Slavery In The Modern World | Stats + Stories Episode 51 / by Stats Stories

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Davina P. Durgana (@DavinaDurgana) is Assistant Professor and Senior Practitioner Faculty at SIT Graduate Institute , human rights statistician who has developed models to assess risk and vulnerability to modern slavery. She is a Report Co-Author and Senior Statistician on the Walk Free Foundation's Global Slavery Index . She is the 2016 Recipient of the American Statistical Association's Harry V. Roberts Statistical Advocate of the Year Award and a Forbes Top 30 Under 30 in Science for 2017 for her work on statistical modeling, human security theory, and human trafficking. She was a contributing author to the 2017 Chance issue (Chance Volume 30) on modern slavery

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Rosemary Pennington : News stories have been circulating for months about Human Trafficking and Slave Markets with reporting tying the movement of refugees from North Africa into Europe to the emergence of a Slave Market in Libya. What the international reporting often obscures are the reality that Human Trafficking takes place in the United States as well. According to Polaris, an organization that collects data on human trafficking, there were more than 8,000 reports of Trafficking in the US in 2016 that includes report of both labor and sex trafficking, although Polaris points out that labor trafficking is underreported in the United States. The data of human trafficking is the focus of this episode of Stats & Stories. Stats & Stories is a partnership between Miami University's Departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism and Film, as well as the American Statistical Association. I am Rosemary Pennington and joining me in the studio is regular panelist John Bailer, Chair of Miami Statistics Department, Richard Campbell is away today. Today's guest is Dr. Davina Durgana. She's an International Human Rights Statistician with the Walk Free Foundation. She's also a researcher whose work sits at the intersection of Technologies, Statistics and Human Trafficking, and she's worked on the subject with a number of organizations, including the Department of Justice, and the Polaris Project. Thank you so much for being here Davina.

Davina Durgana : Thanks, so much Rosemary, it's my honor.

Pennington : How did Human Trafficking become your research focus?

Durgana : Absolutely. You know, Human Trafficking, when I started looking at this in 2006, wasn't really a common topic of conversation. I think I remember my parents explaining to people what I was studying, and what I was interested in and they had to define it. And, if you can imagine, in a pre- "Liam Neeson, Taken" environment… this is so amazing to me, that now there's so much interest in our work, there's lots of funding going into our work, although, I think any field will always say "there could always be more" … I'm really glad that we're seeing so much attention to this. But, initially when I came across Human Trafficking, it was actually in an International context and I was really taken by vulnerable minors in situations of post-conflict, particularly in El Salvador, and seeing how a lack of a capable guardian in the form of Law Enforcement, and a functioning Government really made these children very vulnerable, and then I came back to the U.S., and I realized that it was a problem here too, so, I guess seeing something you thought would only be International in your backyard is a huge problem.

John Bailer : Let me follow up with a quick question, I'm just curious about, how is slavery formally defined? One question about studying this is just an operational definition of it.

Durgana : Oh yeah, the lack of an operational definition that's universally agreed upon is really a stumbling block in a lot of our work globally. But I would say that the tenets of slavery really come down to the exploitation of one person or multiple people, for commercial gain. And that can be in either labor or sex industries, but essentially if someone is working and unable to leave that position, whether it's in sex or labor, and someone else is making a profit off of that, … And that can be monetary, it can be in terms of drugs, services, anything, then we would consider that to be a situation of slavery. Often, in a lot of the work that I do in vulnerability modeling, it gets a little complicated because people start saying "well, what's the difference really?", "What's the difference between sexual assault and trafficking at the end of the day when you're determining vulnerabilities. And really, the difference becomes the motivation of the offender. So, what is the trafficker thinking to do? Are they looking to rape someone for personal gratification or are they looking to exploit the sexual assault of the individual or the sexual abuse of an individual for commercial gain?

Pennington : Since you bring up the issue of modeling, I was going to ask you, so trafficking involves people who are being moved under the cover of legality, right? It's not as though this is a legal thing that's happening, how do you measure the number of individuals who are being trafficked if this is something that you cannot follow legally?

Durgana : Oh yeah, it makes it very difficult. In fact, I would say a lot of our work is an underestimate. It's shocking, given how high some of these numbers become, but I would still say that a lot of our estimates are still conservative. We actually just published a report on the Walk Free Foundation working with the International Labor Organization on a joint global estimate of modern slavery based on survey, a nationally representative Survey program in over 48 Countries around the world. And we estimated that in 2016, on any given day there are 40.3 million people enslaved. But, keep in mind this is based on survey data that is not reaching many populations. So, it's nationally representative of course, meaning that we're not over-sampling in very vulnerable populations. We're not identifying necessarily the labor camps or the institutionalized populations: prisons, orphanages, other vulnerable groups. So, I mean it's quite shocking when you think about those numbers and how big they sound, but then realizing that we really are underestimating it.

