New article: Does legalised prostitution generate more human trafficking?

There is growing concern about the effects of prostitution policy on the overall scale of human trafficking in the sense of sexual exploitation. Does legalised prostitution generate more human trafficking? More academic research is needed before this question can be answered, the Dutch Rapporteur concludes in her Ninth Report on Human Trafficking.

Scale of prostitution and human trafficking unknown

The exact scale of the prostitution sector in the Netherlands is unknown. At the moment, there are no reliable figures available for the total number of women and men working in prostitution. As a consequence, it is unclear how many of them work in the sector voluntarily and how many are forced. Evidently, a number of prostitutes are exploited, but because of the hidden nature of both human trafficking and prostitution, it is difficult to say how large this proportion is. There is a lack of reliable data on the total scale of human trafficking. Attempts to estimate the scale of human trafficking on a global scale have not resulted in a reliable estimate thus far. The lack of harmonised definitions of the phenomenon and the lack of uniformity in data collection and analysis impose barriers to comparative analyses between countries.

'Bad data are worse than no data'

In her Ninth Report the Dutch Rapporteur addresses the role of statistics in debates on the prostitution policy to be pursued. As regards the use of statistics for the development of policy, it is essential to be certain of the reliability and validity of the data. Figures are used to reinforce viewpoints and can form the basis for intensive policy measures. However, positions are occasionally taken on the basis of unverifiable, unreliable or inaccurate data. For example, estimates are sometimes taken from earlier studies to demonstrate the alarming scale of prostitution or human trafficking without any enquiry into how the original researchers arrived at their estimates. The Rapporteur stresses that policy should be based on reliable data (evidence-based policy making); decisions based on evidence-thin conclusions should be avoided.

Legalised prostitution in relation to human trafficking

The Rapporteur addresses some academic articles on the effect of legalised prostitution on (cross-border) human trafficking. Two recent examples are ‘Does legalised prostitution increase human trafficking?’ by Seo Young Cho, Axel Dreher and Eric Neumayer (2012) and ‘The law and economics of international sex slavery: prostitution laws and trafficking for sexual exploitation’ by Niklas Jakobsson and Andreas Kotsadam (2013). The authors of both articles reach the same conclusion: there are more human trafficking situations in countries where prostitution has been legalised.

The data and the research methods on which the authors base their conclusion are not (yet) complete and are insufficiently reliable to support the conclusions drawn or to provide a basis for policy. The Rapporteur concludes that it is not (yet) possible to give an answer to the question of the extent to which legalisation of prostitution leads to more human trafficking. The answer would require an analysis of the human trafficking that is visible compared with the invisible human trafficking and this calls for the collection of more reliable data – both quantitative and qualitative – concerning visible and invisible human trafficking. Research into the effect of the legalisation of prostitution is also complicated by the fact that the total scale of human trafficking in the sense of sexual exploitation is not solely dependent on policies towards prostitution. Such research would also have to encompass all other push-and-pull factors.

One component of an effective approach to combating human trafficking is to make human trafficking visible. First and foremost, that calls for a clearer picture of the nature and scale of the prostitution sector.

Read the full article here.