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Legalised prostitution increases human trafficking

Countries where prostitution is legal experience larger reported inflows of human trafficking, according to new research that investigates the impact of legalised prostitution on what is thought to be one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world.

Every year, thousands of men, women and children are trafficked across international borders. The vast majority of countries in the world are affected by trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims. The United Nations estimated in 2008 that nearly 2.5 million people from 127 different countries had been being trafficked into 137 countries around the world.

Research on human trafficking is still in its early stages, but is growing as the seriousness of the problem becomes more apparent. It is thought to be second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable illegal industry.

The article, Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?, by Professor Eric Neumayer of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Dr Seo-Young Cho of the German Institute for Economic Research, and Professor Axel Dreher of Heidelberg University, is due to be published in the January 2013 edition of the journal World Development.Red Light District

Describing international human trafficking as “one of the dark sides of globalisation”, it explains that most victims of international human trafficking are women and girls, the vast majority of whom end up being sexually exploited through prostitution. Domestic policy on prostitution in countries of destination, it says, has a marked effect.

The researchers used a global sample of 116 countries. They found that countries where prostitution is legal tend to experience a higher reported inflow of human trafficking than countries in which prostitution is prohibited.

The article’s authors also looked in more detail at Sweden, Germany and Denmark, which changed their prostitution laws during the past 13 years. Sweden prohibited it in 1999, while Germany further legalised it by allowing third-party involvement in 2002. Denmark decriminalised it in 1999 so that self-employed prostitution is legal, but brothel operation is still forbidden.

Germany showed a sharp increase in reports of human trafficking upon fully legalising prostitution in 2002. The number of human trafficking victims in 2004 in Denmark, where it is decriminalised, was more than four times that of Sweden, where it is illegal, although the population size of Sweden is about 40 per cent larger.

Eric Neumayer, Professor of Environment and Development at LSE, commented; "Most victims of international human trafficking are women and girls coerced into the sex industry abroad. We wanted to find out if legalised prostitution increases or reduces demand for trafficked women. One theory is that legalised prostitution reduces demand because legally residing prostitutes are favoured over trafficked ones after legalisation. However, our research suggests that in countries where prostitution is legalised, there is such a significant expansion of the prostitution market that the end result is larger reported inflows of human trafficking. While legalising prostitution can have positive effects on the working conditions of those legally employed in the industry, it also appears to boost the market for this fast-growing global criminal industry."

The researchers warn that due to the clandestine nature of both trafficking and prostitution markets, their analysis had to rely on the best available existing data on reported  human trafficking inflows. That legalised prostitution increases human trafficking inflows is likely, but cannot be proven with available evidence. The researchers also note that other reasons might speak against prohibiting prostitution despite its impact on human trafficking.

The article concludes: “The likely negative consequences of legalised prostitution on a country’s inflows of human trafficking might be seen to support those who argue in favour of banning prostitution, thereby reducing the flows of trafficking. However, such a line of argumentation overlooks potential benefits that the legalisation of prostitution might have on those employed in the industry. Working conditions could be substantially improved for prostitutes—at least those legally employed—if prostitution is legalised. Prohibiting prostitution also raises tricky “freedom of choice” issues concerning both the potential suppliers and clients of prostitution services.”


For a copy of the report and/or to interview Professor Neumayer, please contact: Joe Meegan, Communications and Events Officer, LSE Geography and Environment, j.d.meegan@lse.ac.uk or Eric Neumayer, e.neumayer@lse.ac.uk.

For any other queries, please contact Joanna Bale, LSE Press Office, j.m.bale@lse.ac.uk

Posted 5 December 2012