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Understanding Public Knowledge and Attitudes towards Trafficking in Human Beings: A Cross-National Study

Final Report Summary - UP-KAT (Understanding Public Knowledge and Attitudes towards Trafficking in Human Beings: A Cross-National Study)


(UP-KAT, January 2013 – December 2014)
Marie Curie Intra-European Fellow: Dr Kiril Sharapov
Host institution: Center for Policy Studies, Central European University (Budapest, Hungary)

This project has researched, evaluated and disseminated a broader understanding of how members of the general public in the three case-study countries - Ukraine, Hungary and the United Kingdom - understand trafficking in human beings. The research relied on a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to identify and critically assess current legal and policy frameworks with respect to trafficking in human beings in the three case-study countries. The project explored and theorised a hierarchical structure of sometime conflicting legal and policy influences on the development of anti-trafficking national approaches. These influences included international and EU-level legal and policy anti-trafficking priorities; national commitments to recognising and respecting human rights of citizens and non-citizens, including human rights of victims of trafficking and of people identified as irregular immigrants; national immigration and law enforcement agendas; domestic political priorities and ideological agendas; specific media representations of human trafficking; national socio-economic contexts, including specific features of national labour markets; and the extent of development and involvement of civil society organisations and other interest groups in anti-trafficking activities at the national level. Overall, two entities – businesses (in public or private ownership) and the general public - remain excluded from anti-trafficking activities at the national level with the exception of awareness-raising campaigns designed, predominantly, to increase the reporting of potential cases of human trafficking by members of the general public and to prevent citizens deemed as vulnerable from becoming victims of human trafficking. In the United Kingdom, the anti-trafficking policy is based on the understanding of human trafficking as crime and as a matter of ‘illegal immigration’. Law enforcement, border control and, to a lesser extent, provision of limited support to victims of trafficking identified as ‘genuine’ by the Government constitute key elements of the UK Government anti-trafficking policy, influenced by increasing racialization of the political discourse in the United Kingdom. In Hungary, human trafficking does not appear to be a political priority for the current Government; the initial framing of trafficking by the Government and by civil society organisations working in this area as a matter of prostitution and sexual exploitation of women, continues to inform the national anti-trafficking agenda, although there is an increasing recognition that human trafficking involves trafficking for labour exploitation, which affects Hungary as a country of transit, origin and destination. In Ukraine, the policy framing of trafficking differs from those in the United Kingdom and in Hungary in that human trafficking is considered by the Government as a matter of violation of human and labour rights of Ukrainian citizens abroad, and of the socio-economic vulnerability of Ukrainian citizens to exploitation. Human rights of victims of trafficking and of labour migrants are an important element within the context of the anti-trafficking government policy in Ukraine; however this priority is undermined by the low levels of resources (both human and financial) allocated by the Government towards anti-trafficking activities at both national and regional levels. The majority of media representations of human trafficking in these three countries are centred around the issues of victimhood, are often sensationalised, and reflect, to some extent, the ideological context of the reproduction of knowledge of human trafficking in everyday life of consumer-citizens. In the United Kingdom, media reporting is dominated by sensationalised and individualised cases of ‘modern day slavery’, individual deviance, sexual exploitation, and dramatic stories of victimhood and rescue. In Hungary, the media focus remains on cases of trafficking for sexual exploitation, but also on human trafficking as a problem that affects other countries and not necessarily Hungary. In Ukraine, the sensationalist reporting is focused on cases of individual ‘slave-holding’ and trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Based on the analysis of policy and media representations of human trafficking in these three countries, located within the context of the existing scholarly literature on human trafficking, the available statistical data and feedback from anti-trafficking experts and non-governmental organisations working in this field, the project developed a questionnaire, which served as a main methodological vehicle to explore public understanding of human trafficking in the three case-study countries. Representative surveys of public opinion were undertaken as part of the Omnibus surveys run by reputable national market research companies between December 2013 and February 2014. The questionnaire included four questions. The first question was open-ended and asked respondents to describe using their own words what they understood human trafficking to be. The resulting qualitative responses were analysed to identify key associations of human trafficking as reported by survey participants without any prompts. Respondents were also asked to identify the main sources of information that informed their knowledge and understanding of human trafficking. They were also presented with a series of statements on different aspects of human trafficking (based on the literature review, and policy and media analysis) and asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed with these statements.

In Ukraine, among respondents aged 15-59 (N=1,000; margin of error +/- 3.1%, 95% confidence level) the most commonly reported associations included: slavery (26%), buying and selling of people (23%), unfree labour (21%), abuse, violence, coercion and dependency (15%), crime and illegality (15%), and sexual exploitation and prostitution (15%). Only 10% of Ukrainian respondents were unable to explain in their own words what they understood human trafficking to be.

