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Effective prevention strategies

Supply side strategies: concerns and shortcomings


During the first decade following the adoption of the Protocol against Trafficking in Persons, which entered into force in December 2003, most efforts to prevent trafficking focused on what is often referred to as the supply side, concentrating on those who were seen as vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking in persons. Two of the primary strategies were, first, increasing the awareness of vulnerable communities to trafficking risks associated with certain actions. This included, for example, pursuing irregular migration channels and particular forms of employment. Second, there were attempts to increase the resilience of vulnerable communities through economic capacity-building activities. These strategies seek to address some of the root causes described above, particularly poverty, restrictive migration laws and harmful cultural stereotypes and practices. As Kara (2011, pp. 69-70) notes, the supply "of contemporary trafficked [persons] is promoted by longstanding factors such as poverty, lawlessness, social instability, military conflict, environmental disaster, corruption, and acute bias against female gender and minority ethnicities".

Currently, evidence on the success of either of these approaches is limited. There are debates regarding the viability of preventing trafficking in persons solely by interrupting the "supply" of potential trafficked persons in countries and communities of origin. Many counter-trafficking practitioners argue that the supply of potential victims is too large for trafficking in persons to be addressed in this manner and that, even if individual programmes prove effective, they are more likely to displace the problem rather than reduce its overall size. That is, traffickers will relocate operations away from communities who have been made aware of trafficking risks and made more economically resilient, and towards the many communities that remain vulnerable.

Work supported by UNODC, including the work of the Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons ( ICAT), highlighted the fact that "design of counter-trafficking responses often failed to reflect either the recommendations of previous evaluations or critical knowledge accumulated over time in the sector and beyond" ( Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons, 2016).

The ICAT Issue Paper (2017) entitled Harnessing accumulated knowledge to respond to trafficking in persons - A toolkit for guidance in designing and evaluating counter-trafficking programmes contains a warning :

"A considerable number of counter-TIP programmes, including many prevention programmes, are based on assumptions that are not supported by existing research evidence. Common, often unarticulated, assumptions that appear to inform many counter-TIP programmes include:

  • Increasing people's awareness of TIP will lead to a reduction in risky behaviour.
  • Reducing TIP in one geographic location or among one criminal group alone will reduce the level of trafficking overall (rather than displace it to another location or criminal group).
  • While themselves diverse, none of these [three assumptions is routinely supported by behavioural science research or experience in responding to other forms of organized crime, such as trafficking in illicit drugs. Indeed, there are numerous examples to the contrary for all three. Despite this, counter-TIP responses have often been developed that rely on these assumptions, whether or not they are made explicit. In particular, a review of prevention programme designs highlighted a failure to consider the possibility that programme actions might displace the TIP problem rather than reduce it and the implications this would have for programme logic".

Worse still, prevention strategies may also work counter-intuitively by increasing the vulnerability of potential victims or creating additional obstacles to safe migration channels or opportunities for employment. In turn, they may actually increase persons' risks of being trafficked and the leverage that traffickers have over them.

The above-mentioned ICAT Issue Paper on evaluating anti-trafficking responses poses a series of questions to be asked when mapping and developing responses to trafficking in persons:

Box 7

Specific questions to consider in mapping and identifying responses to trafficking in persons might include

  • What is the specific trafficking pattern or patterns the intervention is seeking to prevent?
  • How are victims recruited? By whom? From where?
  • How are victims transported? By whom? From where to where?
  • What is the exploitative purpose?
  • What allows traffickers and trafficking networks to maintain the victim in a situation of exploitation? (This might include: deprivation of liberty, threats against the individual or their family, debt, delayed payment, withholding of documents).
  • What factors increase the vulnerability of an individual or a community to TIP? What, if any, factors distinguish victims from other members of their community? This requires comparative data. Victims may, for example, be poorly educated in general terms but not in relation to their communities. To what extent are these factors systemic (e.g. exploitation of a particular ethnic group)?
  • What factors underlie this trafficking pattern? Specifically:
  • What factors allow traffickers/trafficking networks to commit this crime?
  • What factors allow traffickers/trafficking networks to profit from this crime?
  • What factors allow traffickers/trafficking networks to mask or escape detection for this crime?
  • What factors allow traffickers/trafficking networks to avoid prosecution for this crime?
  • What factors allow people to justify actions that are considered by the law as TIP?
  • Which of these factors are realistically within the scope of the counter-TIP programme?
  • Which of these factors can realistically be addressed in a way that will impact the TIP problem? (While issues such as poverty and corruption might be enabling factors, for example, is it realistic for the programme to have sufficient impact on these to affect the targeted TIP pattern(s)?)
  • What opportunities exist to increase the difficulty of committing this crime (e.g. disruption strategies such as outreach to places where traffickers recruit, community reporting mechanisms, counter-advertisements in places or platforms where traffickers advertise?)
ICAT, Harnessing accumulated knowledge to respond to trafficking in persons - A toolkit for guidance in designing and evaluating counter-trafficking programmes (2017)

