Academics, social workers say more study needed to know scope of human trafficking

Erika Aguilar

Academics and social workers say more research and on-the-ground studies are need to understand human trafficking and to create policies that work.

Sociology academics at the University of Southern California are challenging  what they call the misuse of the term human trafficking.

“Human trafficking is an extensive problem that many people talk about but they actually know very little about it,” said Rhacel Parrenas, sociology and gender studies professor at USC.

In 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report that called for more research and data in order to better understand human trafficking:

The U.S. government estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 persons are trafficked across international borders annually. However, such estimates of global human trafficking are questionable. The accuracy of the estimates is in doubt because of methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies. For example, the U.S. government's estimate was developed by one person who did not document all his work, so the estimate may not be replicable, casting doubt on its reliability. Moreover, country data are not available, reliable, or comparable.

Academics, social workers and government bureaucrats called for more study at a conference at USC this weekend on human trafficking . One of the reasons given for  flimsy data on trafficking is that victims are hard to find and talk to. 

One panelist, Ann Jordan, Director of Program on Human Trafficking & Forced Labor at the American University Washington College of Law disagreed with that theory.

“I’ve heard people say we can’t do any research on them because they are a hidden population but people who work on health issues, they go out and they do this kind of research all the time,” said Jordan.

She said the barriers have more to do with the fact that the research will likely be expensive and lengthy.

Experts talked about the misconception of what we think human trafficking is. In legal terms, human trafficking must involve the physical transportation of a person against his or her will, and/or the use coercion  for exploitation.

“They way we understand trafficking right now is that we just reduce it to part three, where we just think of exploitation as trafficking,” Parrenas said.

Parrenas said prostitution is often considered trafficking but in a lot of cases, it’s not.

Some social workers on Saturday called for more attention to labor abuses.

A representative from the U.S. State Department said at the conference that the agency still sees labor trafficking cases as a small part of law enforcement cases that get referred for prosecution, only about 10 percent, over the last seven years.

“We have to find a way to make these populations less vulnerable to exploitation,” Parrenas said.

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