Just numbers and maps? The importance of monitoring trafficking in human beings for the development of evidence based policies

The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, commonly known as the “Trafficking Protocol” (2000), marks the beginning of a harmonized definition of Trafficking in Human Beings (THB), later on consolidated by the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (2005) and, more recently, by the Directive 2011/36 of the European Parliament and of the Council on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims, transposed into the Portuguese legislation in August 2013 and thus revising several internal laws, namely the Article 160.º of the Penal Code (Trafficking in Persons).

All the above references – as structural, mandatory, guidelines at an international, European and national level – mention the concept of the abuse of the position of vulnerability in the definition of trafficking as one of the three constitutive elements of the crime (the others, as known, are the action and the objective). 1

In the chapter “Trafficking in Human Beings in Time and Space – A Socio-ecological Perspective,” 2 Daniel-Wrabetz and Penedo questioned if the common understanding and typification of vulnerability is enough to address some of the root causes of trafficking in all its phases and across time and territories: “Why are there some places where the occurrence of the phenomenon – either as source or destination – is/will be more frequent? What are its main features? What makes a person, whether man, woman or child (more) vulnerable to human trafficking?”.

At an institutional level, these questions represent the basis of the creation of the Observatory on Trafficking in Human Beings (OTSH) by the Portuguese Ministry of Internal Administration in 2008, as a response to a set of national and international recommendations for the implementation of a National Monitoring System on THB. 3 Since then, the OTSH has followed a socio-ecological approach (through the adoption of the  geographical information systems) by applying the concept of vulnerability to the territory.

This approach means, or better, suggests, that THB, as a special hidden social and criminal phenomenon, “[…] may be better understood (and thus prevented) if and when the socio-ecological factors that underlie it and which are manifested on a more aggregate scale are identified. Strictly speaking, this understanding will come from the nexuses (…) established between the individuals (perpetrators, accomplices, victims, witnesses) and their ecological environment. The social ecology of crime demonstrates that certain types of crime occur more frequently (with greater probability) in certain social and physical contexts than in others, because the former possess characteristics which, under various conditions, can be regarded as congruent with or permissive – or even predictive – of this criminality.” 4
Moving forward five years, to 2013, it was in this formal and theoretical setting that the project “Towards a Pan-European Monitoring System on Trafficking in Human Beings” 5 (hereafter MoSy) began.

Promoted by the General Secretariat of the Portuguese Ministry of Internal Administration/OTSH, the project had as direct partners the Bulgarian National Commission for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, the Ministry of Interior of Cyprus and the Federal Ministry of Interior of Austria/Criminal Intelligence Service – Central Service for Combating Human Smuggling/Human Trafficking. 6

MoSy is based on the assumption that the transnational nature of the crime makes essential the establishment of networks between different countries and European/international organizations in order to share information and promote knowledge. This in consideration of the fact that one of the main obstacles to the implementation of anti-trafficking policies is the lack of common methodologies and an integrated system for the collection and analysis of data, and that both leads to a series of constraints for the necessary – more, imperative – contextual, comprehensive, systematic and comparative analysis within and between countries.

The MoSy main objective is to provide current and future partner countries 7 with a monitoring system in the framework of best practices regarding the harmonization of procedures.

The MoSy database (with a victim and a trafficker/criminal justice dataset) has three operational levels that acting as a gear, operationalise the concept of thinking globally and acting locally. The levels are: 1) the Local Repository, addressed to data providers organizations, with the objective to support the effective collection of microdata on victims and/or traffickers/criminal justice; 2) the National Repository, addressed  to national bodies producing national harmonized geo-statistics; 3) the International Repository, aimed at an international body responsible for the overall aggregated cross-national comparable statistics and geo-statistics on THB between the adopting countries.
Without going in depth into on the way data is collected and analyzed, the MoSy’s Dissemination Module is as an innovative tool concerning the presentation of THB data – and where statistical reports and geo-statistics can be visualized.
Although each country can collect additional variables to produce its own national reports and assessments (customization to national needs that the policy of ‘harmonization’ must not forget), the MoSy’s has a set of common core indicators that allows comparability of statistical reports between the adopting countries. At the local and national level, stakeholders have access to consolidated national statistics; at the international level, stakeholders have access to consolidated statistics either from one specific country or from all countries.

