Modern Slavery Requires Multiple Research-Based Approaches

New methods for estimating the number of victims and the types of human trafficking across the globe, such as these bonded brick-kiln workers in India, are producing more accurate data, a significant advance in an international effort to end modern-day slavery. | WBK Photography/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Modern slavery, or human trafficking, is multifaceted and requires a range of research-based methods to measure its reach and remove and rehabilitate its victims, according to a panel of experts at a Feb. 18 news briefing at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin.

“It’s a seemingly intractable problem,” said Paul Zador, senior statistician at survey research organization Westat and designer of a large-scale survey that has found that approximately 30% of laborers in several industries in India, particularly in the state of Tamil Nadu, are held in bonded labor – a common form of modern slavery in which workers are held in servitude to repay a debt.

Worldwide, an estimated 24.9 million people were held in forced labor – another type of modern slavery in which a person is held for commercial purposes and forced to provide labor, sex or goods – in 2017, said Davina Durgana, senior researcher at the Walk Free Foundation, an international human rights organization. Durgana identified six industries and fields where the risk of forced labor is particularly high: domestic including maids and other household help, sex, construction, manufacturing, agriculture and fishing.

An additional 15.4 million people are held in forced marriages, Durgana added.

Said Zador, “Well-funded research is needed to develop, document and evaluate humane anti-slavery interventions.”

Gathering statistics about victims of slavery and human trafficking presents a challenge, the panelists agreed. These populations – which include children and stateless people – “are really, really difficult to count,” Durgana said, so the Walk Free Foundation has partnered with the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration to supplement their surveys.

Such methods do not work in the developed world, Durgana said. Even the largest sample sizes of a survey “would generally not be sufficient to uncover slavery in developed countries where it is pushed further underground,” she said.

The estimation methods provide policymakers, advocates and service providers with critical information needed to better target prevention, law enforcement, rehabilitation, policymaking and funding. | Professional Images Photography

Instead, one method researchers use is the Multiple Systems Estimation, measuring modern slavery by cross-referencing existing data from multiple sources, such as health care provider and law enforcement records. Such methods have been used in Ireland, Romania, Serbia and the Netherlands and researchers are working to implement this analysis in Maryland, Georgia and Texas to understand how modern slavery manifests in the United States, Durgana said.

There are an estimated 313,000 victims of human trafficking in Texas, including approximately 79,000 minors who are victims of sex trafficking and approximately 234,000 adult victims of labor trafficking, said Matt Kammer-Kerwick, research scientist at the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Texas at Austin, citing a 2017 study by the university’s Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault.

“We can talk about the numbers,” but each number is a face, said Melissa I. M. Torres, director of the human trafficking research portfolio at IDVSA. “Those faces don’t really always look like what we think they look like. Trafficking happens in many forms. It’s a global issue that affects different populations in different ways.”

“There’s not going to be one response and one answer in addressing it,” Torres added.

Among the tactics used to respond to slavery is gathering data by leveraging innovative technologies. In the fishing industry, where human trafficking is a pronounced global problem, for instance, workers are extremely isolated, “not coming back to port for years at a time.” leading groups like the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery to use satellite imaging of the oceans to identify and track ships that never come to shore, said Durgana.

When it comes to rescue and rehabilitation, the victims’ diverse experiences require a broad range of interventions, Torres said. Someone whose wages had been withheld might be seeking legal resources for restitution, while others in different circumstances might require emergency shelter, family reunification assistance or mental health resources.

“We just need to expand greatly the amount of investment that’s needed for people to recover from these patterns of victimization,” said Kammer-Kerwick.

[Associated image: © ILO/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)]