To Reduce Human Trafficking, Fight Corruption and Improve Economic Freedom

Report International Economies

To Reduce Human Trafficking, Fight Corruption and Improve Economic Freedom

February 18, 2016 5 min read Download Report

Authors: Olivia Enos and James Roberts

January was National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness month, a time set aside to reflect on the way forward in global efforts to combat trafficking in persons, and this month the 22nd annual edition of The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom was published. It is an opportune moment to highlight one of the best ways to eliminate the pernicious scourge of trafficking: adopting policies that promote economic freedom.

The Correlation Between Economic Freedom and Human Trafficking

The U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report measures countries’ compliance with minimum standards for combatting TIP and ranks countries from best to worst in four categories: Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, and Tier 3.

Of the 18 countries on Tier 3 in the 2015 TIP report, all but two were considered “Repressed” or “Mostly Unfree”—the lowest categories in the 2016 Index of Economic Freedom.[1] The two exceptions, Thailand and Kuwait, are considered only “Moderately Free.” Economically repressed countries on Tier 3 include North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Iran, to name a few.

In contrast, countries designated Tier 1 in the TIP report predominantly rank as “Free” or “Mostly Free” in the Index. The implication is clear: Countries that promote economic freedom are more likely to be effective in combatting trafficking in persons.

A close examination of human trafficking and the principles of economic freedom—especially strong rule of law—reveals the robust connections between these two desirable societal outcomes.

Stronger Rule of Law Reduces Human Trafficking

Rule of law initiatives, including proper training for local law enforcement, judges, and prosecutors, in addition to access to legal and judicial protections, have a demonstrated track record for reducing human trafficking.

For instance, International Justice Mission (IJM), an anti-trafficking NGO, documented significant declines in the availability of minors for sex trafficking in both Cambodia and the Philippines due to improved access to legal and judicial systems. IJM’s work emphasizes rescue and rehabilitation of victims, prosecution of traffickers through law enforcement training programs, provision of legal assistance, and referral of victims to aftercare services.

IJM’s three-year pilot program, Project Lantern, in Cebu, Philippines, documented a 79 percent decrease in the number of minors available for commercial sex.[2] IJM experienced similar results from programs in Cambodia where the availability of minors for sex trafficking dropped from between 15 and 30 percent in the early 2000s, to just 8.16 percent between 2014 and 2015.[3] The availability of children under age 15 is even lower, at just 0.75 percent.[4] The Philippines and Cambodia are notable cases where rule of law programming—the promotion of economic freedom—has significantly reduced trafficking.



Foreign aid-funded rule of law projects have had success in other parts of the world, too, including in the Middle East. Jordan, for example, was temporarily upgraded from Tier 2 Watch List in 2008 to Tier 2 in 2009 due in part to improvements in its rule of law.[5] Since 2010, the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative has trained hundreds of prosecutors, improved access to the Jordanian legal system, and enhanced victim protection efforts.[6] The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) conducted similar training.[7] According to the 2015 TIP report, rule of law programming correlated with increased efforts in Jordan “to prosecute and convict trafficking offenders, and continued [efforts] to identify and refer to protection services an increased number of trafficking victims.”[8] Although Jordan remains Tier 2, rule of law technical assistance programs have improved anti-TIP efforts in that country.

Reality-based anti-TIP law enforcement initiatives recognize the underlying motive to human traffickers—profit—and are designed to increase risks to traffickers if they continue their illegal behavior. These disincentives, when established within a country’s legal system, can eliminate the threat by apprehending and prosecuting traffickers, facilitating the rescue of victims, and enabling victims to be properly rehabilitated. Of course, anti-trafficking efforts enjoy more success when they occur within the larger context of robust efforts by government and civil society to reduce corruption, promote economic freedom, and strengthen the rule of law.

