Home » Research » The bias in counter-trafficking data and need for improved data collection: reflections on trafficking onto fishing boats

The bias in counter-trafficking data and need for improved data collection: reflections on trafficking onto fishing boats

This week we welcome guest contributor Paul Buckley, who weighs in on human trafficking data collection. Mr. Buckley is the Regional Technical Specialist for the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP). UNIAP was established in 2000 with a central focus on human trafficking and a mandate to facilitate a stronger and more coordinated response to human trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-region.

Two critical problems remain in efforts to combat human trafficking: the weak evidence base on the scale of the phenomena, and systems to monitor the dynamics and flows of trafficking patterns. Much of the research currently available on prevalence and patterns can be misleading when presented without the context or caveats that often accompany detailed presentation of the data. Further, data is often taken from methodologies that are not intended to infer estimates. For example, media reports have often reported that 79% of trafficking is for sexual exploitation, based on the ‘Global Report on Trafficking in Persons’ by UNODC; rarely adding the report’s caveat that the data is of victims identified by state authorities and of convicted traffickers. With the majority of victims and traffickers not identified, the picture often presented is likely to be biased. Clarity on the problems of human trafficking, and therefore the remedies, can only come from improved data collection on the dynamics of the phenomena, and the profiles of the victims and the perpetrators. There are some strong efforts to address these issues, such as research by the Nexus Institute, the ILO’s Special Action Programme on Forced Labour, and the IOM’s Counter-Trafficking Division. However, the resources channelled to such efforts remain limited in the face of the knowledge gap they are trying to address.

Some anti-trafficking advocates argue that allocating more efforts to research and data collection on human trafficking would require re-directing resources that should be devoted to direct services for victims or investigations to prosecute the crime. Such a perspective argues that the problem is broadly understood and that whether there are thousands of victims or millions is of little relevance; while the phenomenon exists and people continue to become victims, there is an immediate and urgent need to provide assistance first and foremost.

This sentiment is understandable, yet there are clear implications for the scale of the response to the problem at a basic level. If trafficking is a problem affecting hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people evenly spread around the world, it requires a different response than if there is a high density concentrated in one region. In countries or industries politically sensitive to the problem, trafficking patterns may be refuted as isolated cases, yet victims and many responders experience a different reality. Responders to different forms of trafficking also recognize that the experience has different impacts on its victims, who themselves have various levels of resilience to the potential trauma. Therefore, while efforts should focus on eliminating the problem, the scale and nature of different forms of trafficking need to be understood to determine appropriate and effective responses.

UNIAP has attempted to bring greater understanding to the dynamics of trafficking patterns in the Greater Mekong Sub-region, one focus of which has been trafficking onto fishing boats. Together with the IOM, the ILO and other government and civil society partners, support has been provided to men and boys who have escaped from boats in which they endured forced labour with varying degrees of severity. Escaping in Indonesia or Malaysia, many migrant workers from Myanmar or Cambodia report being put to work on boats in Thailand and describe the abuses they suffered and others they witnessed, including murders in which bodies are discarded at sea. With the sector employing tens of thousands of individuals, it is contentious as to what degree this is representative of work in fisheries, yet the number and frequency of cases reported make it clear that that there is significant risk of exploitation and abuse for migrant workers at sea. Data collection in this area is particularly difficult due to the remote locations of the exploitation, and has primarily relied on those who have escaped and reported their stories to service providers. With fishing boats that remain at sea for two or more years considered to be more prone to trafficked labour, it is these vessels for which it is hardest to document conditions.

In the context of trafficking onto fishing boats, I will focus here on three aspects of human trafficking related data that need to be considered as the sector progresses in developing its information base: the definition of human trafficking and related terms, data on trafficked persons, and data on the crimes and suspects.

The internationally recognized definition of human trafficking states the purpose of human trafficking is for exploitation, which includes ‘the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, [and] slavery or practices similar to slavery’. Yet human trafficking is still often misconstrued and equated with sex work or irregular (transnational) migration. National legislation often defines trafficking as a crime against women and children, and in many cases, specifically for sexual exploitation; as a result, national data on trafficked persons almost exclusively focused on women and children trafficked for sexual exploitation. Authorities may be slow to understand trafficking for forced labour due to: lack of knowledge of the phenomena, lack of recognition of the crime, low investigative capacity, discrimination against migrant workers who are often most vulnerable, or differing interpretations of the scope of trafficking and forced labour.

Alongside a need for increased quantitative data collection to understand the scale of trafficking in different geographies and industries, there is an equally important scope for substantial qualitative data collection to provide greater context to trafficking patterns. Understanding the coercion or deception utilised as well as the aspects of exploitation that result in human trafficking are important in understanding the crime. The ILO has taken the important step of developing indicators of forced labour; for example, the degree to which exploitation, coercion or deception is apparent – and meets the standard of human trafficking – in a given case is often contentious. These terms themselves do not have discrete measures and may be considered to range from mild to severe forms. As Anne Gallagher has suggested in her work, International Law on Human Trafficking, a ‘seriousness factor’, or measure of severity, may need to be developed to apply the definition objectively in a given case. In research with deportees in Cambodia, UNIAP took a step towards this by classifying the gravity of exploitation, or severity, in the cases analysed; however further development is warranted.

