The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Human Trafficking or Digits Smuggling?

Posted in NTS Plus by NTSblog on February 28, 2011

Recent developments in the Arab world have attracted tremendous attention from international media. While an army of experts and journalists seem very puzzled about the basic reasons, nature and meaning of the revolts, they all express a striking confidence in describing the events using numbers (concerning anything from the size of Cairo crowd to the numbers of Libyan refugees). This reminds us that the world today is obsessed with, and dependent on, quantification. As Peter Andreas observes, “In practical political terms, if something is not measured it does not exist, if it is not counted it does not count.” Indeed, many people seem to unconsciously assume that the numbers on TV and in newspapers are a product of omniscient experts and even the most fantastic figures generate more credibility than lack of any.

There are however two major problems with our reliance on numbers. First of all, when figures in themselves gain importance, it is easy to forget about their relevance, usefulness and context in which they should be placed. Second of all, we can become easily manipulated by inflated, deflated, or plainly false statistics. This is especially true in the case of phenomena that are particularly difficult to quantify. One such phenomenon is human trafficking.

Journalists, politicians, activists and members of respectable international organizations constantly tell us about the thousands (or even millions) of people that each year become victims of evil traffickers. For instance, both in 2006 and 2010 claims were made that 40,000 women would be trafficked to the World Cups in order to satisfy the desires of profligate football fans.

What these numbers have in common is that they rarely have identifiable sources or transparent methodologies behind them. Indeed, studies conducted after the World Cups revealed that the numbers of trafficked women were pulled out of thin air and had no reflection in the reality. Similarly, the NGOs’ estimates on the numbers of trafficking victims in places like Britain seem to be made up. Even the figures presented by such bodies as the UN are questioned and called “dubious”.

So why do the large figures continue to be produced? First of all, NGO activists, law enforcement officials and politicians understand the best way to secure more power and resources is to present scary, huge numbers. Second of all, no constituency exists for keeping the numbers accurate. Finally, it is because big numbers sell well in the media.

One could argue, that since we will never be able to get any accurate numbers of human trafficking victims, we shouldn’t focus too much on the specific figures, but instead just try to tackle the problem. But I believe that when we ignore the ambiguity of statistics on human trafficking, we also choose to ignore the more and more apparent ambiguity of the very concept of human trafficking.  Let’s not forget that by uncritically accepting various figures, we also uncritically accept the very existence of the problem in the form described by their authors.


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