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Getting to Good Human Trafficking Data: Assessing the Landscape in Southeast Asia and Promising Practices from ASEAN Governments and Civil Society

Networked globe cover image for Getting to Good Human Trafficking Data policy report.
Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Executive Summary:

Over the past two decades, tremendous progress has been made in raising awareness of human trafficking, enhancing relevant legal norms, and ensuring more robust care for survivors. Yet, the anti-trafficking movement continues to struggle to evaluate the quality of approaches, interventions, and policies. It is critical at this juncture to encourage not only more, but better data that can help practitioners to understand the issue more holistically, including its root causes and where limited resources should be directed to have the most impact. Good, responsible data accurately reflect reality with maximum possible completeness and minimal bias and error, while giving proper consideration to privacy and security. 

Historically, calls for enhanced data related to human trafficking have focused rather exclusively on prevalence estimates and descriptive statistics related to monitoring and evaluation metrics set by donors. From open source investigation to big data analytics, the widespread digitization of data combined with technological advancements and innovations in analysis have brought new opportunities to begin answering the call for a data-driven understanding of the complex problem of human trafficking — and an evidence-based approach to combatting it. However, this is not the daily work of the great majority of anti-trafficking practitioners. As resources continue to be invested into new technologies and big data, the movement must likewise invest in the fundamental data infrastructure and skills training of civil society organisations and government agencies at the frontlines. 

Enhancing and aligning data standards and practices in support of interoperable systems and comparable data will help clarify the problem and make the movement better equipped to combat it. In Southeast Asia specifically, the recently adopted Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP) and associated ASEAN Plan of Action promise to be important tools for the region in realizing the objective of good, responsible data to promote a more effective anti-trafficking effort. Getting there will require tremendous investments on behalf of governments and the donor community into human and technological resources needed to support better data practices, as well as a fervent commitment on behalf of the practitioners in both civil society and government who are doing the day-to-day work of collecting these data. The companion Getting to Good Human Trafficking Data: Everyday Guidelines for Frontline Practitioners in Southeast Asia aims to support this work. 

Though data are increasingly digitized, the benefits of that process are not yet being fully realized. Generally, agencies and organizations could not articulate how they might use the data they do collect to, for example, better understand their constituencies, design interventions that respond to their needs, distribute workloads more effectively, and automate processes related to required reporting. 

Lack of infrastructure and technical support related to digital data are hampering important and necessary security practices, including the setting of organisational policies that proactively address these challenges to ensure effective data management and compliance with ethical and legal standards in the long term. Though awareness of the often private and confidential nature of data related to human trafficking was commonly observed, there were varying levels of commitment to operationalising these norms into day-to-day data security practice.

The creation of databases is commonly viewed as an outcome in and of itself, as opposed to a resource to support better understanding of the problem and evidence-based interventions. There were numerous instances of data systems being devised with insufficient understanding of the operating environment or broad engagement of relevant stakeholders. In other cases, databases were created for a specific project without consideration for sustainability or further use cases.

National, inter-agency anti-trafficking task forces are not realising their full potential to facilitate standardisation of data norms and practices by diffusing best practices across their broad, diverse membership. This is, in part, due to limited funding, insufficient guidance and resources on data governance and security, and lack of trust both across government agencies and between government and civil society. 

That said, there are exciting and encouraging promising practices emerging in the anti-trafficking field generally, as well as specifically in the four countries observed for this research. In Cambodia, the National Committee for Counter Trafficking in Persons made a significant step forward toward standardisation of human trafficking data with the proliferation of Guidelines on Forms and Procedures for Identification of Victims of Human Trafficking for Appropriate Service Provision. Indonesia’s One Data Policy is successfully propagating norms around accessibility, comparability, and interoperability of government data/data systems. By explicitly defining the roles of the various government agencies tasked with implementing preventive, protective, and prosecutorial policies in response to human trafficking, as well as the makeup and objectives of its national anti-trafficking task force, the Philippines’ Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act has helped promote standardisation of practices and norm proliferation around good, responsible data collection. In Thailand, a broad, multidisciplinary team of anti-trafficking practitioners has launched a web-based, cross-ministerial database of human trafficking cases in partnership with a local technical university. 

Successfully combatting human trafficking will require data that can answer not only questions of prevalence, but also shed light on critical issues such as survivor reintegration needs, successful prosecution tactics, effective organizational strategies of anti-trafficking entities, or key geographic, demographic, and industry-specific vulnerabilities, for example. The collective understanding of the anti-trafficking movement in Southeast Asia – and globally – will thus require strengthening and harmonization of norms, standards, and practices around all aspects of data collection, from victim identification processes, to designing data systems and databases, to conducting and disseminating data analysis. To be successful, these efforts must first take place locally and scale up to national, regional, and global levels. 

While there is no single, perfect database that can answer all of the movement’s questions related to human trafficking, an effective ASEAN Regional Trafficking Database is an achievable goal if deliberate and collaborative efforts are made at the front end to strengthen and standardise approaches to data collection. Getting to good, responsible data on human trafficking will require buy-in from all stakeholders – including donors, civil society organizations, ASEAN member state governments, and relevant ASEAN bodies – as well as a commitment to collaboration between them. Policy recommendations to this effect are offered in this report.