Never mind the metrics: disrupting human trafficking by other means.

Author:Neumann, Vanessa
Position:Forced Migration

Measuring and mapping human trafficking are challenging for several reasons and therefore do not lead to effective counter-trafficking strategies. Understanding the drivers of human migration, however, is a much more promising approach for developing policies with risk-mitigating strategies. Insofar as the patterns of human migration are intertwined with other aspects of illicit trade, they can serve as an early warning signal of vulnerabilities in the global trade system for criminal activity. Tracking the financial links between human trafficking and other crimes provides various options for effective degradation and disruption of illicit trafficking networks.


Human trafficking is the second most profitable criminal enterprise for transnational organized crime groups--second only to drugs and more profitable than the trade in weapons. (1) While stirring narratives of tragic exploitation have given human smuggling and trafficking a global platform, the covert smuggling of humans cannot be separated from the illegal trafficking of drugs, weapons, oil, or counterfeit goods. Rather, because humans themselves become commoditized as they are transported over the same illicit superhighways, intelligence from other fields is critical in disrupting human trafficking's financial flows and those of associated businesses. Considering human smuggling and trafficking from a threat-finance perspective better elucidates their financial patterns and drivers and provides a clearer understanding of how organized crime and terrorist networks are funded. (2) This will be the key to developing effective hybrid solutions to counter the hybrid networks engaged in the trafficking of humans.


The traditional distinction between human smuggling and human trafficking hinges on three components: consent, exploitation, and movement. In human smuggling, the person being smuggled has given consent and has paid, or agreed to pay, the smuggler to be moved surreptitiously across a border. Upon arrival at the final (contracted) destination, the business relationship between the smuggled and the smuggler ends, and the smuggled person is not constrained by the smuggler in pursuing other activities he or she wishes.

In human trafficking, by contrast, the trafficking victim is trapped in an activity without his or her consent, and his or her labor is being exploited for the material gain of the trafficker; movement across international borders is not necessary for human trafficking. Simply put, the traditional distinction revolves around whether the person is free to leave and/or end the professional relationship with the transporter, employer, or other service providers. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a particularly clear and helpful distinction: Smuggling is based on transportation, whereas trafficking has more to do with exploitation. (3)

From a policy or legislative perspective, the difference between human smuggling and human trafficking can also be delineated by the victim. (4) Smuggling is a crime against the state--laws are broken, and border security is breached. It is the combination of skill and risk associated with these two activities that generates the profits of smugglers and their facilitators. Breaching border security takes a skill or connection that is a monetizable asset; the risk of a criminal conviction also warrants financial compensation.

Human trafficking, on the other hand, is generally a crime against persons, violating their human and labor rights in the process. The activity by which the trafficking victims are being exploited may otherwise be legal: mining, housecleaning, agriculture, or dressmaking. However, it may also be illegal: prostitution, pickpocketing, or drug running. The latter category of activities encompasses a crime against the state, intertwining different crimes. I suggest that while measuring human trafficking presents a number of challenges that stymie effective policymaking, its patterns of drivers and links to other forms of illicit trade present better opportunities for enhanced effectiveness in both policymaking and enforcement.

Human trafficking is difficult to measure and assess in at least two ways, both of them arising from the fact that human trafficking is a process, not an event. First, smuggling sometimes becomes trafficking. Often people who start using the services of a smuggler end up in an indentured state, working to pay off debt that does not decrease. The New York Times tells the story of Cecilia, who wanted to escape the dangers of Guatemala, so she used coyotes (Spanish slang for human smugglers) to enter the United States. Once in the United States, however, these coyotes demanded more money from her family for her release. "It was clear that if we did not comply, she would wind up in a brothel," said Ana Reyes, a family friend of the victim. (5)

The other scenario is that the smuggled can end up being trafficked as partial payment between smugglers and other criminal organizations, such as drug cartels. "In some cases, women are used as currency to pay for passage through areas controlled by drug cartels. The cartels generally require each coyote to sell at least one woman into prostitution every two months in lieu of his monthly fee." (6) They can be forced into working for a criminal organization committing other crimes. The classic example is to be forced into prostitution, but they can also be indentured as drug runners. If they are forced to transport drugs across borders, then the trafficking victims also become smugglers.

Second, trafficking happens in stages in a person's life. Whether a particular individual gets counted as a trafficking victim varies from stage to stage of that individual's journey. For instance, a person may ask to be smuggled for better work and end up in an indentured state (trafficked, as above), and then escape and be smuggled somewhere else. An Asian woman who was trafficked into prostitution may gain her freedom and end up working at a karaoke bar, where prostitution is available but voluntary. If she herself estimates she has a choice, should such a woman be counted as a trafficking victim? Also, is the route she took in her journey a trafficking or a smuggling route? More importantly, from a policymaking perspective, does it even really matter?

Here lies a key complicating factor: the degree of exploitation as perceived by the subject. Illegal immigrants often tolerate a high degree of exploitation as long as they make money to send back to their families. Adding to the complexity, families can pressure their daughters to work as prostitutes elsewhere, under the realization that the financial gains accrued to the family are likely to enhance its social status within the community; in these communities, the daughter exported into prostitution (in the European Union (EU) or the United States) can be lionized as a heroine by her community. In Illicit, author Moises Naim gives two examples: In the tiny Chinese hamlet of Langle, the prosperous houses with tiled floors and air-conditioning are the ones whose daughters have gone to work as prostitutes in Thailand and Malaysia; while in the Nigerian municipality of Benin City, the only shame for Italos, women who went to work as prostitutes in Italy, was returning home without adequate savings. (7) For their hometowns, their labor was translated into better houses and more running water. "Many of these women had left for Italy with not their family's consent," Naim writes, "but their enthusiastic encouragement." (8)

There are other forms of sexual enslavement. For instance, is it still trafficking when a family agrees to sell their daughter into marriage in another country? As a result of its one-child policy dating back to 1979 and a persistent cultural preference for boys, China has a shortage of women. (9) The annual growth rate in China averaged 9.10 percent from 1989 until 2014, with this growth rate at times reaching 14.2 percent during this decade of economic boom. (10) The confluence of the shortage of women and rapid wealth creation means that Chinese and foreign brides can command a decent price for marriage. This leaves Southern Chinese male peasants at a competitive disadvantage: They want wives who look ethnically similar, but cannot compete with wealthier men in urban centers...

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