Researching the unseen: Challenges in human trafficking research

This post originally appeared on June 14, 2013 at The Trafficking Research Project

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Researching the unseen: Challenges in human trafficking research.

 TTRP is pleased to have Rebecca Surtees as a guest blogger this week. Rebecca is Senior Researcher at NEXUS Institute, an international human rights research and policy center in Washington, DC. NEXUS Institute is dedicated to combating human trafficking as well as other human rights abuses. Recent research studies include: Trafficked at sea. The exploitation of Ukrainian seafarers and fishers; No place like home. Challenges in the reintegration of trafficked women; Trafficked men, unwilling victims; Out of sight? Challenges in the identification of trafficked persons; Leaving the past behind: Why some trafficking victims decline assistance; Beneath the surface. Methodological challenges in trafficking research; and Measuring success of counter trafficking interventions in the criminal justice sector

Researching the unseen

Much human trafficking research is based on data from trafficked persons who have been formally identified and assisted by anti-trafficking organisations and professionals. This type of research reveals a great deal about their pre-trafficking situations and vulnerabilities, their trafficking experiences and their assistance experiences and needs, all of which is essential in informing policies and interventions to prevent and combat trafficking.

However, there are certain biases in terms of the information that we get from trafficking victims who have been identified and assisted, which means that our picture of trafficking is only partial. That is, not all trafficked persons are offered (or accept) assistance and there are also differences in terms of which trafficked persons researchers will have access to and why. Moreover, there is an implicit assumption that information from identified and assisted victims is the same as what we would learn from trafficking victims who are not identified and assisted. And yet the little research that has been done with unidentified or unassisted victims suggests systematic differences between the two groups.

Unidentified and unassisted

Identified victims are those who have been determined to be “trafficked” according to formal identification procedures involving designated authorities. Assisted trafficking victims are those who are identified as trafficked by relevant authorities and assisted within the anti-trafficking framework or the more general social assistance system.

Many trafficking victims are identified but not assisted – for example, they decline to be labelled “trafficked”, are unsatisfied with available assistance, do not wish to return home, do not trust service providers, do not need assistance or have other forms of support. Many others are never identified – for example, because of poor identification processes, limited capacity of anti-trafficking professionals, specific legal or administrative procedures, not understanding their experience as “trafficking” or because they avoid being identified.

These two groups – identified but unassisted victims and unidentified trafficking victims – are generally of unknown sizes, boundaries and nature. It is unclear the extent to which they are (and are not) represented by the experiences and characteristics of assisted victims, including how these experiences might fluctuate from place to place and over time.

Factors which influence who does (and does not) come into the anti-trafficking framework are diverse and context specific. They include not only individual or family characteristics (e.g. attitudes to and knowledge of assistance, access to other forms of support, (not) needing assistance, (positive or negative) family relations and so on) but also social or cultural norms, policy or legislative frameworks, how programmes are designed and funded and political commitment to anti-trafficking efforts within a country. Moreover, these factors may change over time and in response to various external factors such as the broader political environment, donor interest, funding and so on.

Reaching the unreachable

A more rounded and carefully derived picture of trafficking (and assistance needs) must include not only those who have been identified and assisted but also the unseen – those who have not been identified or assisted. Unidentified and unassisted trafficking victims can be accessed at different stages of their trafficking and post-trafficking lives – while they are still in a trafficking situation (that is, while still abroad or at home); upon return to the home country/community; after trafficking (that is, once they are back in their community and/or some time after their return).

Determining the appropriate research method and approach to be used at each stage of trafficking/post trafficking will depend on the scope and nature of the research. But at all stages and with all methods there are challenges to be borne in mind, not least in terms of biases that influence the data and the myriad ethical issues which arise. Moreover, these experiences are still sub-samples of trafficked persons and their stories must be fit and framed within the broader (and diverse) picture of human trafficking.

