In recent years, evidence-based practices have begun to drive social changes internationally. Policies are less frequently passed without accompanying evaluation. Prior to allocating limited resources, more public and private agencies are asking: “What works?” Yet, the answer to that question is rarely simple, especially when evaluating interventions for clandestine crimes like human trafficking.

Human trafficking involves the exploitation of adults through the use of force, fraud, coercion, or deception; or the exploitation of juveniles under the age of 18. Internationally, this crime typically involves the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls. Official estimates suggest that there are 12.3 million victims of human trafficking in the world, with as many as 300,000 nationally in the United States.

Given the relative novelty of the anti-trafficking movement, do we really know what works to address the crime of human trafficking? While governmental and non-governmental organizations influencing anti-trafficking legislation make robust claims on the prevalence of this crime, the efficacy of interventions, and the need for legislative changes, researchers point out that “inadequate data collection methods might result in descriptions that have little to do with reality”.

Internationally, since 2001 the U.S. State Department has annually ranked 187 countries on governmental efforts to address human trafficking. Each country is ranked by whether the nation is in compliance with the minimum standards outlined in the U.S.-based Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). Generally, the TVPA is interpreted to suggest that at a minimum each country should attempt to eliminate human trafficking by:

  • 1. Enacting laws to prohibit severe forms of trafficking in persons;
  • 2. Criminalizing human trafficking offenses with at least four years’ deprivation of liberty, or a more severe penalty;
  • 3. Vigorously prosecuting human trafficking;
  • 4. Proactively identifying victims of human trafficking;
  • 5. Funding government partnerships with NGOs to provide victims with access to primary health care, counseling, and shelter;
  • 6. Protecting victims through access to services and shelter without detention and with legal alternatives to deportation;
  • 7. Providing victims with legal and other assistance;
  • 8. Otherwise actively preventing human trafficking by curbing practices identified as contributing factors (U.S. State Department, 2013).

Ultimately, each country is ranked as: Tier 1, if it meets the TVPA’s minimum standards; Tier 2, if it does not meet the minimum standards, but is making significant strides; or Tier 3, if it does not meet the minimum standards and is not making significant efforts to be in compliance. Tier 3 countries are then subject to penalty from the U.S., with the removal of non-humanitarian or non-trade-related foreign assistance.

In the United States, anti-trafficking activist agencies like Polaris Project and Shared Hope International assert that they also know what works to address trafficking in persons. Since 2011 the Polaris Project has annually ranked each state on the adequacy of its effort to combat human trafficking. In order to be ranked favorably, states must have legislation with sex and labor trafficking provisions and a safe harbor law. The state must lower the burden of proof for sex trafficking of minors, provide victim assistance and assess civil damages to victims of human trafficking, and vacate convictions for sex trafficking victims. Additionally, the state should provide training for law enforcement and/or establish a human trafficking task force, include provisions for asset forfeiture and/or investigative tools, and post information on a human trafficking hotline. Ultimately, each state is raked by Polaris Project: as Tier 1 if it passed laws addressing at least seven of the aforementioned provisions, as Tier 2 if it passed laws addressing five or six, as Tier 3 if it passed laws addressing three or four, and as Tier 4 if it passed laws addressing two or fewer of the above provisions.

Similarly, Shared Hope International annually grades each state on anti-trafficking efforts based on whether it has passed legislation that incorporates 41 different provisions (2.5 points for each), addressing six anti-trafficking focus areas:

  • 1. Criminalization of domestic minor sex trafficking (10 points possible);
  • 2. Criminal provisions addressing demand (25 points possible);
  • 3. Criminal provisions for traffickers (15 points possible);
  • 4. Criminal provisions for facilitators (10 points possible);
  • 5. Protective provisions for the child victim (27.5 points possible);
  • 6. Criminal justice tools for investigation and prosecution (10 points possible) (Shared Hope International, 2013).

In 2013, each state had the potential to earn a total of 102.5 points, with 90-102.5 points receiving a grade of “A”, 80-89 “B”, 70-79 “C”, 60-69 “D”, and below 60 “F”.

It is important to understand that both U.S. states and countries around the world have actively amended anti-trafficking efforts based off of these three ranking schemes. However, it is unclear whether these legislative suggestions actually work to better address the crime of human trafficking. While the U.S. State Department, Polaris Project, and Shared Hope International claim that the aforementioned activities aid in better protecting victims and convicting traffickers, empirical research to validate these claims is lacking or nonexistent. In an international systematic review of empirical evaluations of prevention and intervention strategies for reducing trafficking in persons, Van der Laan, Smit, Busschers, and Aarten (2011) concluded that existing evaluations of trafficking interventions are mostly of poor quality, so the efficacy of these efforts is still relatively unknown.

In an attempt to provide international coverage, Van der Laan et. al. performed anti-trafficking intervention evaluation literature searches in nine languages. Although the search identified 20 evaluative studies that possibly met the eligibility criteria for inclusion, none of them used rigorous research methods, which employed quasi-experimental or experimental design. As such, the authors were unable to make any empirical conclusions on “what works” to combat sex trafficking.

Although methodologically limited, some of the research suggests that certain policies may be ineffective. For example, Hashash evaluated the efficacy of an education and advocacy campaign in Israel. The intervention involved “distributing information, providing training, publicizing reports, using media advocacy and giving lectures”. The study found no differences in awareness pre-test to post-test. This is important because awareness activities like these are currently being used by both governmental and non-governmental organizations to favorably or unfavorably evaluate countries and states on the ability to combat trafficking in persons. However, limited evidence suggests that these efforts may be ineffective.

In the wake of limited or non-existent research, anti-trafficking policies and interventions are being developed on the basis of “best practice” assumptions, which may be ineffective. Rigorous empirical research is strikingly absent from the anti-trafficking movement. This is problematic because limited resources should not be wasted on ineffective policies, practices, or interventions. Excluding researchers from this conversation compacts the problem. Without research it is impossible to truly evaluate the efficacy of anti-trafficking efforts. In conclusion, at present no one knows what actually works to combat this heinous crime.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, Ph.D. serves as Executive Director of The Justitia Institute (TJI), a research non-profit focused on issues related to human trafficking, immigration, and social justice. In addition to her position at TJI Kimberly also teaches in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at University of Maryland, College Park.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's March/April 2014 print edition.

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.