Despite criticisms of supply side approaches, economic and educational interventions can play a key role in reducing the vulnerability of groups of potential victims of trafficking, particularly groups made more vulnerable by poverty, gender-inequality and lack of equal opportunities. Box 8 lists initiatives aimed at empowering women issued by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Box 8

Empowering women and girls

  • Gender impact assessments and measures targeting women in connection with the preparation, implementation and monitoring of national poverty reduction strategies, sector strategies and action plans;
  • Gender responsive budgeting to ensure that public resources management and services provision in both rural communities and poor urban communities meet the needs of both women and men;
  • Mainstreaming the gender perspective in economic policy, labour policy and public sector reform, including strengthening the training and employment of women in the public and private sectors;
  • Women's entrepreneurship, including the right to advisory and financial services, such as micro- and meso-financing, insurance, pensions and money transfers;
  • Women joining forces with a view to exerting an influence on business development, trade, and employer and employee organizations;
  • Women's trade union participation and strengthening workers' rights;
  • Measures to improve the range of jobs available to women, and the pay and working conditions, including adaptations for pregnant women and women who have recently given birth and are breastfeeding;
  • Development of parental leave schemes, childcare and other social welfare and social security schemes that can relieve women of caregiver tasks, increase security in old age and generate employment for women;
  • Mainstreaming the gender perspective in legal reform, including women's rights to inherit and own land, housing and other property regardless of marital status;
  • Analysis of women's interests in formalisation programmes, and efforts to ensure that these are considered and safeguarded with regard to inheritance, ownership, business interests, collective and user rights, and the opportunity for women to promote their rights through local courts and mediation mechanisms;
  • Support for NGOs/voluntary organisations and initiatives that promote and safeguard women's rights through informal mechanisms for conflict resolution and legal advice at local level;
  • Development of infrastructure that makes women's household and caregiver tasks easier and improves women's income opportunities and access to markets, for example piped water and electricity in the household, flour mills and local transport;
  • Analyses of the distribution of power, positions of authority and resources between women and men in society as a whole and within the household, with a view to increasing the visibility of women's value creation in the family, in society and in the informal economy, for example through time-use studies and satellite accounts to the core national accounts
  • Compilation of sex-disaggregated labour and other economic statistics, and surveys of women's roles, opportunities and working conditions, and efforts to support the development of these in the formal and informal labour markets;
  • Surveys of and improvements to the working conditions for women labour migrants, including efforts to abolish all forms of child labour and reduce children's and young women's vulnerability to human trafficking, in line with the Norwegian Government's Plan of Action to Combat Human Trafficking (2006-2009);
  • Implementation of measures and campaigns in the education system that challenge traditional male roles and give boys and men real opportunities to develop roles, attitudes and behaviour based on respect and equality between the sexes.
Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Action Plan for Women's Rights and Gender Equality in Development Cooperation 2007-2009.

Boxes 9 and 10 below, instead, provide examples of well-intentioned prevention strategies that result in rights violation for the beneficiaries, increasing the persons' risks of being trafficked and the leverage that traffickers have over them.

Box 9

Empowerment of NGOs in Nepal

The authorities in many countries now insist that children leaving their own country who are below a minimum age (such as 15 or even 18) should carry a letter signed by one or both parents giving their formal permission for the child to leave the country. This is more likely to prevent children being taken abroad by one of their own parents, following separation or divorce, than to stop traffickers taking them across a frontier, due to the various ruses which traffickers use. Border formalities give immigration officials various opportunities for protection, for example to record which children are entering a country in circumstances which, even vaguely, suggest they may be exploited subsequently and to arrange for them to receive a subsequent visit from a social worker to check on their welfare. However, interceptions can easily become abusive if children who are not being trafficked are refused permission to proceed with their journey. 

