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Developing evidence-based strategies and policies to combat human trafficking

October 25, 2019

Left to right: Kim Babiarz, Luis Fabiano de Assis, Jessie Brunner, and Grant Miller.

Image credit: Merry Pham

With a $15,000 grant through the Office of International Affairs’ 2019 Roberta and Steve Denning International Research Exploration Fund, Professor Grant Miller has begun to apply years of research experience in public health, health policy, and development economics to a new global challenge -- combating human trafficking.

Professor Miller explains that human trafficking for forced labor or sexual exploitation has received growing international attention in recent decades as a complex issue posing unique policy challenges. Globally, millions are held in modern slavery in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, domestic service, and commercial sex industries, among others. “Despite increasingly robust international anti-trafficking efforts,” he says, “almost no empirically rigorous academic work has examined the issue systematically, meaning that antitrafficking policies are not usually evidence-based…My belief is that the most successful strategies for combatting human trafficking can only be identified after building a stronger foundational understanding of how trafficking markets actually work.” To accomplish this, he and collaborators seek to expand and leverage the data underlying the Brazilian Human Trafficking Digital Observatory to identify and pilot effective, evidence-based prevention strategies and policies.

The funds supported the early stages of intensive technical work to scale up this project into a multi-year research collaboration with Luis Fabiano de Assis, PhD, Chief Research and Data Officer at the Federal Labor Prosecution Office and Professor at the National School of Public Prosecutors in Brazil. Assis is at Stanford for Academic Year 2019-20 as a visiting scholar at the Center for Human Rights and International Justice. They have also teamed up with Kim Babiarz, social science research scholar for Stanford’s Center for Health Policy and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research, and Jessie Brunner, senior program manager of Stanford’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice. Led by Professor Miller, the team developed the foundational concept of the Stanford Human Trafficking Lab, which aims to bridge the gap between research and anti-trafficking policies.

Read more about how OIA provided Professor Miller and his team guidance on the initial challenges in data governance here.

Collectively, the research team has extensive expertise in applied economics and computer science, methodological innovation, human rights, and conducting empirically rigorous global development research. They also bring to the table deep subject-matter expertise on human trafficking based on several years of working to support anti-trafficking efforts around the world, including work in Southeast and East Asia. They are rapidly building new collaborations with other Stanford experts, as well as other Brazil-based stakeholders, as they progress in their work.

In recent years, Assis has curated the largest known human trafficking data repository of its kind, with data on approximately 50,000 trafficking victims, let alone myriad records on supply chains, traffickers, perpetrators, and related actors. The initiative has been piloted as Brazil’s Human Trafficking Digital Observatory, in partnership with the International Labor Organization and a number of stakeholders.

Once Miller and Assis encountered each other’s work, they committed to collaborating to equip the anti-trafficking movement with robust actionable knowledge, using large-scale quantitative data and innovative research methods from various disciplines, building on the Brazilian experience. By linking datasets on human trafficking cases with demographic data, large-scale administrative data, and open data on private sector firms, human trafficking can be studied within the broader context of economic development, labor migration, and supply chain economics.

At Stanford, Miller and the team aim to establish the Human Trafficking Data Lab as the local hub to develop research supporting localized, data-driven interventions through direct cooperation with policymakers, frontline actors, civil society, and the private sector. Miller says, “We envision the transformation of these raw resources into a fully interlinked data repository suitable for analysis by researchers and policy makers.”

The research team plans to operationalize the Brazilian Human Trafficking Observatory data as a large-scale, global model that can offer effective, evidence-based solutions across various levels of society. Considering the data challenges and small samples that have hindered previous trafficking studies, the sheer scale of Miller and Assis’ project presents, in Miller’s words, “a unique opportunity to develop new analytical tools [that will] connect policymakers, frontline workers, lawmakers, law enforcement, civil society, nonprofits, NGOs, and academics working together to fight human trafficking” to implement new and promising real-world solutions.