Background on Trafficking Risk Factors
What are the risk factors contributing to human trafficking that we should aim to reduce?
What makes a person or community vulnerable to human trafficking? Common assumptions are that poverty and a lack of education are primary factors, but evidence often proves otherwise. In different locales, different factors increase the risk of being trafficked. Evidence-based programming requires an understanding of the vulnerability factors, verified through research with individuals and communities at risk, to design appropriate interventions and achieve measurable positive impact in preventing trafficking and risky migration.
Many trafficking prevention programs broadly assume that, no matter the local context, the key vulnerability factors are poverty and lack of knowledge about human trafficking. That is, trafficking prevention interventions often move forward with poverty alleviation programs coupled with awareness raising, without first investigating whether the key drivers of human trafficking in the given area truly are household income or lack of understanding about trafficking and safe migration.
There have been many studies throughout various parts of Asia (and beyond) demonstrating that poverty, low education, and lack of understanding about human trafficking are not necessarily key contributing factors to vulnerability at all. For example, higher education among girls in Northern Thailand has been documented to increase risk of trafficking, since the high opportunity cost of being in school for so long increases the pressures and hopes that girls feel to earn good money and increase their family’s social status – leading to unsafe migration and trafficking to Bangkok, Malaysia, and Japan.
We must be careful with our assumptions lest our interventions be wrongly targeted. To date, the impact of most programs aiming to prevent and reduce human trafficking has been low and/or challenging to measure, with a few isolated exceptions. In reality, the attempt to measure real impact from trafficking prevention programs is rare. However, it is clear that many populations thought to be at risk have been saturated with knowledge about the risks of human trafficking by NGOs, government agencies, and UN programs, but yet thousands in these same awareness-raising areas are still trafficked every year. It is clearly more complicated in many local contexts than simply poverty and lack of knowledge, with clear implications for the effectiveness of poverty alleviation, scholarship, awareness raising, alternative livelihoods, and other prevention interventions.
In structural terms, economic disparities between areas, countries and regions constitute the major pull factor for migration. Migration in itself is not synonymous with trafficking, of course, and in fact is an important poverty alleviation strategy in itself. However, mismatches between immigration policies and labor market realities have created a large demand for irregular, unprotected migration, and a pool of people who are highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
As well as economic disparity, demographic factors are also leading to spatial differences in demand and supply. As their populations age, economically developed countries require migrant labor, while the increasing number of women desiring to maintain careers outside of the home will continue to increase the demand for foreign domestic labor. Differing sex ratios between neighboring countries and regions (for example, significantly more women than men in Vietnam, with the opposite in rural China) may continue to encourage an increase in cross-border marriages.
At points of origin, unsafe or desperate migration, possibly with a deceitful or exploitative recruiter, can be triggered by any number of factors: illness of a family member leading to a need for quick cash; boredom in the village and piqued interest in the urban life due to television; success stories (whether true or untrue) of returning migrants; inability to access citizenship; loss of land; other external shocks such as droughts or floods.
Ultimately, however, it is extremely important to keep in mind that human trafficking involves gross abuses of human rights, including physical and mental abuse, rape, forced drug use, deprivation of liberties, and sometimes even murder.
Human trafficking is not ‘caused’ by poverty, lack of education, lack of legal status, or any other vulnerability factor: human trafficking is caused by human traffickers – criminals who commit criminal acts against victims and vulnerable people.