Traffickers and Trafficking Enterprises. Challenges in researching human traffickers and trafficking operations

This post originally appeared on July 31, 2015 at The Trafficking Research Project


Traffickers and Trafficking Enterprises. Challenges in researching human traffickers and trafficking operations.

TTRP has taken a reprieve – and there are changes underfoot! Until our next and final post, Rebecca Surtees, to whom we are immensely grateful for steadfastly supporting our mission, provides us with a final guest contribution to the blog.

This post is adapted from Traffickers and trafficking. Challenges in researching human traffickers and trafficking operations, a paper authored by NEXUS Institute within the framework of the NEXUS Institute and IOM Human Trafficking Research Series funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP). For more information on this topic and others relating to strategies to obtain and analyse better data for more impact, visit us and @NEXUSInstitute.

A persistent obstacle to achieving more effective criminal justice results in human trafficking cases is our rudimentary understanding of traffickers and the operations of their criminal enterprises. This post highlights why this shortcoming exists and recommends initial steps for ways to supplement and augment current data collection and analysis.

While much research exists about trafficking victims, far less is known about the behaviours, motivations and operations of the perpetrators of trafficking. A clearer picture of how traffickers operate can be used in the development of criminal justice and social welfare responses to human trafficking – informing policies, strategies and interventions. Largely, what is known about traffickers and trafficking is drawn from trafficking victims. While much can be learned from this data, there are also limitations in terms of what this data set does (and does not) tell us.

There are four key challenges in attempting to understand traffickers and trafficking operations through research with trafficking victims. These are:

  1. The impact of selection bias: which trafficked persons are interviewed (and what subgroups can reveal). Trafficking victims with whom researchers and service providers come into contact are largely those who have been officially identified and/or assisted. Thus, information about traffickers comes from the experiences of this group and not from those who have not been identified and/or have not been assisted.
  1. Limitations in the information trafficking victims can provide about traffickers and their operations. While victims may have some information about their exploiters and the trafficking process, they are unlikely to have a comprehensive understanding about traffickers and/or their operations. Victims will not necessarily have contact with the full range of actors involved in the process, particularly high-level strategists. As a consequence, trafficked persons are likely able to provide only certain types of limited information and are generally unfamiliar with the intricacies of the trafficking operation.
  1. The ability of victims to supply information about traffickers. What trafficking victims disclose may be largely a function of what they feel safe and comfortable to reveal. Some may fear reprisals from traffickers, or mistrust authorities. Others may wish only to put their trafficking experience behind them. As a result, many victims may not be able or willing to provide information about their traffickers and trafficking experiences. Victims may also be more open to talking about some individuals and actors involved in the trafficking process as opposed to others, which influences what data is available.
  1. Ethical issues related to some types of questions. Researchers must consider ethical issues in research with trafficked persons, not least the stress and difficulty of being interviewed about trafficking experiences and exploiters. When service providers collect information from trafficking victims they are assisting, there is also a blurring of the roles and boundaries between research and service provision, which can impact the data and undermine feelings of comfort and trust.

Nonetheless, recent studies suggest potentially fruitful entry points for research about traffickers and their operations, drawing on two distinct types of data:

  1. Criminal justice statistics, including police investigations and court documents. Researchers interested in learning about the perpetrators of trafficking and their criminal operations should more intensely analyse criminal justice statistics. Official crime statistics provide information in terms of the criminal justice system response to trafficking, including what is working well and what needs improvement. Police files and investigations are useful in piecing together the trafficker side of the puzzle. Court transcripts, where legally accessible, reveal information about the individuals involved (including descriptions of traffickers’ lives, motivations and actions) as well as individual cases and movement through the criminal justice system. A number of studies illustrate the depth and breadth of information that can be drawn from criminal justice data including: Another Delivery from Tashkent, Understanding human trafficking: Development of typologies of traffickers, Women who traffic women: the role of women in human trafficking networks – Dutch cases, The organisation of human trafficking. A study of criminal involvement in sexual exploitation in Sweden, Finland and Estonia and Analysis of Some Highly-Structured Networks of Human Smuggling and Trafficking from Albania and Bulgaria to Belgium.

