Home Human Trafficking Human Trafficking and the Lack of Sufficient Data

Human Trafficking and the Lack of Sufficient Data


By Elizabeth Cook, faculty member, International Relations at American Public University

An estimated 27 million people are currently enslaved around the world in either the forced labor or sex trade (Bales, 2012). This is a truly disturbing statistic that fosters discourse about why it is wrong and must be stopped. Morality, migration and crime all provide a basis for arguing against human trafficking (Milivojevic and Pickering, 2013). The United Nations, the United States, the European Union and several other nations have taken up the call-to-action and enacted policies designed to address this problem. In this country, several states have anti-trafficking initiatives. So we’re on it. We’ve got it under control, right?

No, not really. The basic and most fundamental problem with human trafficking stems from the fact that we know exceedingly little about it (Milivojevic and Pickering, 2013; Parrenas, Hwang, and Lee, 2012; Zhang, 2012). In the annual Trafficking in Persons Report published by the US Department of State, the sources supporting the conclusions remain as hidden as the problem (Zhang, 2012). Other materials like news reports rarely explain their sources or method for creating estimates (Zhang, 2012). Estimates regarding the number of people enslaved or trafficked around the world like the ones presented above aren’t underwritten by solid methodologies and sources (Parrenas, Hwang, and Lee, 2012).

Why doesn’t better information exist?

Studying hidden aspects of society is particularly challenging. In this way, human trafficking mirrors the illegal drug trade with the major difference that we’ve had decades to study that phenomenon. Time is certainly a factor for understanding a new phenomenon and establishing a body of scholarship on it. Apparently, we haven’t yet had enough time to study human trafficking the way we need to.

It is reasonable to expect the early stages of a new phenomenon to lack the body of scholarship found on topics that have been studied for several years or even decades. But it is time for more rigorous study to take place (Zhang, 2012). The calls-to-action have created good results and interest in human trafficking is high. Now it needs to be underwritten by serious scholarship so that it can continue to develop (Zhang, 2012).

This isn’t to say that human trafficking is overblown, that calls-to-action were premature, or that efforts taken so far are unnecessary. Going with what we had was enough to get the ball rolling and raise awareness that a problem exists. Really, the only implication is that we can’t go on this way forever (Zhang 2012).

At some point, we have to dig deeper and find ways to study human trafficking. That time is now.

About the Author: Elizabeth Cook is an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations at American Public University.  She has a bachelor’s degree in Human Services from Thomas Edison State College, a master’s degree in International Relations from Troy University and she is currently pursuing a PhD at Walden University in Public Policy and Administration with a concentration in Homeland Security Policy. She is ABD and working on her dissertation on human trafficking.


Bales, Kevin. 2012. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley, Calif; London: University of California Press;

Milivojevic, Sanja, and Sharon Pickering. 2013. “Trafficking in People, 20 Years on: Sex, Migration and Crime in the Global Anti-Trafficking Discourse and the Rise of the ‘global Trafficking Complex.’” Current Issues in Criminal Justice 25 (2): 585–604.

Parrenas, Rhacel, Maria Hwang, and Heather Lee. 2012. “What Is Human Trafficking? A Review Essay.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 13 (4): 1015–29.

Zhang, Sheldon. 2012. “Measuring Labor Trafficking: A Research Note.” Crime, Law and Social Change 58: 469–82.



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