Bailer : So how do you even start such a survey?

Durgana : It's really tough, so basically when we started the Global Slavery Index, we began with a partnership with Gallup world poll and you may be familiar with them, they're public opinion surveys and they do them in many countries around the word, and essentially, we started by adding time in certain countries, dedicated to modern slavery. So basically, we try to come down on those essential questions that would identify victims of modern slavery or enable them to self-identify, when interviewed. And often, we focus on labor exploitation, sexual exploitation and forced marriage in our survey modules. Those are the starting point for us, but then we came into the issue where surveys, and especially face-to-face national representative surveys, are not really conducive in developed countries where if we had a sample of a thousand people in the United States it's unlikely that we would be able to detect something that's so hidden here. So, now we're looking at different approaches, such as multiple system estimation. Where we work directly with governments… essentially, it's a capture/recapture method that looks at identifying the victims across multiple administrative lists. And we try to estimate the unknown, or the people that have not been identified based on that information, the number of repeats of that certain victim.

Bailer : When you talked about slavery, you almost, it's part of your operational definition; it sounded like labor exploitation, sexual exploitation and forced marriage were three of the categories that came quickly to mind for you. Would you say those are kind of the biggest examples of slavery in the modern world?

Durgana : Well, I think there's certainly… So, there are certain types of slavery and again this comes back to the "universal definition" right? So, some people consider Organ Trafficking a form of modern slavery. But it becomes very difficult to operationalize in some of these contexts. I think the reason we focus on forced marriage, forced labor, and forced sexual exploitation is because those are three broad categories that we think are pretty well accepted, in terms of what constitutes modern slavery, and then of course, there's still some debate about those categories. So, what is the difference between labor exploration and labor trafficking? Even in the US we haven't figured this out so it's really difficult to put that external measure and benchmark against vulnerable people, so when we were thinking about labor exploitation; it's an interesting example, because we tend to see that's also underrepresented people that are able to self-identify and we think that a lot of that can be attributed to men as victims who are in exploitative, essentially trafficking situations for labor, but who are almost socialized to believe that this type of treatment and type of working condition is to be expected given the lack of other employment opportunities. So, it's kind of, really, so sad that … that we're really seeing labor exploitation and labor trafficking victims having a difficult time self-identifying because this has been so much of what they've been socialized and conditioned to accept as normal.

Pennington : You're listening to Stats + Stories where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. The topic today is the stats on human trafficking and modern slavery. You mentioned the difficulty that researchers have in defining what is slavery and defining what is trafficking … I would imagine that the difficulty you guys face as you're studying this might lead to some frustration with the way the media might be covering it. And I wondered if you could take a moment to discuss what some of your frustrations might be in the way that journalists might be covering the issue of human trafficking.

Durgana : Rosemary, that is such an excellent question. So, I do a lot of interviews for our Spanish and some of our French media outlets and one of the things that becomes really challenging is that even as a statistician who should be the most comfortable pushing back on oversimplification of our numbers and big "take-aways", I still find it challenging a lot of times to keep sticking to those caveats. Like, yes, we estimate that it's this many thousand people in your country this year but this is how we derived it. I think one of the challenges I face and I think that my colleagues might agree with journalists and media portrayal of a lot of this information is that often we really are looking for that one big number, that big shiny takeaway and the caveat just falls to the side. Or the details that make a substantial difference for those numbers are interpreted and used aren't often the centerpiece of those stories.

Bailer : Yeah, when you mention the 40.3 million people, I was thinking, okay how do you propagate error through a calculation like that? How big is the interval …? How much uncertainty is part of that estimate?

Durgana : So, this is a challenge that we do face. We have, on the international labor organization's website and the we walk foundation's website we do have our technical paper that has the standard errors and all the technical detail there, but, I mean, to answer your question, essentially, we are looking at a survey program of 48 countries to give us information on just over 200 countries. So, there's a fair amount of extrapolation involved, in terms of how we allocate slavery proportions by region and additionally we had to supplement the survey the data, which was really comprehensive on forced labor and forced marriage because that's how our modules were constructed. With additional information on child sexual exploitation, from partners in international organization for migration and other data sources on state imposed forced labor from the international labor organization. So, you can even imagine how aside from the strict extrapolation from our survey program to over 200 countries we also had to integrate other data sources so it became quite complicated and not really as straightforward as one might assume or hope that the state of global antislavery data may be in so I think as I mention I mean the uncertainty I'm pretty confident with the estimates that we've derived. But the part that still frustrates me and my colleagues is that there are so many populations that we are still not reaching very well. Rosemary mentioned in her introduction the refugee population. And that's another area where I don't know that a national representative survey can reliably capture populations that are so transient populations that are so frequently moved and being frequently moved and discounted within the countries that they are currently residing. So, it is a huge challenge and we are trying different things to alleviate that and new approaches, over samples to partnership with the UN HCR, the high commissioner for refugees, and trying to think about the different ways to measure that to have better estimates.

