To defeat human trafficking, we must first know its scale

Monique Villa and Matthew Friedman say the still uncoordinated global fight against modern-day slavery shows a failure to harness the power of using data to track and disable crime syndicates

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2015, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2015, 5:14pm

More people are being enslaved today that at any given time in history. All the specialists agree on this, although it is impossible to know the exact number of victims of this horrendous crime.

The Walk Free Foundation estimates there are nearly 36 million men, women and children held in modern-day slavery. The International Labour Organisation believes there are about 21 million people in forced labour – a number echoed by the US Department of State. But one of these figures is nearly half the other. Why is there such a wide discrepancy?

Slavery is an invisible crime. There are no chains, the injuries are psychological, and the victims walk among us, mostly unnoticed

Part of the problem lies with the definition of slavery. Should human trafficking be counted as forced labour alone or should it include forced prostitution and debt bondage? The more practical challenge is the lack of reliable data and a system to share it.

Today, slavery is an invisible crime. There are no chains, the injuries are psychological, and the victims walk among us, mostly unnoticed, trapped in illicit networks operating in the shadows. The clandestine nature of the industry masks its true scale. The ILO believes slavery to be worth some US$150 billion a year. This figure is disputed, with several non-governmental organisations calling it too low.

READ MORE: Hong Kong is the ‘destination, transit, and source’ of human trafficking

This constant clash over the figures highlights three things. First, we have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. Second, slavery is organised crime at its best. And third, our efforts to dismantle this scourge on humanity are totally disorganised, a drop in an ocean of corruption and greed.

The players are many. There are hundreds of NGOs engaged in the fight against human trafficking, mostly acting directly on the front lines. There are local, national and transnational law enforcement agencies working to take down trafficking networks. And then there are governments and institutions fighting the crime.

All these players hold key data, which is not shared, let alone harmonised. As a result, we are left in the dark over the real size and scope of modern-day slavery. Some activists believe all present estimates are conservative because they don’t tend to take into account people who were born into slavery and those who have never been registered at birth.

The inability to accurately measure the problem means it can be overlooked and therefore not receive adequate support. The numbers speak for themselves. According to Walk Free, OECD countries contribute only about US$120 million annually to combat modern slavery. The lack of accurate data and measures to track any progress in combating trafficking limits the international attention. NGOs say that, often, the lack of consistent data is used as a reason to stop the implementation of initiatives and funding.

READ MORE: Slavery at sea: human trafficking in the fishing industry exposed

Data is the answer. As our digital footprint increases, so does that of the criminal networks responsible for trafficking humans. Data is the ultimate weapon in the war against human trafficking, holding the dual power to both measure and help prosecute. To take full advantage of it, we need to act in partnership, bringing together government agencies, law enforcement, NGOs, foundations and the private sector. Who is better placed to find innovative and disruptive solutions to dismantle this lucrative criminal industry than business itself?

If corporations committed to rid their supply chains of forced labour, they would deliver the biggest blow possible to this criminal enterprise.

Data is at the centre of this fight. Let’s harness its full power and work together to put the slavery business out of business.

Monique Villa is CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and Matthew Friedman is CEO of the Mekong Club. “Using Data to Fight Slavery” is one of the panels at the Trust Women Conference, on November 17 and 18 in London