The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) won a tender by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to conduct research on human trafficking occurrence in South Africa. The research titled ‘Tsireledzani: understanding the dimensions of human trafficking in southern Africa’, came out some time back in March and I had the opportunity to read through it. However, this report, despite being a laudable attempt to investigate human trafficking, faced a lot of criticism from independent scholars who felt it fell short of the research rigour expected from an eminent research institution such as the HSRC. I quickly and quietly rubbished the criticism as an attempt to belittle the challenge of human trafficking in southern Africa and particularly South Africa.
That being said, on Wednesday, I stumbled upon a more concise rebuttal published by (not really sure, although one of the authors is employed by ISS) the Institute of Security Studies (ISS). The paper, titled ‘Of Nigerians, Albinos, Satanists and Anecdotes: A critical review of the HSRC report on human trafficking’ is a more robust critique of the HSRC report. It argues that the HSRC report did not address and or query the research terms of reference. It goes on to state that the report is weak as it fails to give new insight into the problem of human trafficking and reads just like previous research by other organisations such as IOM and Molo Songololo which are not backed by evidence and are therefore heavily anectodal. The report is argued as being sensationalistic and even alarmist having come to the conclusion that human trafficking is rife in South Africa and therefore needing to be addressed on all fronts yet failing to give research to back this claim. This, the ISS paper claims may lead to the use of state resources to address a problem whose full extent is not known, potentially diverting scarce but much needed resources from more pressing and proven social ills.
I read the Tsireledzani research report and I somewhat regrettably have to concur with the ISS paper as the HSRC report reads just like the other human trafficking reports before it and offers no new insight into the problem. It sights the exact same limitations to conducting human trafficking research but does not seem to have countered or gone around these limitations to give fresh impetus and insight into the challenge of modern day slavery. Frankly, the research does seem to fall short.
The dangers of half-baked human trafficking research reports are clearly apparent in this scenario. The main problem is that it leads not just to the refutation of the human trafficking research reports but indeed the objection or at least the insinuation of an objection of the occurrence of human trafficking. Poor research that sounds alarmist and sensationalistic just seems to bring out the human trafficking denial proponents thus presenting a great stumbling block to anti human trafficking work. Thus while the ISS paper does not state that there is no human trafficking in South Africa it does refute a report that states that there is human trafficking in South Africa and by extension the very occurrence of human trafficking in South Africa, until….. until proven otherwise by more credible and evidence based or backed research. The ISS paper’s authors have urged or rather demanded that the HSRC withdraw its human trafficking research report. What is perhaps also commedable about the ISS paper is the fact that it recommends or gives insight into how the research should have been done, for example, the need for strong caveats acknowledging time and methodological limitations in the research, use of the IOM database of 300 or so trafficking victims, contesting the terms of reference etc etc.
Now is this a case of human trafficking research gone bad? Or a case of those in denial coming out with their swords? The jury is clearly still out. Personally, this presents a challenge to all modern day abolitions to do more, to conduct more robust research, to go beyond scratching the surface of the problem. Because, believe you me, the problem is there-whether or not we appreciate its full extent is debatable.
N.B: the views expressed in this blog are of the author in his own individual capacity and in no way reflect the views of SAAHTT