Counting the uncountable: Constructing trafficking through measurement

Sally Engle Merry

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    Introduction What is trafficking? Who will decide? And what difference does it make? Anti-trafficking projects and debates continually confront the difficulty of defining these questions and whether and how much trafficking differs from closely related activities such as labor smuggling, voluntary prostitution, debt bondage, child marriage, child soldiering, and forced labor. The creation of a social movement requires quantification in order to show the size and scope of the problem, so national and global leaders have struggled to develop rough estimates of the number of victims and even the costs of trafficking. Yet, providing accurate numbers has proved extremely difficult and firm data is elusive for reasons that range from the definitional ambiguity in the law of what constitutes trafficking to the sheer diversity of transnational migration patterns. There are several obstacles to accurate quantification of trafficking. First, because the activity itself is illegal, those engaged in it seek to conceal the activity. It is not readily recorded in administrative systems, except when victims are helped by police or criminal justice systems, while survey techniques are expensive and difficult when the victims are hidden. Consequently, data collection often relies on media reports, small-scale studies by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), states, or international organizations. Second, although the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, 2000 (Trafficking Protocol), several regional and International Labour Organization (ILO) protocols, and the US State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Reports have contributed to developing a clearer definition of trafficking, murkiness remains. The most widely accepted definition of trafficking is in the Trafficking Protocol, also called the Palermo Protocol, developed in 2000 as an optional protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. It went into force in 2003 and by 2015 was widely ratified, with 169 state parties. It says: “Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation (UN 2000).

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationRevisiting the Law and Governance of Trafficking, Forced Labor and Modern Slavery
    PublisherCambridge University Press
    Number of pages32
    ISBN (Electronic)9781316675809
    ISBN (Print)9781107160545
    StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Social Sciences


    Dive into the research topics of 'Counting the uncountable: Constructing trafficking through measurement'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this