History matters: Canada's contribution to the first worldwide study of human trafficking.

Author:Knepper, Paul
 
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Judging from the response of the Canadian government to UN directives, human trafficking is a serious issue of substantial proportion. There is, however, little empirical evidence suggesting that trafficking to Canada is a major problem (Gozdziak and Collett 2005; Martinez, Hanley, and Gomez 2005). What empirical research is available has been characterized by weak research designs, use of unreliable sources, and inadequate specification of concepts (see Goodey 2008; Kelly 2005; Tyldum and Brunovskis 2005). In fact, several scholars characterize significant aspects of human trafficking as a myth (Aronowitz 2009; Doezema 2000; Oude Breuil, Siegel, van Reenen, Beijer, and Roos 2011; Schloenhardt, Beirne, and Corsbie 2009).

Since the 1990s, there has been an avalanche of studies concerning human trafficking (Laczko 2005). Reading this literature, it would be easy to conclude that trafficking has immediate origins and is a problem without historical precedent. A 2008 report prepared for the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, for example, begins with the statement that trafficking in human beings for purposes of sexual exploitation has become a major issue "in recent years" and reviews policy decisions and media reports only as far back as 2000 (Swedish National Council 2008). Yet between 1919 and 1939, the League of Nations conducted an extensive campaign against the traffic in women that, in some ways, exceeded what international organizations such as the UN and EU have done since then. The League of Nations pioneered research into human trafficking with two intercontinental studies: the first covered 28 countries across Europe, the Americas, and the Mediterranean; the second covered some 20 countries, colonies, and territories in Asia (League of Nations 1927a, 1927b, 1933).

This essay brings some "lessons of history" to current academic discussion of human trafficking. In particular, I will address the notion that knowledge of human trafficking is sketchy because it represents "a relatively new type of crime" (David 2010) or results from "a more globalized world" (Shelley 2005, 2010). Looking back at the League's research in Canada offers a deeper understanding of conceptual and practical problems in human trafficking research. From documents held at the League of Nations archive in Geneva, it is possible to recover not only the findings of previous research but the process that produced them (Rodriguez Garcia, in press). The Canadian portion of the League's first study represents one of the more revealing aspects of the entire project. Canada was the first and last country to be studied: fieldwork began at the outset of the project in April 1924 and continued until December 1926, only weeks before the publication of findings. Essentially, the three pages about Canada in (what became Part 2 of) the official report declare that trafficking in women was not a problem.

What the report does not say about why it required three years to make this declaration not only reveals a great deal about the League's efforts then but also about human trafficking research now. Canada presented a real dilemma because, rather than trying to find evidence of trafficking, the researchers were trying to refute the evidence that had been found. The difficulty of establishing that trafficking does not exist helps explain its growth and persistence as a problem. Part 1 of the present article examines making estimates; Part 2, researching hidden populations; Part 3, the problem of legal evidence; and Part 4, the links to organized crime. I conclude with some comments about why it is important to incorporate historical perspective in criminology.

Making estimates

There are no reliable estimates of human trafficking. Official estimates of trafficking victims entering the United States have been revised downward at least three times, from between 45,000 and 50,000 in 1999, to between 18,000 and 20,000 in 2003, to between 14,500 and 17,500 a year later (Gozdziak and Collett 2005: 108). Low numbers of cases and victims reported in government documents stand in contrast to estimates offered by advocacy groups, community organizations, and other non-governmental organizations (Goodey 2008: 426; Schloenhardt, Beirne, and Corsbie 2009: 232).

The first attempt to obtain a social science measure of the traffic in women worldwide took place in the 1920s. During a three-year period, from 1924 to 1926, researchers commissioned by the League of Nations surveyed 67 governments about the nature and extent of trafficking. They collected reports from a variety of voluntary organizations, ranging from the International Abolitionist Federation to the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women. The researchers then conducted field research in 112 cities and 28 countries across the Americas, Europe, and the Mediterranean. A team conducted interviews with some 6,500 persons in 14 languages, including police authorities, welfare workers, health officials, and prostitutes, pimps, and brothel-keepers. The official publication, Report of the Special Body of Experts on the Traffic in Women and Children (1927) confirmed the existence of trafficking in women but could not supply numbers of victims or traffickers. "All this evidence suggests...." the researchers declared, "that traffic in women is extensive, although no exact estimate of its extent can be given" (League of Nations 1927a: 12).