For example:

Researching persons still in trafficking situations. Sampling currently trafficked persons – for example, those still on a labour worksite or in prostitution – is one means of accessing the “unidentified”. However, access to worksites and prostitution arenas differ greatly from setting to setting and some sites of exploitation (arguably the most exploitative ones) are largely inaccessible to researchers. Moreover, access is generally arranged through gatekeepers, which means that access (and the boundaries of the research sample) is informed by the mandate, work and relationships of these agencies or institutions as well as any motives they may have or perspectives they wish to advance – e.g. ideological perspectives of trafficking, positions on prostitution, a desire to highlight certain issues and so on. Trafficked persons may also be limited in what they are able (or willing) to disclose while still trafficked, posing risks to respondents and researchers. Others may not recognise that they have been trafficked. Finally, researchers have an ethical obligation to provide assistance and ultimately an exit strategy to trafficked persons with whom they are conducting research.

Researching in the return process. Respondents may be accessed after trafficking ends but prior to or during their return home – for example, while detained, awaiting or following deportation, preparing to or testifying against traffickers or following deportation. Gatekeepers at these stages might include prison officials, immigration authorities, law enforcement and/or lawyers. However, such settings (as well as the stress and anxiety generally experienced in the period after exit from trafficking) are not necessarily conducive to full and comfortable disclosure. Moreover, some respondents may not feel able to decline to be interviewed or may hope that participation will lead to a more positive outcome – for example, some assistance or reprieve in the deportation process. Here too there are ethical obligations for researchers in terms of providing information about assistance options abroad and/or at home.

Researching after trafficking. Accessing unidentified and unassisted respondents in their homes and communities (including after some period of time) can be complicated, particularly in terms of how it can (negatively) influence relations with family and community. There is, for example, the risk of “outing” people as trafficked to their families and communities, which can have serious implications in situations where discrimination and stigma of trafficked persons is commonplace. This type of sampling may be more viable in others settings (for example, where stigma related to prostitution is less and ⁄ or socially manageable) or for other forms of trafficking (for example, less stigmatised forms of exploitation like labour). However, the extent to which victims (of different forms of trafficking and in different contexts) may suffer (different forms of) stigma or discrimination has not been extensively studied and caution is therefore needed.

Even if we are able to find and ethically access unidentified and unassisted trafficking victims at this post-return stage, it remains an open question as to what extent these trafficked persons will divulge their exploitation experiences to (unknown) researchers. Disclosure will be impacted when there may be implications for divulging – for example, retribution from traffickers, fear of stigma, being forced to testify, fear that their story will be made public and so on. Equally, disclosure may increase when there are (at least perceived) benefits to divulging – for example, payment for participation, referral for services, helping others from suffering in the future and a chance to talk about their difficult experience. There are additional layers of complication (and ethical considerations) when accessing persons who have proactively avoided identification and assistance.

Why research with unidentified and unassisted victims matters

Understanding trafficking through the lens of unidentified and unassisted trafficked persons often provides a different picture than is commonly presented in trafficking research and discourse. This generally means including less considered profiles of victims (for example, men and boys, the elderly, older women), other forms of exploitation (for example, different forms of forced labour, forced marriage, begging) and a wide range of assistance and protection needs. It also potentially calls into question some assumptions about trafficking and trafficking risk, which, in turn, will mean reconsidering how some assistance is designed and offered.

Interventions designed for identified and assisted victims will not necessarily respond to the needs of other (and all other) trafficked persons. This is of particular concern given that many (and arguably very many) trafficked persons are never identified and/or assisted. Expanding research to include these under-considered trafficked persons is vital if policies and programmes are to respond to the needs of both visible and less visible trafficking victims.

Moving beyond the heavy reliance on research solely with assisted victims has real life implications for unidentified and unassisted trafficked persons and their families. Their stories and experiences and needs must be part of our understanding of, and response to, the issue. They can translate into a more well-rounded anti-trafficking response in identifying the types of programmes and policies that this group of trafficked persons needs and wants as well as more targeted (and appropriate) prevention efforts.

This post is adapted from “Another side of the story. Challenges in research with unidentified and unassisted trafficking victims”, In Sallie Yea and Pattana Kitiarsa (Eds) Human Trafficking in Asia: Forcing Issues and Framing Agendas. London: Routledge, prepared in the context of the NEXUS/IOM project: Taking stock and moving forward. Considering methods, ethics and approaches in trafficking research and data collection, funded by U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP).