TIP-ping the Scales: Bias in the Trafficking in Persons Report?

TIP-ping the Scales: Bias in the Trafficking in Persons Report?

TIP-ping the Scales: Bias in the Trafficking in Persons Report?

The Trafficking in Persons Report, or the TIP Report, is an annual report issued by the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. TIP Reports aggregate information related to human trafficking and modern slavery into “narratives,” which describe the efforts of countries to curb human trafficking and then assign them a score based on those efforts, which consist of the “Three Ps” – Prosecution, Protection, and Prevention. TIP Reports are exhaustively researched and generally unparalleled by other reports on human trafficking in terms of detail and scope. They provide an important resource for anti-human trafficking activists and researchers in the U.S. and abroad.

The Report categorizes nations into three tiers based on compliance with international standards outlined in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 and its subsequent re-authorizations. ​​However, the process through which narratives are converted to a score is mostly opaque, with a relatively vague methodology that leaves much up to the discretion of TIP Report authors. At the same time, the narratives and scores in the Report are highly consequential. The U.S. government is obligated to deny all non-humanitarian aid to tier three states, and U.S. representatives at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank are instructed to vote against or deny loans to any state in the third tier. Because of this, states are strongly incentivized to avoid falling into tier three, and TIP reports significantly impact the domestic anti-trafficking policies of countries around the world. 

The vagueness of parts of TIP Reports’ methodology paired with the Report’s significance factors raises important questions about how bias plays into TIP report narratives and scores. With any report, there is always some bias at play – after all, we should always expect a report created and funded by a particular country’s government to at least loosely align with the interests of that government. In the context of the TIP Report, in 2015 Reuters reported that politically-motivated State Department diplomats were “watering down” TIP Reports based on diplomatic motives, sometimes overriding the human trafficking experts who play a principal role in the creation of the reports. The U.S. has also been criticized for consistently placing itself in the highest tier amidst a decline in prosecutions and victim protection, two of the “three Ps” upon which countries are assessed. 

There remain outstanding questions about the nature and extent of this bias. The limited information we have on the TIP report creation process makes inquiry difficult, but the narrow body of academic study on bias in TIP reporting tends to support the idea that U.S. geopolitical interests strongly impact scoring decisions for states, with U.S. economic and military partners tending to be graded more generously than neutral countries and geopolitical rivals. Beyond this point, however, there is substantial disagreement on the nature and implications of the bias. 

Professor Glenn Harden of Ashbury University noted in his recent presentation, “Evaluating Bias in U.S. TIP Reports and Sanction Decisions” where he shared findings from his soon to be released report on the subject, that TIP reports do, to some extent, favor countries that align with the U.S. militarily in U.N. votes. He also noted that cultural insensitivity likely plays a role in the TIP report creation and recommends an approach that features more openness to TIP policies that might work better in non-Western cultural environments. 

This cultural insensitivity also manifests in another more fundamental point that Professor Harden touched on during his presentation. He notes that TIP reports impose a “specific vision of society.” Harden emphasized TIP reports’ strong focus on carceral aspects of human trafficking prevention, especially those in the form of prosecutions and convictions. However, he also notes that factors like having an operational national referral mechanism to protect victims and cooperating with civil society are similarly important. In crafting TIP reports, it is clear that the State Department prescribes a set of policies that strongly emphasize measurable policies with clear, assessable outcomes. In particular, TIP reports’ particular emphasis on carceral policy is clearly stated in the Report’s methodology, which rewards countries for pursuing prosecutions, convictions, and long sentences for perpetrators of crimes related to human trafficking. At the same time, the TIP Report methodology explicitly does not consider certain alternative means to curb human trafficking, like broadly empowering social and economic policies, which are difficult to measure but are likely to have positive downstream effects in addressing human trafficking. Another important piece that Professor Harden pointed out in his presentation is that TIP reports tend to underemphasize the role of international agreements and regional partnerships, another important component of efforts to curb human trafficking. In the absence of clear data on which policies are most effective at ending human trafficking, it is problematic to assume that a carceral approach focusing on prosecutions and convictions is the most effective, especially among developing countries with weaker criminal justice infrastructure. The State Department’s imposition of this set of policy priorities is likely to lead to poor outcomes in certain countries. 

Looking deeper, this imposition of a Western set of anti-human trafficking norms can be reasonably viewed as an instance of cultural imperialism, with the State Department strongly incentivizing countries to adhere to a specific, carceral vision of what anti-human trafficking measures ought to resemble. By prioritizing measurable and punitive criminal justice policies rather than other, broader policies intended to curb trafficking, Professor Anette Sikka of the University of Springfield argues that the TIP report sends “tacit messages about the very nature of what trafficking is and what is necessary to stop it,” Professor Sikka contends that the negative impacts of a low score have actually hindered countries from pursuing sets of policies best suited to their specific, local environments in favor of a punitive approach that emphasizes arrests, prosecutions, and convictions. She writes that

The measurement itself incentivizes particular formulations of stories and criminal justice responses to situations that might otherwise be characterized and addressed in different and more complex ways…An exceptional place of concern is carved out for only the most egregious exploitation while enacting harsh criminal and immigration restrictions on potential migrants in the name of preventing that exploitation.

In arguing this point, she points to countries like the United Arab Emirates, where a poor rating led to expanded surveillance and the criminalization of migration in the name of anti-trafficking, a policy that many believe ultimately harmed migrant women. Others have criticized TIP reports by arguing that the State Department’s unilateralism and lack of international stakeholder input damage the legitimacy of the reports. 

It is clear that the annual TIP report is an indispensable and useful resource for understanding the international environment as it pertains to human trafficking and modern slavery. No other resource rivals TIP reports’ exhaustive research, and anti-human trafficking efforts have benefited significantly from access to the information it provides. It has also proven its value in influencing foreign governments to institute anti-human trafficking policies where none may previously have existed. In addition, while TIP reports have issues related to methodology and bias, even if other organizations like the United Nations or other NGOs introduced alternative reports with similar levels of rigor, they would surely come with methodological and bias-related issues of their own. However, recognizing the ideological underpinnings, political incentives, and biases that inform the report is necessary to understand TIP reports fully and use the information they provide responsibly. Additionally, with enough pressure across multiple channels, a continuing critique of TIP report methodologies could impact State Department internal policy in the future. In any case, researchers should continue to inquire and explore bias and methodology questions in TIP Reports. By conducting research in the vein of Professor Harden and Professor Sikka’s work, we can continue to shine a light on issues that could improve this very useful but imperfect assessment tool for policy makers and the human trafficking sector. 

Brendan Hyatt is a Research Fellow at Human Trafficking Search and a recent graduate of Grinnell College. In the past, Brendan has researched climate change and disability inclusion for the Environmental Law Institute and far-right extremism for the Stimson Center. Twitter: @BrendanHyatt4


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