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Human Trafficking Center

Lessons from International Human Trafficking Exchanges


Jan 2015



By Oliver Kaplan, HTC Associate Director 

The Human Trafficking Center at the Korbel School recently hosted two delegations of international human trafficking officials (as we have done for several years now). With the support of WorldDenver and the U.S. State Department, we met with representatives from countries as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Jordan, and the Marshall Islands. We had the opportunity to share our center’s activities with the visitors and also dialogue with them about the conditions in their countries and hear their questions and concerns about human trafficking.

The discussions yielded several interesting insights:

Contradictions in government policies

Some countries have limited rights for and policies in support of women and are not particularly welcoming to minorities and migrants. Yet how can these same countries also have government units that are dedicated to fighting human trafficking? This puzzle came up in a conversation with a visitor from a Muslim country. The visitor explained that while the government has incentives to combat crime and protect individuals who are subject to trafficking, it is also wary of moving too quickly on promoting social rights (i.e., ahead of society’s preferences) for fear of backlash.

As I thought about it, this conservative tendency paralleled how the U.S. Supreme Court often rules affirmatively on progressive social issues decades after the efforts of social movements to raise awareness (e.g., racial integration, abortion, gay marriage, etc.). I wondered, however, whether the establishment of the government’s anti-trafficking office was simply a capitulation to U.S. government pressure or perhaps only an example of institutional isomorphism (mimicry). I also wondered whether the visitor’s justification for the slow pace of women’s rights progress was a fair characterization of that country’s social and political situation, or more an excuse on the part of the government to delay liberalization.

What is clear is that governments and bureaucracies are complex entities, even (especially?) in the realm of human trafficking. The U.S. can’t simply be painted with a broad brush either as (always) coming down on the wrong side of human rights issues or as a universally consistent promoter of rights. Neither can we easily categorize countries that only partially embrace human rights but are working to improve their anti-trafficking responses.

Good anti-trafficking people, tough neighborhoods

There are passionate officials and advocates even in countries that are ranked on the Tier 2 Watch List and Tier 3 by the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. There can be a tendency to look upon this all-too-long list of such stagnating countries with despair. But our visitors demonstrated that despair is not warranted. We should be thankful for these passionate individuals and continue to find ways to support them in their efforts to promote change from the inside.

Advocates need information

Government officials and advocates trying to promote change in their home countries need data. While the TIP tier rankings may provide a blunt signal about policy progress and the TIP report narratives and other sources may collect some general insights about the trafficking challenges and responses of particular countries, additional, basic information can also be extremely helpful. Comparative information contrasting differences across countries, especially if it is rigorous (and perhaps quantitative) and well-presented, can help officials and advocates make their case to other government administrators and elected officials in their countries.

Even basic research is helpful

Among the international visitors there was enthusiasm even for basic research. For instance, one country was looking at enacting an improved but still basic piece of anti-trafficking legislation but had little information about whether they were on the right track and incorporating the best legal practices. Given that there is so little research on human trafficking in many countries, improvements in research don’t have to be highly sophisticated to be a contribution. Even comparative analyses of best practices of laws and policies that are tailored to the contexts of particular countries can be useful.

Our human trafficking exchanges have been very thought-provoking and really are two-way streets. But the energy for change generated through the exchanges is only enduring if there is follow-through and if lessons from these interactions are crystallized, diffused, and internalized. So far, the foreign officials and advocates have come and gone with little follow up (we are also guilty as charged on this count). Hopefully continued interactions and information sharing in future exchanges will contribute to sustained anti-trafficking progress.



One Response to “Lessons from International Human Trafficking Exchanges”

  1. Karen de Bartolomé, Ex Dir, WorldDenver

    Thanks for this blog, Oliver. I know that our international visitor groups really value their exchange of information about human rights with your center. Thank you for sharing your time and insights with these key visitors to Denver and with the rest of us!!


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