Unravelling the knot: Getting to the truth of human trafficking

May 4, 2021

When it comes to human trafficking, myths and misconceptions abound. In this article, Blue Dragon’s founder Michael Brosowski and Resources and Partnerships Leader Dr. Caitlin Wyndham delve into the reality of trafficking in Vietnam to ‘unravel the knot’, so we can find ways to end this heinous crime.

Human trafficking is a billion-dollar industry. Lurid stories and shocking statistics abound. 

But much of what we hear about human trafficking is little more than mythology. Anecdotes, action films, and social media content make up the vast body of knowledge that most people have on human trafficking, in lieu of hard data and factual explanations.

This presents a massive danger. Anecdotal evidence and individual stories can be helpful, but are nowhere near sufficient to guide our actions in response to slavery.

Equally, if we wait for comprehensive data before dealing with the problem, we may be waiting forever. Definitional differences, lack of understanding, under-reporting by some and over-reporting by others, all make it very hard to unravel this complex knot. 

So how can we move forward when there is so much holding us back? 

There is plenty that we do already know that should shape our thinking and responses. With over 15 years of rescuing victims and working with traffickers and vulnerable communities, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation has developed an in-depth understanding of the issue in Vietnam. Here we offer some key points that should guide our understanding about modern-day slavery, and thus our responses to it.

1.Its causes and solutions are multi-dimensional and dynamic.

While this may be stating the obvious, it’s tempting to take the simplistic approach of attributing trafficking to a single cause: gender inequality, or a lack of employment opportunities, or corruption. Each of these may be a contributing factor – or they may not. Many more factors also may be important: lack of access to regulated lending schemes or labour migration programs, weak social structures, or a lack of education among a remote population. We must take care to never attribute trafficking to a single cause, because doing so means we will never address the whole problem. 

It’s important, too, to recognize that the causes of trafficking differ by location. Even within a country, trafficking in one village may be influenced by very different factors than trafficking in another. This makes it hard for anti-trafficking practitioners to satisfy the demand for simple, scalable solutions, but the nuance is critical if we are to effectively end trafficking.

2.Gender is an important but deeply misunderstood factor. 

It’s very clear that more women and girls are trafficked than are men and boys. The Global Slavery Index estimates that 71% of all victims are female. So surely this means that gender is the primary factor in trafficking?

In reality, the situation is far more complex. Looking at all forms of trafficking, females are clearly over-represented. But when we start looking at different types of trafficking, the nuance becomes clearer. According to the ILO, women and girls make up an estimated 99% of the known victims in the sex industry and 84% of victims of forced marriages. However, considering labour trafficking, which makes up half of the estimated total victims, the difference is far less stark, with 58% of victims female and 42% male. 

We know, too, that males are being trafficked and sold for sexual purposes, and that this is grossly under-reported. Here in Vietnam, the sexual abuse of males was not clearly acknowledged as a crime under the Penal Code until 2016, when Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation worked with authorities to reform the law. Until then, boys were being openly traded in public places, online, and through a network of pimps, as well as being trafficked into labour exploitation. While this is now addressed in the law, it is still not normally viewed as trafficking. Because of this, the trafficking and exploitation of males do not feature in Vietnam’s annual data on human trafficking. For example, Blue Dragon has rescued over 200 boys from labour and sexual exploitation in Vietnam and neighbouring countries, but none has been recognized as a victim of trafficking in the official government statistics. 

Statistically, gender is not the most significant attribute contributing to vulnerability to human trafficking in Vietnam. Although Blue Dragon’s statistics indicate that 77% of victims are female, the more significant vulnerability is ethnicity, with both men and women from ethnic minority groups three times more likely to be a victim than the majority ‘Kinh’ population. 

Viewing human trafficking strictly as a gender issue can be helpful in some contexts, but it overlooks other factors which may be of greater significance and fails to acknowledge the severe under-reporting of the trafficking of males.

3.The reality of trafficking is very different to the mythology.

Much of what is ‘common knowledge’ about human trafficking is based on myths. Analysing the available data, as imperfect as it is, tells a very different story. 

Those movies about sophisticated, powerful, well-connected trafficking rings? In reality, 21% of traffickers in Vietnam are illiterate. A further 74% didn’t finish high school.

Stories of girls being sold for just a few dollars each? Yes, there are some isolated cases. But the average amount that a Vietnamese girl or woman is sold for is $1,746 USD. 

Heartbreaking tales of how most traffickers were once victims themselves? Blue Dragon’s analysis of 102 court cases indicates that only 2% of 236 traffickers were former victims.

These mythologies arise because we are all looking for simple answers. We want to reduce the horrifically complex and traumatic experience of human trafficking into something we can understand and deal with. The result can be a highly distorted view of the issue, which plays well on the big screen and in emotional social media posts, but doesn’t do justice to the girls, boys, women and men who have lived through the experience of human trafficking.

A call for clarity

The stereotypes of human trafficking that abound are not only unhelpful. They are damaging. By simplifying the issue and focusing on dramatic, pitiful anecdotes, we do victims of this crime a terrible disservice and we focus funding and interventions in the wrong areas. 

Human trafficking is a terrifying, hideous phenomenon. Blue Dragon has rescued and provided counselling and practical assistance for over 1,600 people from trafficking – including both sexual and labour slavery. We know with certainty from these 1,600 people, and dozens of cases of the for-profit sexual exploitation of boys, that human trafficking must be ended, and every effort must be made to protect victims and the vulnerable. 

But we must be led by evidence, as far as we can get it, and avoid the trap of simplicity that is so emotionally appealing, yet so dangerously wrong. Tying ourselves in knots of moral outrage over myths and stereotypes will not free 40 million people from exploitation and misery. But focusing on comprehensive facts and data to develop tailored, targeted solutions can. The reality of human trafficking should drive us to do all we can to end it, with no need for embellishment.

If you would like to contribute to the rescue and care of trafficked people, you can donate here. 

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