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What do we really know about sex trafficking? Although trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation is a global problem, hard statistics on the numbers of women involved, and in which countries, are close to impossible to come by:

• It is an illegal, underground business, and it is difficult to extrapolate the scale of the problem from statistics on arrests and convictions, because many victims don't come forward for fear of retribution.

• The definition of "trafficking" has been controversial. There was no internationally accepted definition until the signing of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons in December 2000.

• Although numerous small studies have been done on various aspects of trafficking, much of the research doesn't distinguish between illegal migration and people smuggling and trafficking a person against her will. Research that does focus specifically on trafficking often doesn't distinguish between individuals trafficked for sexual exploitation and those trafficked for forced agricultural work or other types of labor.

There are so many figures floating around that UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is developing a database to compile and compare the various published statistics. The introduction to UNESCO's Trafficking Statistics Project summarizes the problem:

"When it comes to statistics, trafficking of girls and women is one of several highly emotive issues which seem to overwhelm critical faculties. Numbers take on a life of their own, gaining acceptance through repetition, often with little inquiry into their derivations. Journalists, bowing to the pressures of editors, demand numbers, any number. Organizations feel compelled to supply them, lending false precisions and spurious authority to many reports. The UNESCO TRAFFICKING STATISTICS PROJECT is a first step toward clarifying what we know, what we think we know, and what we don't know about trafficking."

This chart (pdf file) from the UNESCO project illustrates the wildly varying data on human trafficking produced by government organizations and NGOs (non-governmental organizations). For example, in 2001, the FBI estimated 700,000 women and children were trafficked worldwide, UNICEF estimated 1.75 million, and the International Organization on Migration (IOM) merely 400,000. In 2001, the UN drastically changed its own estimate of trafficked people in 2000 -- from 4,000,000 to 1,000,000.

The most cited statistics on trafficking come from the U.S. State Department's annual reports on trafficking in persons. According to the 2005 report, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, with 14,500 to 17,500 trafficked into the U.S. The report does not provide data on sexual exploitation specifically; the numbers include people trafficked for any sort of forced labor.

Each year since 2001, the report has evaluated the situation in the countries deemed most likely to have serious trafficking problems, and ranks each nation by "tiers" according to the effort they are making to eliminate trafficking. The 2005 report examined 169 countries; 14 of these were considered "Tier 3," meaning they were judged as not making significant efforts to combat trafficking.

Although the U.S. State Department report is the most exhaustive attempt at quantifying the problem of global trafficking, anti-trafficking advocates have criticized the yearly reports for not addressing government corruption and complicity in trafficking and for failing to evaluate the effectiveness of the programs that exist to help victims. Some critics charge that the report is inconsistent in how it ranks countries into tiers, and they complain that since the State Department did not publish the methodologies used to generate the statistics, it's impossible to evaluate them. The United States itself is not examined in the report.



Related Articles

+ The Furor Over "The Girls Next Door"
In 2004, the New York Times Magazine published "The Girls Next Door," (Fee required) an article by Peter Landesman that claimed there were tens of thousands of sex slaves held captive in America. The controversial article was criticized for sloppy reporting and exaggerated statistics, and the Times later published a correction of some of the details in the article. One of the most vociferous critics was Slate's Jack Shafer, who took Landesman to task for his statistics and reporting in a series of articles. Slate has collected Shafer's criticisms, with responses from Landesman and Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati.

+ "Oversexed"
In this article, Debbie Nathan argues that the media overplays the role of sexual exploitation of trafficked women, ignoring the plight of the thousands of women trafficked into domestic labor. (The Nation, August 11, 2005).

+ "The Natasha Trade: Transnational Sex Trafficking"
Overview of trafficking of women from Ukraine by Prof. Donna Hughes. (National Institute of Justice Journal , January, 2001)

Government Agencies and Reports

+ U.S. State Department Annual Report on Trafficking in Persons
The most widely cited report on global human trafficking.

+ UN Information on Trafficking in Human Beings
Includes a fact sheet and background on the UN protocol.

+ Data and Research in Human Trafficking IOM
A collection of academic studies on various aspects of human trafficking, including a report on available data for North America.

+ Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation: The Case of the Russian States
A report by University of Rhode Island professor Donna Hughes for the IOM Migration Research Series. (2002)

+ Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States
A 2001 report by Donna Hughes and Janice Raymond, funded by the U.S. National Institute for Justice.

+ The International Organization for Migration
An intergovernmental organization dealing with all aspects of global migration, including counter-trafficking measures.

Advocacy Groups/NGOs/How to Help

+ Amnesty International U.S.A: Stop Violence Against Women
The battle against trafficking is a large part of the Stop Violence Against Women campaign of Amnesty International. The web site includes downloadable materials for holding an educational "house party" based on the mini-series "Human Trafficking," and a Q&A with spokesperson Mira Sorvino.

+ Coalition Against Trafficking in Women
A human rights organization dedicated to combating the sex trade. CATW "is a non-governmental organization that promotes women's human rights. It works internationally to combat sexual exploitation in all its forms, especially prostitution and trafficking in women and children, in particular girls."

+ The Protection Project
A legal human rights research group based in Johns Hopkins University, dedicated to documenting and disseminating information about human trafficking.

+ Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking
CAST is a U.S.-based non-profit organization "whose mission is to assist persons trafficked for the purpose of forced labor and slavery-like practices and to work toward ending all instances of such human rights violations." They provide direct assistance to victims of trafficking in the U.S. and training and support to professionals in the field.

+ Human Rights Watch Campaign Against the Trafficking of Women and Girls
Includes reports and fact sheets from HRW's research and policy advocacy work on trafficking.

+ Global Alliance against Traffic in Women
GAATW is a network of NGOs working globally to combat human trafficking, with an international secretariat based in Bangkok, Thailand.

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posted feb. 7, 2006

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