Calculating the Truth in Human Trafficking

Written by: Dr. T.M. Steinfatt[1]

People gain interest in social issues in various ways. My interest in numbers of trafficking victims began in 1988 during research on health communication and AIDS in Thailand. These HIV/AIDS studies resulted in the book Working at the Bar, a detailed study of the beliefs and behavior of Thai sex workers.[2] In the late 1980s an estimate began circulating in Bangkok that 800,000 children under 18 were working in the Thai sex industry. It originated in print from a single individual employed in Bangkok by the Children’s Rights Protection Center (CRPC) who stated that of 2,000,000 Thai sex workers, 800,000 were children. A Bangkok Post editorial of January 17, 1989, questioned the basis for the estimate, joined by several Thai language media outlets. “Estimate” has two distinctly different meanings in English.

Empirical estimates are based on observed data and can usually be checked for accuracy. But estimate can also mean a guesstimate, a wild guess, as in estimating that the moon is made of green cheese. Many people, including the general public and many of those who write for and edit Western and international media sources, regularly fail to distinguish between the two. The 800,000 children “estimate” was taken essentially as fact in much of the media, and repeatedly publicized to billions of people across the globe. Simple repetition of the claim, with one media outlet quoting another as the source and then being quoted itself as the source, led to belief in and presumed credibility of the claim, severely damaging Thailand’s international reputation.

As an example in 2001, large numbers of sex trafficking victims were said to exist in Cambodia. The statement, presented jointly by several Cambodian NGOs at the 2001 Second World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation Of Children in Yokohama, Japan, claimed the existence of 80,000–100,000 trafficked women and children per year in Cambodia, with “10,000–15,000 child prostitutes” in Phnom Penh alone.[3] In comparing these numbers with worldwide estimates it seemed unlikely that Cambodia could have 80,000–100,000 of the 700,000 such persons estimated to exist by the US State Department’s first Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.[4] This would amount to 11–14% of the estimated 700,000 of the world’s cross-border international trafficking total within about 00.194% of the total world population. The most recent TIP Report was released in June 2011.[5]

Numerous other sex trafficking reports on Cambodia cited similar figures at that time. For example, in 2001 the Child Rights Foundation of Cambodia under the heading of “Trends in Sexual Slavery” reported the number of trafficked women and children as “17,000 in Phnom Penh, 30% under 18 years old, 80,000–100,000 nationwide.”[6] Many NGO and media reports published throughout the past decade quote the 80,000–100,000 numbers. Those few providing a reference source for these numbers cite one of those mentioned above, often.[7]

Most current published estimates of the numbers of sex workers, under-aged workers, and trafficked women and children in Cambodia cannot be relied upon. In following the references for the source of the 80,000 to 100,000 figures back to the earliest dated source[8] no study or empirical data in any form can be located to support the number. As with the false claim of 800,000 child sex workers in Bangkok, the presumed propaganda value of large trafficking numbers may be at work.[9] This author is forced to conclude that these 80,000–100,000 numbers are simply bogus, that they were fabricated at some point by someone, and the bogus numbers were simply reprinted, circularly citing other such reprints as the source.

These unsupported estimates of trafficking numbers in Cambodia led to our research there beginning in the summer of 2002 and our first paper.  A Fulbright to Cambodia from January to August of 2003, an extension of that Fulbright, and a research grant from USAID led to additional research and our second empirical paper.  In early 2007, UNIAP/UNESCO in Bangkok announced a competition to determine best methods of measuring human trafficking. My methods proposal received the top award in the UNIAP/UNESCO final competition for best methods of measuring human trafficking, held in Bangkok in November 2007. Data collection for that research, supported by a United Nations grant, began in May 2008 and ended that December, with the final report published by UNIAP/UNESCO in January 2011.  Those studies provide numbers concerning sex trafficking in Cambodia only.

They do not provide numbers representing all forms of trafficking victims. Abuse of female domestic laborers and spousal abuse victims are not included in these numbers, nor are any of the persons trafficked for maritime labor, for begging, for factory labor, or for any male trafficking victims. A 32 point detailed theory and rationale for the methods used in our studies to obtain data on sexual trafficking may be found in our 2011 UNIAP Report. 

