Is there a link between human trafficking and prostitution?

A recent paper published by SY Cho, A Dreher and E Neumayer in the journal of World Development addresses the question of: Does legalized prostitution increase human trafficking?

This study was based out of the London School of Economics in an attempt to understand the impact domestic policies have on aspects of globalization. To address this, the authors focused in on determining how a domestic policy, such as legalizing prostitution, can impact the incidence of human trafficking inflow.

According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 79% of human trafficking involves sexual exploitation through prostitution, where the majority of those who are being sexually exploited are women and children.

Although the qualitative literature makes the case that legalizing prostitution increases human trafficking, systematic, rigorous research is lacking. As such, Cho et al, applied economic principals to extensive data collected by the UNODC, which involved cross-country information on the reported incidence of human trafficking in 161 countries. Through various regression analyses on the data provided by the UNODC, it was determined that countries where prostitution is legal experience a larger reported incidence of human trafficking inflows.

To validate the conclusion from their empirical analyses, three country case studies were analyzed. These three countries were: Sweden, Germany and Denmark.

Sweden criminalized the purchase of prostitution in 1999. Germany further legalized prostitution by allowing brothels to operate in 2002. Denmark decriminalized prostitution in 1999, where self-employed prostitution is legal, however brothel operation is illegal (the approach Sweden had in place prior to 1999).

Due to the lack of human trafficking data prior to 1999 in Sweden, it is difficult to definitively determine whether or not human trafficking inflows were reduced in Sweden after new prostitution legislation took effect in 1999. However, a study by Ekberg in 2004 estimated that the number of prostitutes in Sweden decreased from 2500 (in 1999) to 1500 (in 2002), with street prostitution decreasing 30-50% after the law of criminalizing the purchase of sex came into effect.

A comparison between Sweden and Denmark revealed that decriminalizing prostitution did not decrease human trafficking in Denmark. In 2004, it was reported that in Denmark there were 2,250 trafficked victims compared to 500 in Sweden. It is also important to note that the population of Sweden is 40% larger than Denmark and the number of prostitutes in Denmark are ~3-4 more than that in Sweden.

In Germany, prostitution is recognized as a profession, where ~150,000 people work as prostitutes. Germany has one of the largest prostitution markets in Europe. In 2004, it was estimated that there are ~32,800 victims of human trafficking in Germany. It was further demonstrated in a study by Di Nicola in 2005, that the number of human trafficking victims increased from a min-max estimate of 9,870 –19740 in 2001 to 11,080 – 22,160 in 2003 and 12,350 – 24,700 in 2004. These data support the results obtained by Cho et al’s empirical analyses.

Therefore, the recent study by Cho et al demonstrates that on average, legalizing prostitution gives rise to a larger degree of reported human trafficking inflows. This is further corroborated with statistical evidence from three country case studies involving Sweden, Denmark and Germany.