Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Trafficking: Steinfatt statistics stir up a storm

Trafficking: Steinfatt statistics stir up a storm

Trafficking: Steinfatt statistics stir up a storm


In October last year, an American communications professor

released research about human trafficking in Cambodia that caused a stir in the

NGO community. Could there really be only 2000 sex-trafficking victims in

Cambodia? What effect would this have on NGO funding? And should moto-taxi

drivers be used as research assistants? In part four of a series, Liam Cochrane

looks at the difficult task of researching


Sequels rarely match their original, but for Dr

Thomas Steinfatt, a Fulbright Scholar at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, his

third study into Cambodia's human trafficking problem proved to be a


Is this girl a victim of trafficking? A study that sent motodops to brothels to count prostitutes and gather information on the extent of trafficking in Cambodia has attracted both praise and criticism.

It was this research project that recruited local men -

mostly motodops - to visit brothels and conduct counts of prostitutes, trying to

find out as much as possible from the owner about the number, ethnicity, age and

terms of employment of sex workers without blowing their cover as a middleman

for a potential customer.

This innovative methodology proved

controversial among researchers but it did come up with some numbers to gauge

the scope of Cambodia's sex trade. Steinfatt's team counted 5,317 women and

children in direct and indirect sex work establishments in Phnom Penh and judged

1,074 as having been trafficked. From this, he estimated that the total number

of prostitutes in Cambodia was 18,256, with approximately 2,000 victims of


These figures roughly agreed with part one of his research,

which took limited counts from Phnom Penh brothels in 2002 and extrapolated the

data based on existing information about sex workers and tourism. Using this

method Steinfatt and his fellow researchers estimated 20,829 brothel workers

across Cambodia.

The only other countrywide empirical study known to

have been conducted was by the National Assembly in 1997 and estimated 14,725

prostitutes working in Cambodian brothels, but it was rarely cited in


These figures differed markedly from the 80,000 to 100,000

estimate that had been used in many NGO reports throughout the 1990s and early

2000s to quantify the extent of prostitution in Cambodia.

Some reports

began using the estimate to describe "sex slaves" and "trafficked women and

children" rather than "prostitutes", giving an alarming impression of Cambodia's

trafficking problem.

In part two of his research, Steinfatt tracked the

origins of the 80,000-to-100,000 statistic and found it to be a ghost number,

falsely attributed to a 1996 Unicef report. This second paper was never finished

or published but was summarized in part three of his


"Publications by NGOs and international organizations often print

incorrect numbers that have no basis in fact," Steinfatt said in his most recent


"Other published reports then cite such numbers uncritically and

without checking their validity, and then those reports in turn become the

source for further such printed estimates."

In an email to the Post in

March, Steinfatt said that while there may be pressure for NGOs to exaggerate

statistics to justify their funding, he said NGOs must work with the statistics

available at the time and not intentionally use incorrect information.

Many others with knowledge of the sector agreed, saying NGOs tried hard

to be ethical in their work.

Nevertheless, Steinfatt's questioning of

accepted wisdom and attempts to get a more accurate picture of prostitution and

trafficking in Cambodia have led to a healthy, if at times heated, discussion

about research.

The response

Aarti Kapoor,

legal advisor for anti-trafficking NGO Afesip, is one of the most outspoken

critics of the Steinfatt report.

"Basically, we say his figures on

trafficking are too low," said Kapoor.

A feisty report co-written by

Kapoor and American sociologist Joseph Swingle, released by Afesip this month,

disputes results of the study, questioning the methodology and the definitions

used for trafficking victims.

Steinfatt took his definition from the

United States' Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act 2000, which

talks about "trafficking in which a commercial sexual act is induced by force,

fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not

attained 18 years of age."

Afesip's report points out that this

definition is for "severe forms of trafficking" and argued that the "true and

wider definition" would have found a greater number of prostitutes counted in

Steinfatt's study as being victims of trafficking.

Kapoor and Swindle

also note that while claiming to be a study "Measuring the Number of Trafficked

Women and Children in Cambodia", Steinfatt's research focuses exclusively on

trafficking for sexual exploitation, omitting trafficking for begging and labor.

Recent research from the International Organization for Migration found

hundreds of children cross into Vietnam and Thailand each year to beg,

suggesting overall trafficking figures could be significantly higher than

Steinfatt's count of sex-trafficking victims.

In the introduction to his

study, Steinfatt does acknowledge the other forms of trafficking but states that

"women and children trafficked as sex workers.... is the focus of this


The Afesip report makes a host of further criticisms that it says

result in unreliable figures, including: the failure to visit three of

Cambodia's top ten most populous towns (Prey Veng, Pursat, Takeo); the

undercounting of prostitutes in "street pick-up areas"; the reliance on brothel

managers to give full and accurate information about their workers; and the use

of motodop drivers in the research.

"Would a brothel owner not become

suspicious of anyone not actually buying any services right then but asking all

these questions?" asked the Afesip report.

Steinfatt defended his use of

motodops at a roundtable discussion on trafficking research and policy organized

by the Asia Foundation and co-sponsored by the Ministry of Women's and Veterans'

Affairs and the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center.

He said their role

providing transport for customers to brothels as well as their first-hand

knowledge of the local sex industry puts them in a uniquely informed position.

Steinfatt found motodops to be a reliable source of information on sex

in the city. When three motodops were asked to map the major sex-work locations

in the area, each produced a list that included 90 per cent of places the others

mentioned. Similarly, when more than one motodop surveyed the same brothel, the

resulting reports were accurate to within 95 per cent of one another.


technique of using motodops to scout for information raised another contentious

issue: that of trust.