The study had grown out of the nineteenth-century campaign against the "white slave trade," which had produced the first international agreements (Hunt 2002; McLaren 1987). When World War I came to an end, anti-traffic campaigners turned their attention to the League of Nations. They managed to add a clause to the constitution that obligated the League to assume responsibility for international treaties agreed in 1904 and 1910. In 1921, the council created a permanent organization known as the Advisory Committee on the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children. The advisory committee decided that a worldwide social scientific study of the traffic in women would establish the facts of the trade beyond dispute and provide a substantive international agenda. To oversee the study, the council appointed a committee, known as the Special Body of Experts into the Traffic in Women, consisting of representatives from Italy, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan, Uruguay, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Dr. William Snow, who had taken leave from Stanford University to become director of the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA), chaired the committee. To carry out the study, Snow relied on ASHA experience and expertise (see, generally, Chaumont 2009; Knepper 2011).

Snow took it upon himself to investigate the situation Canada. W.J. Egan, Canada's Deputy Minister of Immigration and Colonization, had given an ambiguous response to the League's official questionnaire. The question of the international white slave traffic was difficult to answer, Egan (1924) said, because, while there were "evidences that persons interested in the traffic are active," when it came down to "producing evidence, there is little upon which to place reliance." Egan deferred to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), who possessed more information about trafficking than any other department of government (Egan 1924). The RCMP had sent a representative to London in 1923 for the meeting of the International Bureau for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic and had organized a system of "strangers' secretaries" to guide young women to safety when they arrived from abroad (RCMP 1924: 22). This protective network, the RCMP's annual report declared, had forced traffickers to alter their methods for importing prostitutes: "In consequence of the vigilance which is being exercised, procurers are showing a disposition to bring women into the country as cabin passengers; several specific examples of this have been detected" (RCMP 1924: 23).

Snow contacted the commissioner of the RCMP, Cortlandt Starnes, who opened the files at Ottawa. Snow weighed the evidence. While he encountered a fair amount of material, he noticed that most of the cases had been unearthed by a single source, an RCMP investigator named John Chisholm. And although Chisholm had prepared documents indicating a substantial trade in the bodies of women, his accounts did not contain the names of the actual victims. Snow was skeptical. In summarizing his findings for the Special Body of Experts in Geneva, he acknowledged that Chisholm possessed "interesting information," but added, "I feel I should say that I do not believe Mr Chisholm's evidence is worth very much to us" (Special Body of Experts 1924b: 10-11). "No one doubts the sincerity and honesty and thoroughness of Mr Chisholm's work," Snow told the special body, "but it does seem in this case as if he assumed certain things" (Special Body of Experts 1924b: 13-14).

The problem with Chisholm, Snow's researchers decided, was that he had motivation to exaggerate the problem (Chaumont 2009: 83-84). Born in Nova Scotia, Reverend Chisholm served as a missionary in western Canada before moving to Montreal, where he became immigration chaplain of the Presbyterian Church. In 1916, Chisholm helped found the Directorate of Protestant Female Immigration, which operated out of Dorchester House, a hostel for women. He had also founded the strangers' secretaries system. The Canadian government provided a small budget for this work and, to enable him to inspect incoming ships, gave him the status of an RCMP investigator. Snow sent a lawyer who had worked for the ASHA, George Worthington, to Canada to interview Chisholm and other persons in the anti-traffic movement. Worthington dismissed Chisholm's claims as self-serving: Chisholm would not be able to raise money from supporters for Dorchester House if he did not "have something which ... would appeal to...

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