Trafficking: No Good Numbers

An information void dooms international efforts to put a stop to the cross-border business of prostitution and forced labor

News | Michelle Falkenbach | November 2010

It’s hard to get people’s attention on the issues of Human Trafficking, noted Evelyn Probst, Coordinator of the Austrian Anti-Trafficking Organization, LEFO-IBF.

So it seemed particularly frustrating when the room set up for the press conference at Vienna’s Palais Epstein on the Dr. Karl Renner Ring, Oct. 21, was still nearly empty just minutes before 10:00 on day of the event. And by the time it began, around 10:15, only 12 of the 30 chairs were filled. And out of those 12, only one of them was a man.  Perhaps it was because of competition from to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s goodwill ambassador, actor Nicolas Cage, speaking about victims of organized crime at the same time across town.

This event was a lot less sexy: a global review of evaluation in anti- trafficking initiatives. People were "Feeling Good About Feeling Bad," the study said. It was ironic, and discouraging.

The United Nations currently estimates that 2.5 million people from 127 different countries worldwide are being trafficked, which accrues to a global market of $42.5 billion. According to a report by the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), "the most common destinations for victims of human trafficking are Thailand, Japan, Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the United States and the major sources of trafficked persons include Thailand, China, Nigeria, Albania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine."

The press conference’s main topic was generating awareness and support from "people," more importantly from governments, in order to be better able to involve trafficked people in the development and evaluation of anti-trafficking initiatives. In fact, the UN High Commissioner has stated that, "the lack of progress in anti-trafficking is largely due to inadequate data and insufficient knowledge of the scope or scale of the problem and how it should be tackled."

Anti-trafficking organizations worldwide have failed to assess their effectiveness in a meaningful way, especially when it comes to consulting trafficked persons on their experiences with anti-trafficking programs.

"Are those claiming to fight trafficking just wasting time ‘feeling good about feeling bad?’" asked the GAATW (Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women). In the study of 100 anti-trafficking organizations worldwide released Oct. 22., it was noted that "Most efforts to fight human trafficking are founded on hearsay rather than objective research, making failure a certainty."

Panelist Bandana Pattanaik, the international coordinator of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, made a strong plea for more focus on results:

"The greatest problem we face today is [one of the] critical gaps… between policy and impact," she said.  The first involves assessment: "Are the steps we are taking helping?  Are we moving in the right direction?  These questions must be answered so that we know that what we are doing is actually useful."

The second gap is in methodology:  "Our evaluations, thus far, have not included the ‘target’ group," she pointed out, "meaning we have not evaluated the actual people that have been affected by human trafficking."

Former Austrian Women’s Minister and expert on trafficking Dr. Helga Konrad spoke very passionately about finding more effective ways to draw attention to the problem: "What impact do awareness raising campaigns have in each country?" she exhorted. So far, organizations have provided aid, but have little idea of the impact their efforts are having, what she described as "very disheartening" for everyone involved,

"We, as campaigners, or NGOs, do not know what we are actually accomplishing," she said. This "responsibility lies in the hands of each of the individual country’s governments. Only they can conduct and fund the necessary independent evaluations."

In Austria, the problem is largely lack of support, said LEFÖ-IBF Coordinator Probst.

"The problem we are having… is that there is too little interest and the financial backing keeps getting cut," she said.  It’s important that we not only have a "care system," but rather focus on "creating a social presence.  There have to be penalties for those responsible and protection for those that fall victim to this international crime."

Then the floor was turned over to the press for questions.  Silence, lasting for a good minute.

"Apparently everything was clear?" the moderator stated jokingly.

Finally a hand went up. "It was stated that ‘the responsibility lies in the hands of the government,’" asked a reporter, "so, how do ‘you’ plan to gain the influence of a government so apparently ‘disinterested and financially incapable’?"

Konrad jumped at the question. "There are organized events where campaigners and NGO’s can speak and negotiate with government officials," she said, although no dates or further information were given.

Efforts have also been made to train police officers in how to handle trafficking cases, Probst said, but these "had to be abandoned due to lack of financing."  Conferences and meetings had also been planned, but most were cancelled due to lack of interest.  "We continuously try to involve the government and will not give up," she said.

Konrad concluded with a plea to the media: "We also look to you, members of the press, to spread the word so that we can get the support necessary to make this idea work."

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