"We operate in an information fog," Antonio Maria Costa, director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, told reporters last month. "We don't know the scope of threats we face and can't gauge global trends. We just see the tips of icebergs."
It's a fog that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is hoping it will be able to at least partially lift with a conference Monday focusing on collection and reporting methods for victims of human trafficking.
"It's very difficult to solve a problem when you don't know how big it is," said Blanca Tapia, a spokeswoman for the OSCE's office to combat trafficking in human beings. "All the countermeasures are going to be wrong if you don't know what you are facing."
The United Nations estimates that there are as many as 2.5 million victims of trafficking or forced labor; the International Labor Organization placed its worldwide estimate at 12.3 million in 2005; and the International Organization of Migration put the number of victims in 2001 at 400,000.
The breadth of the problem makes it difficult for legislators and law enforcement to deal with it effectively, especially since the authorities who come into contact with forced laborers are not always trained to recognize it or given guidelines on how to handle victims.
"When the police raid a brothel, they check identification cards. But the people have usually had their passports and documentation taken away from them, so the police say they are illegal immigrants who have to leave the country," Tapia said. "Instead of being the victim, they become the bad person who is thrown into jail."
Beyond the sex trade
Western Europeans frequently believe the crime of human trafficking does not affect their countries, Tapia said. Bundling together trafficking victims and illegal immigrants often shields them from the scope of the problem.
"Some European countries cover the problem of human trafficking in illegal immigration," she said. "They say the people entered the country illegally, and too bad if they got the worst jobs and end up in slavery conditions."
While many connect trafficking with forced prostitution, the OSCE and international rights organizations estimate that the sex trade accounts for 50 percent of victims. The remaining 50 percent are forced into working for minimal or no compensation in a variety of fields, including agricultural and construction work, sweatshop labor and as domestic caregivers.
Instead of focusing their efforts on finding victims, who are often reluctant to speak with police out of fear that they or their families could be endangered if they supply information about their situation, Tapia said the OSCE would focus on limiting demand for slave and enforced laborers.
One move that would help constrain demand would be added inspections of businesses, according to European Union Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini. He called on EU members to increase the number of businesses inspected for employing illegal migrants from 2 percent to 10 percent.
"Very often we note slavery-like working conditions, workers are exploited, they are underpaid and they live in very poor and desperate conditions in EU territory," he said. "We can no longer tolerate this situation."
Lower prices through slave labor
Frattini estimated that as much as 16 percent of business in the EU is done off the books and said EU member states needed to institute hefty fines and jail sentences in serious cases to combat illegal worker exploitation.
With close links to organized crime, the worldwide market for trade in humans is between $30 billion and $40 billion, according to Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office of Drug and Crime.
A supply of cheap labor provided by trafficking and forced labor often amounts to lower prices for the consumer and higher profits for companies, Tapia said.
"We would not be getting very cheap strawberries or other foods we are getting right now if the wages for the people who are actually doing the work were higher," she said. "This is a big industry and a lot of money is made."