Besides the numbers, the MoSy also includes a Territorial Analysis Platform as a step forward in the presentation of national, regional and global THB distribution, trends and patterns. This is achieved via a set of tools, namely Choropleth, Routing, Clusters and Heatmaps (see examples produced with fictitious data) that “[…] will help to develop models of vulnerable areas and groups, either at origin, where recruitment occurs, or at destination, where exploitation is already taking place.” 8

Evoking a broader conceptual understanding and making references, amongst many others, to the idea of geographic democracy (social asymmetry and resilience in the exposure and response to risks) and human security (redefinition of the concepts of security, liberty and justice) 9 the knowledge produced by the MoSy’s “[…] is essential to assist all relevant actors in the planning of intervention measures based on knowledge at different but interconnected levels: operational, tactical, investigative and strategic policing, crime reduction and victim support.” 10

In order to properly plan the fight and prevention of THB, there must be evidenced-based data, information, knowledge and actions. Extending the concept of vulnerability to the territory is one way, an important way, to approach it, fight it and above all, prevent it.

For more information: Portuguese Ministry of Internal Administration – General Secretariat of the Ministry of Internal Administration – Observatory on Trafficking in Human Beings. Handbook Towards a Pan-European Monitoring System on Trafficking in Human Beings – The Pan-EU MoSy – Project reflections and results. Available at: http://www.otsh.mai.gov.pt/Recursos/Pages/default.aspx


  1.  United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Guidance Note on ‘abuse of a position of vulnerability’ as a means of trafficking in persons in Article 3 of the of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Available at: https://www.unodc.org/
  2. Daniel-Wrabetz, J., Penedo, R. Trafficking in Human Beings in Time and Space. A Socio-ecological Perspective. In The Illegal Business of Human Trafficking. GUIA, M. J. (Ed.). Springer International Publishing Switzerland, 2015, p.1-19
  3. Also worth mentioning that the OTSH finds its origins in the 1st national project on THB and, later on, in its political framework as a measure included in the 1st National Action Plan on Trafficking in Human Beings (2007/2010).
  4. Machado, P. Understanding Trafficking in Persons: From the Global to the Local. In Inhuman Trafficking. FOGAÇA, C. (Ed.). Ministry of the Interior – Directorate General of the Ministry of the Interior – Observatory on Trafficking in Human Beings, Portugal, p. 9-21
  5. Developed with the financial support of the Prevention of and Fight against Crime Programme – European Commission – Directorate-General Home Affairs(HOME/2011/ISEC/AG/THB/4000002251).
  6. The project also benefited from the expertise of an Advisory Board with following bodies: Austrian Institute for International Affairs (oiip) via the ‘Regional Implementation Initiative on Preventing & Combating Human Trafficking’ as its lead organisation from 2010-2013 and the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe IDM since 2014; Europol; OSCE; IOM; ICMPD; and Frontex.
  7. Presently the countries that have adopted MoSy are Portugal, Bulgaria and Cyprus.
  8. Daniel-Wrabetz and Penedo, 2014:16
  9. Rodrigues, T.F.Dinâmicas Migratórias e Riscos de Segurança. In Caderno nº2 do Instituto de Defesa Nacional. INSTITUTO DE DEFESA NACIONAL, Portugal, 2010
  10. Daniel-Wrabetz and Penedo, 2014:16

The author

Rita Penedo is a sociologist, who began her professional activity in Academic Research institutes and in 2006 in the Ministry of Internal Affairs as Project Officer. In 2010 she became a Consultant to the Directorate-General of Internal Affairs and the Observatory on Trafficking in Human Beings/Ministry of Interior, assuming also the role of Contact Point to the European Crime Prevention Network. Since 2013 she is the Director of the Observatory on Trafficking in Human Beings.