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Preventing Human Trafficking is All About Location, Location, Location

The abolition of the sex trades will only happen when countries eliminate (as opposed to relocate) demand for sex workers. 

Sweden’s anti-prostitution policies are again a topic of discussion, but now the attention has turned to human trafficking. While the number of street prostitutes has fallen in that country since the government made the purchasing of sex services illegal in 1999, the number of trafficked sex workers appears to have increased. Sweden defends the effectiveness of its policies arguing that the increase observed in trafficked sex workers is small relative to their neighbors Norway and Denmark. I suggested a few weeks ago that Swedish law has to take some responsibility for the increase in sex work beyond its borders. If that is true, and the sex trade has simply relocated, then there is an incentive for neighboring countries to get on the prostitution abolition band-wagon, if for no other reason but to minimize negative externality created by the Swedish laws.

According to the U.S. Department of State, in 2010 there were more than 12 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. Human trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar business where women and men are recruited in their countries of origin and relocated to another country to be sold on the sex trade. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that in 2006 trafficking victims in the United States were imported from 66 different countries. Germany has trafficking victims from 51 countries. Japan has between 40,000 and 50,000 women trafficked into their sex industry annually. The problem of human trafficking is literally worldwide, with the highest concentrations in South Asia and the Middle East.*

In 2000 the United Nations introduced the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. The protocol introduced three important dimensions for policy that aims to deal with human trafficking: Prosecution, Protection and Prevention (the 3P’s). These three dimensions can be broken down further to policies that are observable. So, for example, protection includes no punishment of victims, no imposition of self-identification in order to prove their status as a victim, assistance for legal proceedings, providing residential permits, basic services for housing, medical training, job training, assistance for rehabilitation and assistance for repatriation.

In a new paper, researchers have used this protocol to create an index for 177 different countries that measure overall anti-trafficking policies with a scale of one to five given for each of the 3P’s. If you want to see that index, country by country, you can access it on their website. They use this index to determine what makes a country complaint with the UN protocol and find that while good policy neighbors makes for good policy, trafficking victim receiving countries appear to exert little influence over policies in trafficking victim sending countries. 

The most likely explanation for this result (which, by the way, includes controls for other institutional variables like corruption and women’s rights) is that, like in the case with Sweden and Norway, stricter policies impose negative externalities on neighboring countries and trading partners. This exacerbates those neighboring countries’ trafficking problems, prompting them to impose stricter policies themselves. 

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For example, if you have two countries that share a land border or are separated by less than 150 miles of sea and one country increases the strictness of their anti-trafficking policies by one point on the index then in the following year the second country will tighten its own policy by 0.232 points. 

They also find evidence that countries learn from other countries with similar political views and countries that share similar cultural values. For example, if you have two countries that vote similarly on key issues at the UN General Assembly and one country increases the strictness of their anti-trafficking policies by one point then in the following year the second country will tighten its own policy by 0.536 points. 

So, Norway has followed Sweden in criminalizing the purchasing of sex services. Maybe they did this because they learned from Sweden’s example or maybe they did it because the inflow of Johns from Sweden left them little choice but to deal with the problem. But, as I said before, once neighboring countries start to impose the same policies there is no guarantee that all nations are going to see their sex trades decline. In fact, Sweden might very well lose the benefit, in terms of reduced sex work, it experienced by being the first mover in the region. The abolition of the sex trades will only happen when they eliminate (as opposed to relocate) demand for sex workers. 

* More information on the distribution of this particular form of slavery can be found in an interactive map at Free the Slaves.

**Dreher, Axel; Seo-Young Cho; and Eric Neumayer (2011). “The Spread of Anti-Trafficking Policies –Evidence from a New Index.”CESIFO Working Paper No. 3376.


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