Pennington : So, given the complicated nature of this data and that there is so much nuance in it what is the advice would you give to the journalists who are going to come to your site and try to figure out what kind of story to tell, what advice would you give to them as they are looking through all this data?

Durgana : One good piece of advice that I would probably give to them is essentially the same process that any researcher or academic in trying to determine what's the key takeaway from this article or the key message for this policy application, and I think that would be to really think about what the outcome is that you're looking to achieve. So, I think a lot of times we report the number but there's not much context beyond that. Right? This number is a splashy number that's meant to grab attention, but it's also serves a purpose. So, for countries where that's not a survey estimate, it's the product of extrapolation, let's say. That number should be taken into context with the region. To tell you proportionally how are you doing in the countries in your relative area? The other countries that may be similar to you. I think that there's a bit more context that we can think about but that probably starts with crafting a little bit of the story and doing a little bit of qualitative research as well. And to understand how to make sense of the numbers that we provide.

Bailer : You know one thing I'm curious about is what are the predictors of slavery?

Durgana : Um, yes. Well that is the part I'm most excited about. So, we've been working on a vulnerability model since the inception of the index and essentially the vulnerability model is limited in a few key ways. First, it's a global vulnerability model, so we're dependent on data sources that report regularly and transparently for 167 countries in the Global Slavery Index. So, as you can imagine there's not a whole lot to choose from but we do optimize what we can find. The basis of those predictors though, we started, and over the years have come to formalize more of a grand theory of vulnerability in modern slavery, and will actually be submitting that for publication in the coming months. So, it's quite exciting when we think about how do we disaggregate vulnerability to a point where we can have meaningful policy interventions? So, two cornerstones of our thinking on drivers of slavery specifically, has to do with Human Security Theory, which disaggregates vulnerability from this monolithic experience of being vulnerable to anything, or to a crime and breaks it into 7 area components that are consistent with the United Nations development program's conceptualization of this which is great for sustainable development goals and other global metrics, but basically we look at things like food insecurity, environmental insecurity, political insecurity, health insecurity, economic insecurity, personal insecurity and community insecurity and by looking at things in this kind of disaggregated way it forces us to be more comprehensive about the risk factors that we even include in a model like this but it also allows us to differentiate. So, I think a lot of times people attribute, or activists may attribute poverty or economic insecurity to a broad range of vulnerabilities, to many crimes not just slavery. But when breaking them up and trying to look at the distinguishing characteristics of each type of vulnerability, one thing that I found in a study I did in 2013-14 of US minors was that among minor US citizens and minor foreign nationals in the US victims of modern slavery, different types of vulnerability were more relevant for different populations. So, for US citizens, we were looking at community and personal insecurity, which is fascinating when you think about Robert Putnam and the decline of civil society in America and the implications for that. Because a lot of times when we're talking about slavery intervention, we're not talking about additional funding or Big Brothers Big Sisters or National Court appointed special advocates or other civil society organizations, we're often talking about different types of intervention. So, it's interesting when we think about how we can be more targeted in our policy approaches.

Bailer : So, are there particular countries where the estimates that you generate you're very confident with them? You've mentioned already that you're doing extrapolation in some countries, but taking the extrapolation off the table and just focusing on where you think that you have pretty good data, in terms of you actually have data from countries are there ones that are especially good in terms of precision, and can you talk about why you think those are better than others?

Durgana : Sure, well I would start with our survey countries. I think having countries in which we've gone through this process with Gallup, we have these nationally developed surveys, I would say, for some developing countries even though we're still missing a lot of our vulnerable populations, I still think that those survey countries in developing context are really reliable. We also are starting to do multiple systems estimation throughout Europe and in the coming year we're planning on having results for Serbia, Romania, Belarus and Ireland. So, I think those types of countries are survey countries which include countries like Afghanistan, Argentina, Batswana, Brazil, Cambodia, a lot of those countries… and I would feel very confident with those estimates, again as an underestimate but still more competent because they are part of this nationally representative survey program, as well as on the developed country side, the ones that we've instituted multisystem estimation.