Empirical evidence of the size and location of sex trafficking can be obtained through observational research. That evidence indicates sizeable numbers of victims, but substantially smaller numbers than are commonly spread as rumors and propaganda. The numbers of sex workers and of those trafficked is several levels of magnitude smaller than much NGO propaganda usually suggests. The solution is not to promulgate and propagate fake numbers, but to learn to locate and talk with those who are oppressed, listen to what they want and will accept, and to consider carefully both the effect of often brutal interventions on those persons’ lives, and the likely consequences for the returning workers who escaped the raids in terms of future police actions against them and their workplaces.

Understanding the number of persons trafficked in areas targeted for intervention is a requirement in reducing that number by a substantial amount. If numbers of trafficked persons are not known, no accurate measure of the efficacy or of possible negative effects of specific individual anti-trafficking interventions can be known. Obtaining accurate counts of trafficking victims in specific locales and at specific points in time allows evaluation of effectiveness of any anti-trafficking measure applied there. Such numbers create the potential to judge whether trafficking is increasing or decreasing, where, and by about how much, through comparison with later counts. Such data allows tentative inferences based on empirical methods concerning the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of trafficking approaches applied or not applied in the interim. If one does not know the trafficking numbers then there is no good basis for judging effectiveness of interventions. It is not sufficient to know that a particular intervention resulted in a number of captured traffickers and a listed number of trafficked women and children removed to the care of an NGO.

The problem of human trafficking cannot be effectively addressed unless we understand its actual size and which remedies can effectively reduce it. Accurate knowledge of the size and extent of trafficking are needed in order to plan and implement a practical and effective anti-trafficking strategy. Both overestimates and underestimates of the number of victims will result in the failure to allocate resources efficiently, and they may result in the ultimate failure of many anti-trafficking interventions. Overestimates of trafficking numbers may produce prevention and intervention programs that are overly extensive an in the wrong locations, wasting funds provided for anti-trafficking efforts. If guessed numerical estimates are given credence, and the guesses are kept high for funding reasons following an intervention, then an intervention that was effective may be branded as ineffective. Some strong anti-trafficking programs may subsequently be discarded due directly to inaccurate guessed numerical estimates. The effectiveness of interventions cannot be understood accurately without grounded empirical evidence of their effect, whether positive, negative, or neutral. It is important to understand how such guessed estimates appear in the public record in order to consider the validity of such numbers if and when they appear.


[1] Professor at the School of Communication at the University of Miami (Fl). He is also a Fullbright Scholar. For a more complete reading of Professor Steinfatt’s research see “Measuring the Number of Trafficked Women in Cambodia: 2002” Globalization Research Center, University of Hawaii-Manoa (November 13-15,2002). “Measuring the Extent of Sex Trafficking in Cambodia – 2008, SIREN Trafficking Estimates, UNIAP, (January 2011). “Measuring the Number of Trafficked Women and Children in Cambodia: A Direct Observation Field Study” (October 5, 2003).  “Sex Trafficking in Cambodia: Fabricated Numbers versus Empirical Evidence” Crime Law Soc Change (October 28, 2011 online).  He can be reached at: tms@miami.edu
[2] Steinfatt, T. M. (2002). Working at the bar: sex work and health communication in Thailand. Westport: Greenwood Press.
[3] NGO Statement. (2001). NGO Statement to the 2001 Consultative Group Meeting On Cambodia. Available at: http://www.bigpond.com.kh/users/ngoforum/cg2001/child.htm
[4] U.S. Department of State. (2001). Trafficking in Persons Report 2001. Available at: http://www.state. gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2001/index.htm
[5] U.S. Department of State. (2011). Trafficking in Persons Report 2011. Available at: http://www.state. gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2011/index.htm
[6] CRF. (2001). CAMBODIA: after the first world congress against commercial sexual exploitation of children: contribution to the second world congress in Yokohama, Japan. Phnom Penh: Child Rights Foundation (December). P.14
[7] CRF. (2001). CAMBODIA: after the first world congress against commercial sexual exploitation of children: contribution to the second world congress in Yokohama, Japan. Phnom Penh: Child Rights Foundation (December).
[8] Sophea, M. (1998). Notes of presentation made by Mr. Mar Sophea, National Program Coordinator of IPEC for Cambodia, in, the workshop on Combating the Trafficking of Children and their Exploitation in Prostitution and other forms of Child Labor in Mekong Basin Countries, 31st January 1998, Bangkok. Phnom Penh: ILO/IPEC.

[9] Steinfatt, T. M., (2006). Trafficking, Politics, and Propaganda. Encyclopedia Entry in M. Ditmore (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, vol. 2. Greenwood Press, pp. 494–498.
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