Steinfatt argues that prostitution is a commercial

activity and brothel owners are business people. Therefore, a brothel owner will

make a quick decision to trust a potential customer and reveal the full range of

services available or not.

"I don't believe there's any kind of sliding

scale. I've seen people get simply flung right out of a brothel when people are

not sure about them but I have never seen a manager knowingly lie or lower a

number or change a number - they either give estimates or they don't," Steinfatt

told the Post on May 18.

He pointed out that motodops used to gather

data were not told of the research project and so genuinely believed they were

procuring information for clients, leading to a more relaxed


Sitting alongside Steinfatt while he answered queries at the

May 11 roundtable discussion was Dr Janice Madden, director of the Alice Paul

Center for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Pennsylvania, who

prepared her own assessment of various trafficking studies.


"Notes on Issues in Counting Commercial Sex Workers and Trafficked Individuals"

questioned several technical research matters in Steinfatt's study and broadly

agreed with points made by Kapoor and Swindle in the Afesip report.

However she said: "The minor issues raised in my summaries of his

techniques above, if correct, do not materially affect Steinfatt's counts. These

studies [Steinfatt's] represent the best, by several degrees of magnitude, of

those reviewed here."

Policy and funding

Researchers and NGO workers

involved in anti-trafficking efforts generally agree that accurate statistics

are crucial to providing meaningful projects to help victims and prevent


"Hard data on the trafficking problem can help us establish

a baseline and track the problem over time," said Nancy Hopkins, representative

for the Asia Foundation in Cambodia, opening the roundtable


"If we are serious about addressing trafficking, we must be

able to articulate a clear sense of the scale of the problem to show that it's

important relative to other problems Cambodia may be facing," Hopkins


Most funding agencies and NGOs told the Post they had no fears that

reduced estimates of the scale of prostitution and trafficking in Cambodia would

have a negative affect on funding.

The consensus was that more detailed

research will lead to more effective programs to battle trafficking.


is only in the mind that the problem has changed, nothing has changed on the

ground," said John Vijghen, a research advisor for the Coalition to Address

Sexual Exploitation of Children in Cambodia (COSECAM).

"In terms of

projects, it [a revision of statistics] won't affect [funding] because projects

work in reality," said Vijgen.

The very real battle against human

trafficking has been given a boost in recent years, leaping to the forefront of

the international funding agenda.

Last year, US President George Bush

committed $50 million dollars to "support the good work of organizations that

are rescuing women and children from exploitation, and giving them shelter and

medical treatment and the hope of a new life".

While Cambodia's share is

still being negotiated, the new money is expected to increase significantly the

capacity of USAID to support trafficking programs.

The increased funding

has researchers upbeat.

"Now, as long as you've got trafficking in your

proposal you'll get funding... a few years ago it was gender," joked John


But Vijghen, who has studied trafficking in Cambodia for over a

decade, says there is a need for more research that is not linked to projects,

which he says gives studies an in-built bias.

"The good thing about

starting without presumptions is that what comes out comes out and then you can

go and design your programs," he says, adding that it was more difficult to

secure funding for this type of research.

The debate over trafficking

studies is set to continue, with Thomas Steinfatt preparing a response to

Afesip's report, due for release in the next month, but one thing is clear:

thousands of women and children continue to be trafficked from, through and into

Cambodia each year.

"When we're talking about the impact of trafficking

on an individual life, there's no way that you can capture in quantitative terms

the trauma associated with this type of abuse," Nancy Hopkins reminded the

research conference on May 11.

Aarti Kapoor echoed the words of many who

fight against trafficking when she said: "Even five victims, or 100 victims, or

one victim, is too many."


  • Volunteer scheme to foster ‘virtuous’ humanitarian spirit

    A senior education official said volunteer work contributes to solidarity and promotes a virtuous humanitarian spirit among the youth and communities. Serei Chumneas, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, made the comment during the opening of a training programme called “

  • Chinese firms unveil preliminary results on metro, monorail for capital

    Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol and representatives from China Road and Bridge Corp (CRBC) and its parent company, the state-owned China Communications Construction Co Ltd (CCCC), met on June 24 for talks on results of the firms’ preliminary study on a potential metro

  • ACLEDA, WU to enable global money transfers

    Cambodia's largest commercial bank by total assets ACLEDA Bank Plc and global money transfer firm Western Union (WU) have partnered to offer customers cross-border money transfers to 200 countries via “ACLEDA mobile” app. In Channy, president and group managing director of ACLEDA, said the June 22 agreement

  • Cambodia detects new Covid cases after 52 days: PM

    After 52 days of zero new Covid-19 cases, Cambodia has now detected new infections, according to Prime Minister Hun Sen. In his special audio address to the nation late on June 28, Hun Sen said the new cases were detected on people who had undergone PCR tests

  • Higher education leaders tour US

    With support from the US Department of State, 10 Cambodian leaders in higher education participated in the 10-day International Visitors Leadership Programme (IVLP) in three US states from June 19 to July 1. They included nine university rectors and directors of higher education institutions who are members of

  • Gold-covered boundary stone found within Angkor Thom’s West Gate

    The Apsara National Authority (ANA) announced that their working group in charge of restoration work at Angkor Thom's Takav Gate or the West Gate recently found an ancient stone slab commonly known as a boundary stone. The boundary stone is 53 cm by 53 cm and 12 cm