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Human Trafficking Center

Trafficking in Persons Report: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Jan 2015



By David Esarey, Human Trafficking Projects Manager

The U.S. State Department has released its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report each year since 2001. The TIP Report provides a narrative to assess both the presence of human trafficking in a country and the state’s actions to eliminate it. Though the report was designed to be a tool in the anti-trafficking movement, its effectiveness and objectivity have come under critique. Because of the report’s prominence and recognition, it’s worth assessing its merits and flaws so others may decide if the report holds value for their purposes. To do this, I will be examining the report’s strengths, weaknesses, and the criticisms that it is too politically charged.

The Good

One of the TIP Report’s greatest strengths is its broad scope. The report provides a country-by-country breakdown of trafficking that is updated every year. This provides for a level of comparative analysis across borders and time that is unmatched by other reports.

Going deeper, however, what has impressed me about the report has been the degree to which it has improved over time. The TIP Office has done remarkable work to improve both the number of counties included as well as the depth of each narrative. If you compare the 2001 report to the 2014 report, they look like entirely different documents. The narratives are longer, more detailed, and better organized. Instead of 82 country narratives in 2001, the most recent report has grown to include 198 countries, with the average narrative length growing six-fold.

A final improvement of the report is the inclusion of one particular country for evaluation: the United States. Until the 2010 report, the United States did not subject itself to scrutiny. In recent years, it has shown a greater willingness to hold itself to the same standards as the rest of the world.

The Bad

While the improvements of the TIP Report are promising, issues remain that need to be resolved. The most grievous problem is, without a doubt, its lack of any clear methodology. The 2014 TIP Report provides a methodology section that can only be labeled as such with great hesitation. In total it contains five sentences and no specific information on how the TIP Office collects its data. It lists the types of organizations from which it gets information and lists an email address used to submit reports. However, no information is given to indicate how (or if) these reports are vetted, verified, or weighed against other sources. In fact, the only specific information the methodology section gives are the dates marking the reporting period for that year’s report.

The problem with the exclusion of a thorough explanation of methodology is that organizations, researchers, and governments cannot trust an organization’s results unless they know how they got their data. The rest of the world is expected to take the TIP Office at its word and believe everything they publish is accurate. However, any other organization publishing research is expected to provide a detailed account of its process and methods so others can assess the validity of their results. Without this level of transparency, the TIP Office runs the risk of producing a report that is ignored or maligned.

The Ugly

One of the most common criticisms leveled against the TIP Report is that it exists to serve the political interests of the United States instead of legitimately seeking to address the problem of human trafficking. Some say the U.S. has set itself up as what Janie Chuang has termed a “global sheriff,” overseeing and judging the rest of the world rather than fostering the cooperation that will be required to combat trafficking effectively.

At the heart of this argument is the tier ranking system. In the TIP Report the U.S. grades each country on a scale of Tier 1 (the best) to Tier 3 (the worst). The tiers are intended to be benchmarks for countries’ anti-trafficking work, but the reality is these ranking are often based on considerations unrelated to human trafficking. According to Benjamin Skinner (in his book A Crime so Monstrous), tier rankings pass the desk of more than two dozen people, many if not most of whom do not work in the TIP Office. As a result, these rankings can be influenced at any level to reflect other U.S. policy interests.

The TIP Report is a valuable document that provides data unavailable anywhere else, but readers need to be aware of both its strengths and weaknesses. Over the years, the improvements made by the TIP Office have resulted in much more impressive and useful narratives. However, the lack of transparency and potential for political bias are weaknesses that undermine the legitimacy of the report as a whole. The TIP Office needs to address these issues so their work can better serve to support the global campaign against human trafficking.

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC.

Photo: Secretary Kerry Releases the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report. Via Creative Commons.


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2 Responses to “Trafficking in Persons Report: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

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    […] January of this year, I wrote a blog discussing some of the weaker aspects of the TIP Report. Much like the senators at the hearing, I […]

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