6: Governing through Indicators: Structural Biases and Empirical Challenges in Indicator-Based Approaches to Anti-Trafficking Policy, Practice, and Research

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In this reflective chapter, we examine the structural biases and empirical challenges underlying human trafficking ‘indicators’ (especially problem, risk, and performance indicators) that are routinely used to describe and measure human trafficking, assess risk, identify abuses, evaluate responses, and encourage accountability. While frequently used, such indicators can give an undue illusion of objectivity and reliability when they are neither neutral nor unskewed. In fact, numerous factors affect which elements are privileged as ‘indicators’ and which are obscured. We therefore examine here the selectivity, politics, and racialized and gendered concerns that relate to the production and use of human trafficking indicators. Since human trafficking is a complex, highly contested, and multi-faceted practice, it is not easily reduced to the crude generalizations upon which many indicators rest. We explore how the uncritical use of indicators can both contribute to stereotypical and unachievable ideals of victimhood and engender undue criminalization or withholding of victim support. In doing so, we disentangle some paradoxes around who is deemed ‘vulnerable’, ‘at risk’, ‘worthy of support’, and requiring ‘protection’. We highlight the – routinely overlooked – weak empirical basis and other limitations of many commonplace ‘indicators’ and challenges in building empirically stronger and more robust indicators. The chapter concludes with overall implications of these critical reflections for policy, interventions, and research.

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