Poverty and Human Trafficking: Myth-Busting

By Simon Butcher

Last week, the Institute for Trafficked, Exploited and Missing Persons (ITEMP) published a new report identifying poverty as the root cause of human trafficking.  “By finding the roots of the problem, we can begin to look for permanent solutions,” ITEMP Director of Operations Charles Moore said.

You can perhaps imagine the scene: the worldwide anti-trafficking movement sat together in a grand auditorium as the ‘root cause’ is announced. The lights go down, the room falls silent as the host opens the golden envelope, announcing… “And the root cause of human trafficking is….global poverty”.

There’s some polite clapping and some patting of backs, but the overwhelming feeling in the room is one of slight demoralization. “Well how are we meant to solve global poverty?” they ask each other. “So to stop trafficking we have to eliminate poverty first?” they whisper, disheartened. 

It goes without saying that tackling poverty is a massively important cause. But the good news is that combating trafficking does not require us to eradicate world poverty.

Myth number 1: “Poverty is the sole cause of human trafficking.”

Not only is blaming poverty alone for human trafficking disheartening, it’s also misleading and inaccurate. There may be a correlation between the two phenomena, and poverty almost certainly increases an individual’s vulnerability to trafficking, but so many other factors come into play too. To name but 5: the approach taken by law enforcement authorities to the issue; the legislative measures taken by national governments; global gender inequalities; the level of access to education; falling in love with the wrong guy… Most of these things can be shaped and influenced, and it’s up to us to do so. 

Myth number 2: “There’s not much we can do about such a huge issue.”

Yes, it’s a huge, global problem, but it’s also a local issue. Every case of trafficking starts in a community and ends in a community; every case of trafficking is preventable. The human trafficking industry is thriving because it is so low risk. Every one of us can do something to make the risk to the trafficker higher; to make it impossible for traffickers to hide themselves and their victims. ACT (Active Communities against Trafficking) is a worldwide network of groups tackling human trafficking by doing just that. You can get involved here.

Moreover, every one of us can do something to tackle the root causes of trafficking – and it doesn’t require you to eradicate world poverty. Through the Freedom Ticket For Life campaign, STOP THE TRAFFIK is supporting community groups in trafficking hotspots around the world. Together, we are increasing access to education, raising awareness of the dangers amongst the most vulnerable, and helping people build lives free from the risk of trafficking. Find out how you can join the Freedom Ticket For Life campaign here.  

So often, poverty is presented as a mammoth barrier standing in the way of stopping trafficking. It isn’t – there is no barrier – this is a winnable fight.

6 thoughts on “Poverty and Human Trafficking: Myth-Busting

  1. judy

    Poverty? Are they serious? Obviously, as you so rightly state it increases vulnerability but let’s get real – traffickers are in this for one reason MONEY. (Ask any Interpol officer fight trafficking.) Trafficking is ‘just a business’ and in order to sustain a business you require DEMAND. It is DEMAND that drives human trafficking. Imagine a 24hour period in a major city where (bizarrely) NO clients, not ONE pays for sex. The traffickers wouldn’t know what struck them. Reduce DEMAND = Reduce SLAVERY. But that is a huge, complex task. And some of us are trying to do exactly that.

    1. Hi Judy – you’re absolutely right that the human trafficking industry relies upon supply/demand dynamics as much as any other industry. Helping ‘consumers’ – (whether it’s consumers of sex, chocolate or anything else that could be tainted by trafficking) – understand that their choices can have a massive impact on the trafficking trade is so important. Great to hear about the work you’re doing!

  2. Sarah Eisele-Dyrli

    Thanks for this post! I wrote a post somewhat similar to this a couple of months ago – http://nomoreslaveryct.com/2010/11/19/can-anyone-be-a-slave/.

    In my mind, one thing that is helpful about thinking about human trafficking (slavery) is in terms of risk factors. It’s a public health issue in some ways, and looking at the correlates of trafficking makes it seem like slavery can be stopped. I agree with judy that slavery exists because of demand, but perhaps I’m too cynical to think that demand will ever cease. As she points out – it’s lucrative. But it is possible to educate and “empower” people so they do not become victims, while we also work to find effective ways to stop demand.

    I’ve sat in presentations and have watched people give up their hands in frustration because people say the ONLY way to stop slavery is to end demand. But I appreciate that you present the correlates in a way that make it seem like we can actually make a difference! That’s so empowering! Thank you!

    Sarah

    @NoMoreSlavery
    http://nomoreslaveryCT.com

  3. KEM

    I must say, I am surprised that this group would write poverty off with such ease. It may not be the case but, this is the tone I get from the reading. Upon reading, I get the sense of calling a starving man a thief. Words on a piece of paper are very moving for some. For a man without an education due to poverty, and a family that needs to be fed or medically treated due to poverty, laws telling him it is illegal for his 12 year old daughter to be sold or son to tap trees for rubber, are not as moving…Unless you wrap them around a stone and throw them at the man…Let them eat cake? I don’t like this approach…

    You mention education: It is a poverty issue (must be affordable and lack of education contributes to poverty)
    You mention legislation: Those are words between a man and his next meal. Corruption causes poverty. If a corrupt government has words on a legislative page, they will be less effective.
    Falling in love with the wrong guy: We know that majority of these cases are in fact due to abuse within the home. Many of these victims grow up in very poor living conditions. Many are trying to pay for something. Whether they illegal immigrants try to get away from poverty or youth acting out due to abuses from within poor living conditions, these are also rooted to poverty.
    You understand that we can work on a local level: I agree. I also agree that tackling poor living conditions is important on the local level.

    It is disheartening to see this rejection of one of the most important issues in dealing with human trafficking. I wonder if it is feared that people will abandon the anti-trafficking movement. I have personally made an attempt to realize poverty as a root cause and try to tackle both. But, I am offended to see that people would try to wash it out as an issue. To say there is whispering about ‘solving global poverty is very harmful to those in many developing regions. I have not thought of it this way. I am frustrated by this blog though. It is vital to deal with both issues. It is common sense that the connection is a very strong one.

    Maybe I should be glad that you have performed such high level myth busting! Yay, I can just go buy some fancy shoes and try to make the anti-trafficking ball with all those legislative power-houses…

    Nah, I will stay here and try to improve my local homeless shelter to possibly get at the issue of bad home environment that causes teen girls to do things they wouldn’t normally do…Try to continue the funding for projects that work with people who don’t have medicine or education funding to help prevent them from selling their children…Trying to reduce corruption within governments so that legislation will stick when it is in place…Try to continue the motivation for a more fair trade system that will allow children to go to school instead of tapping trees for rubber…Hmmm…I will also continue my effort to support groups getting children out of brothels…and the ones that see the need for an economically sustainable workforce once people are retrieved, so they don’t get washed back in…

    This blog does not impress me at all. I feel the need to be blunt. I was impressed with Stop the Traffik. This one is hard to digest. Poverty is a core issue…They both need to be resolved in order for either to be resolved…No way around that.

    1. Hi KEM – Maybe I should clarify the point I was trying to make with this blog post, because I think our standpoints are actually quite similar.
      Poverty is a core issue – I absolutely agree – you’re right to say there’s no way around that.
      In my post, I was trying to make the point that a report that suggests that poverty is the sole cause of human trafficking is misleading. It was definitely not intended to be a rejection of poverty as a factor – just an observation that it is not the only factor.
      The point I was making at the start of the blog was that I think for anti-trafficking campaigners and community groups to get the impression that if they’re not tackling poverty then they’re not making a difference is really disempowering.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment, KEM – I hope this alleviates your frustration!

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