For example, in Nepal non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been allowed by the authorities to set up check-points on roads crossing the border to India. They employ specialists known as 'physionomists' who are reputed (in Nepal) to be able to identify adolescent girls who are being trafficked. In effect the NGOs concerned have given themselves police powers to stop adolescent girls from crossing to India, transferring the girls instead to their own NGO transit centres, where some are kept, often against their will. The 'physionomists' appear to use criteria based on caste and social class to identify adolescent girls who belong to social groups where a disproportionately high number of girls have been trafficked in the past. Many of the 'physionomists' reportedly come from such groups and act in good faith under orders from the NGOs employing them.

The girls who are detained in transit and 'rehabilitation' centres view the NGO as a powerful institution which is in league with the authorities and whose power they cannot contest. In the worst cases, intercepted girls who have attended residential training courses given by NGOs have been stigmatised on their return home, because the NGO is known to be involved in anti-prostitution activities and the girl is consequently suspected (unjustifiably) of having been involved in prostitution. Such interceptions are reported to have diminished as the number of children fleeing from political violence has increased. Interception on the basis of little specific evidence that the child concerned is in danger of harm can be justified if the child concerned has not yet reached puberty and is palpably too young to be travelling alone. However, the same does not apply to adolescent boys or girls. In the case of adolescents, it might be justified if there is substantial evidence that the vast majority of adolescents crossing a border are being trafficked - such a large proportion that it is reasonable to make the presumption that most adolescents crossing the border are destined for exploitation. However, in the case of Nepal, NGOs made this assumption without obtaining adequate evidence. It was not until 2005 that an international NGO commissioned research into the reasons why young people crossed the border and concluded that there were numerous good reasons. Furthermore, interceptions are acceptable when carried out by law enforcement officials such as the police or immigration officials. The involvement of NGOs in stopping adolescents or young adults from exercising their freedom of movement is an abuse of power, as well as of human rights.

International Federation Terre des Hommes, A Handbook on planning projects to prevent child trafficking (2007)
Box 10

When a misdiagnosis results in children's rights being violated

A classic misdiagnosis (which has resulted in the wrong strategies being used, with dire results) happened in West Africa. Publicity surrounding cases in which children migrated over long distances and ended up working in circumstances which were clearly abusive (notably as domestic servants in Gabon) precipitated a string of measures in West Africa to stop adolescents from seeking work in neighbouring countries and even to keep young people from migrating from extremely poor villages to seek work in towns in their own country. In effect this was the approach taken by various totalitarian governments in the past, denying peasants the right to migrate to towns.

The starting point for designing efforts to halt abuse was probably right: just because child labour is the norm in West Africa, there is no reason not to initiate action to stop the worst cases from occurring. However, both the problem tree and the remedies offered were designed in large part by outsiders in NGOs and IGOs based in Europe or North America, sometimes under pressure from Western businesses (such as cocoa importers and chocolate manufacturers). These paid scant regard to local realities and recommended strategies based on an international standard that adolescents aged under 18 should not be involved in any work deemed 'hazardous'. This was probably interpreted inappropriately (by international organizations) to refer to any agricultural work involving the use of a machete, a farming tool used on most farms throughout West Africa. These strategies were interpreted broadly in countries such as Burkina Faso to stop any adolescents under 18 from leaving their villages and travelling to seek work abroad or in towns. This has resulted in adolescents being intercepted on their way to town (whatever their reasons for travelling), detained in transit centres and sometimes ill-treated, albeit not intentionally, before being sent home. One consequence in Burkina Faso is that adolescent girls who used to travel in groups to protect each other now travel alone or in pairs and feel more vulnerable to abuse. When such children have been (forcibly) returned home, some parents have been arbitrarily forced to pay fines. Community watchdog groups, ostensibly set up to stop child trafficking, have become part of the problem, reinforcing the arbitrary use of power at local level, rather than being part of a solution.

None of this is surprising, as the initial diagnosis that all cases of children under 14 migrating to work and of older adolescents migrating to work in agriculture were cases of trafficking or were inherently abusive (and consequently should be stopped) simply did not make sense. This diagnosis might reasonably be the basis for a long-term plan but was not viable as a guide to what action should be taken in the short-term. The strategies which resulted were as unsuitable and counter-productive (for children) as the efforts to transform African agriculture in the 1940s and 1950s by importing tractors and other inappropriate technology, efforts ridiculed by text books on economic development.

International Federation Terre des Hommes, A Handbook on planning projects to prevent child trafficking (2007)
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