Pennington : You're listening to Stats+Stories and our discussion today focuses on Human Trafficking. Davina, what stories do you think reporters are missing in all of this information that you and other researchers are collecting on Human Trafficking?

Durgana : Something I think that reporters might be missing really focuses on the cultures that lead to underreporting among certain populations. So, one narrative that's not being captured quite accurately in our numbers is the extent of labor exploitation of males and I mentioned earlier part of that is self-identification, part of that is horrendous labor conditions that have been normalized but I think media and the public can contribute in a meaningful way if they start to think about how we can address this culture of labor exploitation. So how do we get the message out about what basic labor rights are, inherent in each country? How do we start to flip the script on labor exploitation? From potentially exploitative employers, to empowering those who may be taken advantage of?

Bailer : So, let me follow up with that, you talked about the idea of exploitation and trafficking and confusion about this, can you go through a little bit of clarification of labor exploitation, labor trafficking … how do those differ? How would someone know if they're being exploited versus a victim of trafficking? Can you give examples to illustrate?

Durgana : Yeah, that's a great question. So, I think of it more of a continuum or a spectrum. So, on the one end of the spectrum there's labor exploitation and that could range from anything, essentially from unpaid internships to low wage workers that are just below minimum wage, so you've got legal compliance issues there, but largely people are free to leave. Essentially if you had one of those positions, no one is detaining your documents, no one is threatening your family or you, and you could leave that situation. On the other end of that spectrum, you're going to have a lot of that same behaviors. You're going to have poor working conditions, exploitative employers, but at the labor trafficking end of the spectrum you will not be able to leave that position. And that could be because you're physically detained or you're prevented freedom of movement or because threats are being made against you and your family. So, I think that the range of experiences can vary a little bit, but at the end of the day labor exploitation would mean that although you were facing difficult and terrible labor conditions, that are not in compliance with your local and federal wage laws, you would still still be able to leave. Whereas in a situation of trafficking you would not be able to leave.

Pennington : So, it seems like globally and domestically the issue of labor trafficking is underreported, or seems to be underreported. Are there other things that are leading to this underrepresentation of labor trafficking on the larger statistics?

Durgana : So, aside from self-identification which is most easily visible in our nationally representative survey results, because that's always going to be challenging. So even another challenge we have with self-reporting is trafficking of minors, of children. So, our surveys, we can only administer them to people that are 15 and older and so often if we ask somebody about a situation in modern slavery. They're going to be reporting about themselves or someone in their immediate family but that information is not as robust. If you were to ask me what's going on with my child who's been working as a restavek in the city I may not have a very accurate sense of what their experience has been like and so we have to weight those reporting items accordingly. I think something else that's contributing to the challenge around labor exploitation is that we are not quite in a nationally representative survey, we are also presumably missing out on informal labor camps and places where migrant workers and others might be concentrated. So, because our survey sampling frame is based on census data, essentially officially held government census data, you're looking at populations that could be hugely dense that just won't be captured appropriately in the sampling frame.

Bailer : It sounds like what your group is doing is working very hard to establish baselines, and baselines for this problem and then ultimately with the hope of designing and promoting interventions, to try to reduce this. So, what are some of the ideas of interventions that you would advocate and that you would like to study and investigate?

Durgana : This is actually a great question John. So, one thing I was remiss in doing is that we do have some partner organizations that take a lot of this type of research a step further. So, we have colleagues in London, it's called the Freedom Fund, and they do a lot of hot spot intervention work. So, they'll look at a lot of the survey data; we're partner organizations so we often freely share our information, and so they all say, "let's pick this community in India" and then they'll test an intervention in that context. So, my colleague Yuki, has done some really fascinating research in testing the effects of certain interventions on populations and that could be sex-worker engagement and awareness. She tells a really funny story about how sometimes by trying to empower sex workers, and to hire them as interviewees, as interviewers of other potential victims, they run into the challenge where the pay that they are earning as an interviewer isn't as lucrative as their sex work. So, sometimes people will kind of "end the shift early", an interview shift early, to then go and participate in sex work and then return to it. So, it's kind of interesting when you think about the realities of implementation of these types of intervention on the ground and even research in this field on the ground. And we have really excellent partners that are executing that.

Pennington : You mentioned "Taken" at the beginning of this conversation, and I'm thinking there's been a lot of reporting about the slave market in Libya, there was a lot of reporting this time last year I think about the fishermen in southeast Asia who were basically enslaved to fish for shrimp and things and I'm wondering how much are you, as a researcher, when you're trying to present this information working against media representations of slavery, be they good or bad? I would wager a guess that "Taken" is probably not the most representative representation of modern slavery, so how much of when you're thinking about how to package your information are you thinking about how to counteract things that are circulating in mass media?