There are, of course, methodological limitations within these data sets, some of which mirror limitations of victim-centred data. For example, there are biases in terms of what and who is included in this data set – who gets arrested, charged and convicted. Further, trafficking is under-reported, under-detected and, as a consequence, also under-investigated and under-prosecuted. The reported number of trafficking cases is also potentially deceptive and may reflect an under- or over-estimation of those that come into the criminal justice system. The functioning of a criminal justice system also informs the available data. Different information gathering tools, variable skills of criminal justice practitioners, and the legal and policy framework can all play significant roles in what data is generated and what this data reveals. Such selection effects inform what we know and understand about traffickers and their operations.

  1. Primary research with traffickers. Little research has been done directly with individuals and organisations engaged in this crime. However, primary research can reveal much about who traffickers are in different settings and markets; their roles and levels of engagement; how trafficking takes place; how it differs according to location, destination and form of exploitation; traffickers’ motivations and their relationships to the persons they exploit; how human trafficking operations work within the broader market; and trafficker perceptions and feelings about their “work”. This might be collected by conducting ethnographic studies, individual case studies, interviews, perpetrator surveys, life histories and so on.

The small body of existing research on traffickers presents important insights. Not infrequently, it begins to reveal a picture that differs, at least in part, from that based on information from trafficking victims, law enforcement, service providers and other anti-trafficking professionals. For example, a number of studies describe how traffickers perceive their role in trafficking operations – for example as facilitators in the migration process or business persons helping out prospective migrants. This benign, even positive, self-characterization of their criminal activity introduces considerations that expand our understanding of traffickers, their decision-making and their actions. See for example, Techniques of neutralizing the trafficking of women. A case study of an active trafficker in Greece. Others focus on the trafficking operations, at different levels and involvement of traffickers, including Sex trafficking: an exploratory study interviewing traffickers, From Victims to Victimizers: Interviews with 25 Ex-pimps in Chicago, A report on trafficking in women and children in India and Organised immigration crime: a post-conviction study. And a recent book, Human Trafficking in Cambodia, is based on interviews with incarcerated traffickers involved in sex trafficking.

Research with traffickers is difficult and complex. Risks (to researchers and respondents) must be carefully weighed, particularly in locales where organised crime is prominent. Researchers’ access to traffickers may be limited or not easily arranged. Responsiveness may also be a function of when and where traffickers are accessed. Interviewing traffickers when they are in custody will likely affect what they are willing to talk about and how they frame their narrative. Careful thought is needed as to what information one collects from traffickers as well as in what context and why.

There are also ethical considerations to consider when researching traffickers, in terms of holding information that may help identify victims or observing, and possibly even inadvertently participating in, the trafficking process. Nonetheless, there are opportunities for collecting information directly from persons involved in various parts of the trafficking process. Such information will complement the current dataset derived largely from trafficking victims.

Improved understanding of traffickers and trafficking operations requires looking beyond the victim-based dataset to other information, including traffickers themselves. Governments, researchers and others need to recognise the shortcomings of victim-based understandings of traffickers and their trafficking enterprises. Relying primarily on information provided by trafficking victims to study traffickers results in substantial biases and selection effects influencing our knowledge of traffickers and trafficking operations. It also contributes to a “black and white” picture of trafficking victims and traffickers, when the reality is often far more complex. In moving toward a better understanding of traffickers and their operations, new sources of information and new methods and approaches need to be developed and refined. This need is more than methodological. It is also an issue of perspective in which an understanding and explanation of trafficking is derived largely (and sometimes exclusively) by considering the behaviours, actions and backgrounds of trafficking victims to the exclusion of the perpetrators of the crime whose actions and motivations should be the primary concern if combating trafficking is our objective.