 and June 2010, leading to 144 arrests so far.

So how does this relate to numbers of people actually trafficked in the U.S.? That’s a surprisingly tough question. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to get firm statistics on modern-day slavery due to vast underreporting, the covert nature of the crime and the tendency to criminalize, rather than recognize, victims of sex slavery (even when they are children). Part of the problem is the misnomer “trafficking,” which inaccurately suggests that victims have to come from other countries. In fact, the term traffickingapplies to any coerced sex or labor, including all prostituted children.

Moreover, as anti-trafficking organization the Polaris Project points out, clear numbers for the U.S. are particularly lacking. The Department of Justice estimates that 17,500 people are trafficked from other countries, but has no firm estimates on those trafficked within U.S. borders.

I suspect that U.S. citizens and policy-makers have a hard time imagining that modern-day slavery is prevalent in our country, and an even harder time understanding that the vast majority of trafficking victims here are U.S. citizens. The State Department estimates that of the world’s 27 million trafficking victims, about 100,000 live in the U.S. In contrast, the Polaris Project estimates that there are 100,000 cases of child sex trafficking alone in the U.S. each year.

Even if we use the State Department’s 100,000 figure, this means investigations were opened on only 2.5 percent of human trafficking cases. Even assuming that one case represents multiple victims, it is clear that federal efforts to address human trafficking in the U.S. are simply not effective.

However, our anemic efforts to combat trafficking in the U.S. do not stop us from pointing the finger at other countries. The State Department’s just-released 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, which evaluates worldwide efforts to fight modern-day slavery, began including the U.S. only last year. And that was thanks to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said:

One of the innovations when I became Secretary was we were going to also analyze and rank ourselves, because I don’t think it’s fair for us to rank others if we don’t look hard at who we are and what we’re doing.

So where does the U.S. rank?

The State Department uses a three-tier system. Tier 1 countries are in full compliance with the TVPA, Tier 2 countries are making “significant efforts” to comply and Tier 3 countries are making no efforts whatsoever. The U.S. is predictably ranked as Tier 1, which begs the question: How accurate is this rating system if a 2.5 percent prosecution rate gets us to the top?

The State Department’s ranking system misleads the public by focusing on purported efforts instead of actual outcomes. It has also been criticized for ranking Chinahigher than deserved, and for lumping countries togetherwith dissimilar records. The U.S. could standardize its rankings and avoid the latter criticism if it published national trafficking-prosecution rates–but that would expose the fallacy of U.S. superiority in efforts to combat trafficking.

State Department representative Luis CdeBaca defended the annual rankings, saying [PDF] such reports “can mean telling friends truths they may not want to hear.” I hope the State Department doesn’t mind some friendly truth-telling: Federal efforts to address human trafficking in the U.S. are an abysmal failure.

Photo from Flickr user Women’s eNews under Creative Commons 2.0

BOTTOM: Map of human trafficking


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  1. Pingback: Trafficked | Biz Gov Soc

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