Durgana : Yeah, that's a great question. And "Taken", for what it was, it still elevated the issue of slavery in the US context in a way that spoke to people. So, I think there will always going to be some sections of the field and of the advocacy world in anti-slavery work. Like sexual exploitation of children, for example that will have an important and meaningful role in this space, and if it brings more awareness and funding to this issue then I very rarely have an issue with it. The interesting example that you raise about the slave markets in Libya, I've been asked about this so many times, and the one thing I keep coming back to is that I think the publicizing of those slave markets is so important, because for a long time as an international community we've been really ignoring the tremendous risk that we've been placing these refugees under. We were aware that there's a crisis in Syria, we're aware there are going to continue to be more environmental refugees, more civil conflict refugees, we're going to have this as a part of our world dynamic for the foreseeable future. And, I think we've almost pretended "oh this is happening somewhere else, this isn't our responsibility, this isn't a problem that really affects us", and I think showing that this is happening, that people are so emboldened as to the disregard of these people, these refugees, that it's not enough that they're being drowned and turned away at borders, at ocean borders, it's now that they're physically being sold in a market. And what that tells me is that the level of public acceptance of the mistreatment of these people has risen astronomically. So, people could have always had slave markets online or surreptitiously behind closed doors, but the fact that they would have one in a public setting is disturbing because it really shows the extent to which we've ignored the plight of a lot of these refugees. So, from my perspective is I think one thing the media does really well is they do humanize this issue and by raising this they're not allowing people to turn away and say, "oh the refugee issue is complicated, but we don't know what to do about it". This is saying the worst human rights abuses are happening to these people. and there's a wonderful quote by I believe it's by William Wilberforce it's essentially like "you can choose to do nothing, but you can never again say that you didn't know". So at least this is raising the issue to the point that people are aware of it and now the burden to act really falls on our shoulders.

Bailer : So, suppose someone is really inspired by this conversation or by the work that you're doing, what are some of the skills that someone would need to work in this area? To contribute, whether it's to the methodological components or to investigating this problem?

Durgana : A lot of people do seem to be very interested in getting involved in our field and something that I'll always say is that there is space in this field for everybody. So, there are really inspiring stories about truckers against trafficking. So, these are truck drivers that advocate against commercial sexual exploitation of minors at truck stops. They are active in that space. There's a tattoo artist association that's really focused on branding tattoos that are being used on people and raising awareness about them in the industry. So, in general I think any skills you have, if you're interested in legal work if you're interested in social work, if you're interested in advocacy or even corporate-social responsibility, I think there's a lot of ways you can be involved in this. For example, Marriott Hotel they do some really interesting things about Human Trafficking awareness because their hotels may or may not be used for sometimes some of these types of acts, so I think that examples of companies like that who are taking initiative and responsibility is really amazing. In terms of the methodological side, I would say we always need better researchers. So, we are always going to be in a situation of imperfect data of messy, data, of trying to make sense in a social science and international affairs context of this type of research. I think that if you're interested on working on a global scale, if you're interested in looking at comparative regional analyses of slavery or even any other human rights issues, having a solid background in Social Sciences that can be matched with technical skills of statistics or any kind of data analytics really would be amazing. And especially now, if you're young and you're still learning, or not so young and still learning, I think that things like I've always loved Bayesian analysis, and we're starting to look at that more in order to add more expert input and iterations of modeling that could be more sophisticated. You know, machine learning is something that many of us can teach ourselves, essesntially at the very basic levels. Different types of programming languages are always useful. So that's something that I find very funny is that you know Stata is very common with the UN organizations and government organizations that we work with, but then now it's free cost and we're looking to use R and different things it's kind of exciting, but I would say if there's something that you like and are passionate about to just pursue that and continue to apply that to the slavery field, and I'd love to make myself available to any student or anyone interested in trying to figure that out, because we definitely need more brainpower and more committed people in this field.

Pennington : Well, that's all the time we have for this episode of Stats & Stories. Davina Durgana, thank you so much for joining us today.

Durgana : Oh, thank you both for having me, I really appreciate it.

Bailer : It was great chatting with you.

Pennington : Stats & Stories is a partnership between Miami University's Departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism and Film and the American Statistical Association. You can follow us on Twitter or iTunes if you'd like to share your thoughts on the program, send your emails to and be sure to listen to future editions of Stats & Stories, where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.