With regards to trafficking onto fishing boats, the ‘grey area’ of exploitation may be even broader than in other sectors (although perhaps similar to domestic work). There are the clearly observable severe forms in which men and boys are tricked onto fishing boats, having been recruited for other work or tricked into a debt and told that the only way they can pay it off is through working on the boat. However there are also cases in which work is voluntarily undertaken on boats only for the workers to later find out that the conditions are not as initially described. For example, finding out only after accepting the work that they will be at sea for much longer than expected and their pay will be dependent on the catch, rather than a guaranteed wage. With no contracts to refer to, unable to leave while at sea, if an operator then tells them that they will get little pay once they return, they may meet the criteria of trafficked persons. Yet, local law enforcement may ultimately deem exploitation to be an acceptable characteristic of the industry.

It is widely accepted that the vast majority of trafficked persons are not identified. This is in large part due to the fact that identification is normally conducted by authorities in ‘reactive’ operations, in response to cases brought to their attention by non-government or community-based organizations (NGOs or CBOs), other government service providers, or victims themselves. Better-understood trafficking patterns often receive a higher profile, rather than subtler or less understood forms that may be more prevalent. Analysis of data on identified victims can only be representative of that population, skewed to the definition used, and the different definitions used may be interpreted and applied in diverse ways.

Research indicates that many trafficked persons do not wish to be identified as victims or receive services due to a range of factors; their cases are then rarely recorded. Information on those trafficking patterns would still be extremely useful to law enforcement, irrespective of whether the individuals wished to receive services or pursue legal action against the perpetrators.

In cases referred by UNIAP’s Myanmar language hotline and civil society partners, these factors are apparent for individuals trafficked onto fishing boats. Beyond victim identification issues, those coming out of forced labour rarely want to go through the criminal justice process, due in part to the length of time required for prosecution. There are many cases in which victims do not wish to report to authorities, an important right to respect, as they seek to make up for the time of lost earnings or away from family. Moreover, reports from those who escape or are rescued indicate that many others have been or are in forced labour situations on boats and do not receive assistance.

Research soon to be released by the ILO’s Triangle Project on working conditions in fisheries in Thailand is perhaps the most comprehensive conducted on the industry, having interviewed 596 fishers, primarily Myanmar and Cambodian migrants. The data collection shows the difficulties in reaching those working on long-haul fishing boats with 82.2% of those interviewed working on short-haul boats, at sea for a month or less. Acknowledging the limitations of locating respondents at domestic ports, the research will make a strong contribution to understanding the conditions in the sector. This will be important in determining appropriate policies and programmes to improve conditions and in providing a base from which to identify further areas of research.

Collated crime data faces similar challenges, representing only what has been investigated. Low numbers do not necessarily indicate a low incidence of human trafficking, while large numbers do not necessarily mean that trafficking is being well addressed or targeted. Due to the complexities of pursuing criminal charges against traffickers, particularly for labour exploitation, suspects are often pursued for other criminal charges and therefore cases are not recorded in human trafficking statistics. Similarly, if the act, such as forced labour, is not specifically legislated under human trafficking law (in those jurisdictions where the definition remains limited to the sale of children and women for example), then any criminal justice action would be limited. For example, in China, trafficking for labour exploitation is considered an offence of forced labour and not human trafficking. Further, perpetrator statistics may reflect those who are easier to convict in trafficking networks, or even misidentified individuals, due to varying definitions.

Analysis of convictions for trafficking onto fishing boats would show low numbers and probably only of those involved in the transportation and harbouring of victims. It is unlikely to include the operators, who benefit the most financially from the crime, or those committing abuse on the boats. This raises questions about a targeted criminal justice response and whether justice is ultimately served in such cases. Investigation and analysis of related crimes and suspects may also help to identify the dynamics of trafficking into the fishing industry, which may inform broader responses to address the causes and not just the symptoms of the problem.

In summary, there is a critical need for increased and comprehensive data collection on human trafficking flows and related phenomena for effective counter-trafficking programming. In national systems, information should be integrated, centrally collated and analysed for trends. The reliance on inaccurate data has been a skewed response to the problem of women, children and the sex industry. Currently, the experiences of non-identified trafficked persons cannot inform counter-trafficking responses, allowing opportunistic criminal networks in less recognised patterns to become entrenched and ultimately more sophisticated to avoid identification. Systematic and proactive efforts to identify trafficked persons in vulnerable work sectors should therefore be combined with broader analysis of the means by which people are lured and kept in situations of forced labour in order to improve our understanding of, and responses to, human trafficking.


  1. […] And here’s a UN official on bogus data and bad definitions: […]

  2. […] post, The sex trade in Northern Ireland: the creation of a moral panic?, and Paul Buckley’s post, The bias in counter-trafficking data and need for improved data collection: reflections on trafficki…, were well received.  While the presence of trafficking in the fishing industry was also […]

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