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Human-trafficking problem is difficult to measure

How big of a problem is human trafficking?

It depends.

At last count, in 2000, there were an estimated 27 million victims of human trafficking worldwide.

That’s the number cited by the U.S. State Department’s Office to Combat Human Trafficking, and it’s most commonly repeated by activists.

But late last year, when President Barack Obama signed legislation to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, he put the number at 20 million.

While the numbers vary depending on whom one talks to, 27 million is most often cited and attributed to the State Department.

But when asked about the estimate, a State Department spokeswoman said she couldn’t vouch for it.

“Trafficking in persons is an underground industry, and similar to other hidden crimes, it is extremely difficult to determine exact figures,’’ the spokeswoman said. “Gathering accurate statistics on the number of people who are victims of trafficking is challenging for several reasons: 1) the underground nature of the crime makes it almost impossible to establish a representative sample of the population because victims are afraid or unable to come forward, 2) the lack of consistent and reliable data collection by countries, and 3) definitional difficulties, circular reporting, and the frequent intermingling of human trafficking, smuggling, and vice crime statistics.”

In fact, that 27 million estimate can be traced to the research of one man, Kevin Bales, a human rights activist who teaches at the University of Hull in Brighton, England. In literature and in interviews, Bales, an Oklahoma native, describes himself as an “Anti Slavery” professor who helped found Free the Slaves, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit whose mission is to stop human trafficking and raise awareness about “modern-day slavery.”

In 1999, Bales led a research project involving a half-dozen students from London’s Roehampton University who placed thousands of calls, sent out thousands of emails and visited dozens of governments in different countries, although when pressed, he could not name the countries.

“This is secondary source analysis, meaning searching for and examining all possible materials that can be located in the public domain or in private or official hands that can shed light,’’ Bales wrote in an email. “This could be arrest records, journalist accounts, ‘guesstimates’ of officials or NGO workers, anything that put forward a number, precise or rough. All of these numbers or guesses or estimates were then reviewed and judged to be reliable or not, and then passed in front of country experts who could base an assessment on better knowledge.”

As proud as Bales is that the State Department cites his number without qualification, he acknowledges that his researchers talked to few, if any, victims of human trafficking.

Despite the acknowledged flaws in the methodology, he said he’s managed to “recrunch the numbers” and will release a new global figure in October. He didn’t get into specifics on how the statistics are being retallied.

David Feingold, a research anthropologist who has been studying human trafficking well before it became, in his words “the flavor of the month,” said numbers are almost irrelevant.

“Think about it,” said Feingold, who serves on the U.N.’s Inter-Agency Working Group on Trafficking of Girls and Women in Southeast Asia. “Are you really going to act any differently if you hear there are 10 million victims? Or 6 million? Probably not.”

And yet if the task at hand were to determine the number of influenza outbreaks, he said, the numbers would be very clear and well-documented.

“But the more that one studies human trafficking,” he concludes, “the less clear it becomes. What’s going on in the minds of people who create (the numbers), from the vice squad to the federal government, I don’t know. Whether it’s based on fact or not, I do not know. But I do know that as long as the number is large, it helps with the advocacy, and they justify it on that basis, which I think is extremely dangerous.”

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