In Hungary, among respondents aged 18 and older (N=1,000; margin of error +/- 3.1%, 95% confidence level) the most commonly reported associations included: buying and selling of people (31% of respondents), unfree labour (18%), abuse, violence, coercion and dependency (16%), movement of people (15%), and sexual exploitation and prostitution (12%). About 22% were unable to explain what they understood human trafficking to be. In Great Britain (UK excluding Northern Ireland), among respondents aged 16 and older (N=1,000; margin of error +/- 3.1%, 95% confidence level) the most commonly reported associations included: movement of people (34%), sexual exploitation and prostitution (19%), slavery (17%), crime and illegality (16%), unfree labour (14%) and exploitation generally (11%). About 18% of respondents were unable to provide a definition of human trafficking. In all three countries, public opinion identified television programmes as the main source of information on human trafficking.

The survey outcomes portray the following snapshot account of the general public’s understanding of human trafficking at the time of survey completion (degree of support for national samples are included in brackets, age range for all three samples 18 – 59, with 693 responses included in each national sample):
Anyone, including men, women and children, can be trafficked (93% UA, 94% HU, 93% GB); however the majority of victims of trafficking are women trafficked for sexual exploitation (92% UA, 91% HU, 70% GB). Most victims come from poor countries (82% UA, 87% HU, 76% GB) and most of them are irregular immigrants looking for work (84% UA, 80% HU, 56% GB). Human trafficking is a problem in respondents’ countries (73% UA, 64% HU, 77% GB) but, as a problem, it does not affect respondents directly (75% UA, 81% HU, 72% GB). Respondents do not normally think if goods or services they purchase were produced with the involvement of forced labour (79% UA, 79% HU, 67% GB), but are prepared to pay 10% more to ensure goods and services are produced without labour exploitation (48% UA, 53% HU, 73% GB) and to boycott companies that rely on exploited labour (65% UA, 72% HU, 86% GB). The majority of respondents agree that organised criminals bear the main responsibility for human trafficking (86% UA, 90% HU, 81% GB). The also agree that victims of trafficking need to be provided with assistance (89% UA, 91% HU, 87% GB); victims who crossed international borders need to be deported after a short recovery period (78% UA, 82% HU, 47% GB), or allowed to stay if they face danger back home (69% UA, 78% HU, 76% GB). There is a need for tougher border controls to stop victims from crossing borders (88% UA, 88% HU, 84% GB), tougher law enforcement to tackle criminals (93% UA, 93% HU, 90% GB), all European countries should criminalise the purchase of sex (90% UA, 91% HU, 70% GB), and countries of victims’ origin should do more to increase standards of living as a way of preventing economic migration (91% UA, 90% HU, 82% GB). Companies relying on trafficked labour need to be identified and prosecuted (92% UA, 92% HU, 93% GB); companies need to ensure that their workers are not exploited and paid a living wage even if this may result in higher consumer prices (88% UA, 89% HU, 91% GB). More awareness-raising campaigns on human trafficking are required in the media (92% UA, 90% HU, 91% GB), on the Internet (92% UA, 89% HU, 86% GB), and at schools (93% UA, 90% HU, 80% GB).

The pattering of these responses by socio-demographic characteristics is complex with no definitive pattern of association that could be identified. In most cases, there was no relationship between respondents’ answers to these questions and their gender, and a more complex interaction between respondents’ answers and their education (recorded for the Ukrainian dataset) or occupation (recorded for the datasets in Great Britain and Hungary), and age (recorded for all three datasets). The key finding is that the majority of respondents in all three countries are aware of human trafficking although members of the public may associate it with different socio-economic phenomena. These phenomena appear to reflect the way in which human trafficking has been problematised in respective national policies and mass media. Despite a high degree of awareness, the majority of respondents do not consider human trafficking as relevant to their everyday life. This attitude appears to reflect media and policy representations of human trafficking as only concerning people identified as ‘vulnerable’ or criminals who commit the crime of trafficking. Given that the dominant policy and media representations of trafficking do not reflect its structural and epiphenomenal nature, and fail to recognise the location of trafficking within the context of neoliberal capitalism and its reliance on unfree labour, it can be suggested that the majority of current anti-trafficking interventions remain reductive and symptomatic. Such interventions approach trafficking as the issue of crime and immigration control without challenging a range of factors that result in an increased socio-economic vulnerability of people in countries of origin. Most of the structural factors, which make reliance on exploitable labour within the context of neoliberal accumulation possible, remain equally overlooked by policy-makers and other anti-trafficking stakeholders. The findings of this project will be of use to a range of anti-trafficking stakeholders at both European and national levels, including awareness campaign planners, national anti-trafficking agencies, and anti-trafficking non-governmental organisations. The project public outreach and dissemination activities included a range of formal and informal consultations with anti-trafficking stakeholders in the case-study countries and beyond, and a series of engagement events with diverse academic communities via conference, seminar and workshop participation.

Contact: Dr Kiril Sharapov ( Dr Violetta Zentai (
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