Creating Sustainable Alternative Employment Opportunities

In addition to assessing whether a country has a capable and politically independent judiciary to enforce laws and protect private property, the Index of Economic Freedom also measures a country’s openness to competition (both domestic and global) as well as the degree of state intervention in the economy (whether through taxation, spending, price controls, or overregulation). It consistently finds that free markets and entrepreneurship are keys to prosperity and reports a significant positive correlation between higher economic freedom scores and reduced poverty. Corruption, meanwhile, undermines every aspect of sustainable development.

Poverty and lack of economic opportunities are two of the most important factors that heighten vulnerability to trafficking.

Private-sector trade and investment is by far the best combination to spur sustainable economic growth in developing countries, and economic growth is the bedrock of economic freedom. Only a financially healthy private sector, operating in a competitive formal economy with secure property rights and transparent rule of law, can create the businesses and long-term jobs that are essential to long-term economic growth and development.

Regrettably, in too many of the developing countries that are the sources of trafficked persons, the international development assistance “industry” (which has been called “Poverty, Inc.”[9]) has tended to reinforce powerful and corrupt local elites who remain in control—sometimes for decades—in part by encouraging a dependency mindset among their constituents. This sense of dependency and helplessness matches closely with the outlook that is common among trafficking victims.

Therefore, another important step to take in the fight against trafficking is to reduce ineffective foreign aid programs and promote trade and investment by private businesses.

The Path Forward

A key component to advancing U.S. and global efforts to combat trafficking in persons is the upgrade of rule of law programs and other steps to promote economic freedom. Specifically:

  • Focus more foreign aid resources from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries on specialized law enforcement and judicial training programs that address TIP concerns. TIP victims must have access to fair and honest legal and judicial protection. The key to stopping trafficking is effective law enforcement and a judicial system free from corruption. The enactment and enforcement of new and appropriate laws is critical. Police corruption and weak judicial institutions are the primary obstacles to breaking up human trafficking networks.
  • Prioritize U.S. foreign aid to countries with significant human-trafficking challenges and implement anti-TIP best practices. The U.S. State Department, for example, should insist that USAID provide funds for training and assistance to law enforcement agencies in TIP source countries if they demonstrate a willingness to confront the problem. Congress should monitor the success of these USAID programs.
  • Promote free market and private sector-led economic growth. Free enterprise and innovation create employment opportunities and reduce vulnerabilities to human trafficking. Improvements in the rule of law, the promotion of regulatory efficiency and openness to global trade and investment, along with restraints on the size and reach of government, therefore, provide the best environment to inspire people to develop practical solutions to economic and social challenges confronting the world.

The U.S. should promote economic freedom as a cornerstone of anti-trafficking efforts. Apart from this, U.S. programming will fail to address some of the main drivers of human trafficking.

—Olivia Enos is a Research Associate in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation. James M. Roberts is Research Fellow for Economic Freedom and Growth in the Center for Trade and Economics, of the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Terry Miller and Anthony B. Kim, 2016 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington: The Heritage Foundation and Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 2016),, and U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, “Trafficking in Persons Report 2015: Tier Placements,” (accessed February 4, 2016).

[2] Holly Burkhalter, “Sex Trafficking, Law Enforcement and Perpetrator Accountability,” Anti-Trafficking Review, No. 1 (June 2012), (accessed January 26, 2015).

[3] Gary Haugen, “Justice Review: A Journal on Protection and Justice for the Poor,” International Justice Mission, September 2014, (accessed February 4, 2016).

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Trafficking in Persons Report 2015.”

[6] American Bar Association, “Current Rule of Law Programs in Jordan,” (accessed February 4, 2016).

[7] United States Agency of International Development, “Jordan Rule of Law Program, 20th Quarterly Report,” July-September 2013, (accessed February 4, 2016).

[8] “Trafficking in Persons Report 2015.”

[9] Poverty Inc., directed by Michael Matheson Miller, (Warren, NJ: Passion River Films, 2014), (accessed February 5, 2016).


Olivia Enos
Olivia Enos

Former Senior Policy Analyst, Asian Studies Center

James Roberts
James Roberts

Former Research Fellow For Economic Freedom and Growth