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Too far or too close? The role of universities and research centres in the fight against THB

Thu 23 Nov 2023
Opinion Piece by Aitana Radu

First and foremost, I would like to start by clearly stating that I am by no means an expert in human trafficking. By comparison to many colleagues in the field who have devoted their life to researching this topic, my path towards it has been much more recent and circumvoluted. However, by working in the field of intelligence studies, with a special interest in the use of open-source intelligence analysis for threat identification of cross-border crimes, meant that in the last years I found myself engaging  in in-depth exchanges with close colleagues and friends from international organisations, national agencies as well as grassroot NGOs working on this challenging topic. Being a Romanian woman – one of the most trafficked categories in today’s Europe – only enhanced my motivation to contribute to this field.

A striking number of more than 7000 victims of THB informally identified annually in the EU alone, indicates that to make a long-term difference in combating human trafficking, we must begin with victim identification. This serves as the starting point of a thread that, if delicately pulled, can unravel the intricate network of trafficking. While everyone acknowledges the importance of victim identification, some EU countries exhibit a negative trend or significant discrepancies between informal statistics provided by field workers and official figures. One can only wonder why?

Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons, among which the following stand-out:

  1. Levels of trust in authority – Do we trust our police to treat us well when we are victims of crimes? In a recent EU poll, more than 29% of respondents believed that abuse of power is common among the police[1]. So how can THB victims trust authorities, particularly those from countries with high levels of corruption and violence among police ranks?
  2. Intra and inter-state cooperation – rust is essential not only for the victims but also for NGOs, which may be hesitant to cooperate with authorities perceived as inefficient or intentionally protective of traffickers.
  3. Lack of skills among practitioners – We expect investigators to be skilled at their job, but remuneration among police is at an all times low in many EU countries, leading to problems in recruiting and incentivising personnel. In addition to understaffing, there are also training gaps, an overall lack of technological skills and resources.
  4. Absence of an evidence-based approach – We often are witnessing examples of acting without understanding. To name just one example, awareness campaigns targeting victims and by-standers that are designed and implemented without research into the communication patterns of that cultural group.

The key question here is therefore, how to transition from acknowledging our  limitations and gaps to building agency?

Drawing on my 14+ years of experience in the field of intelligence studies, I believe that universities can play a key role as ‘neutral actors’, when it comes to sensitive security topics. I am, of course, aware that none of us are truly neutral, but universities do often have, what can be seen as a privileged position when it comes to societal trust. They are perceived as fora of knowledge that employs scientific methods when investigating topics, in contrast to the more partisan approach displayed by other national and international stakeholders. However, this privileged position can often fall into the trap of ‘aloofness’, where research centres focus their efforts solely on the theoretical and educational spheres – which in this instance may be perceived as being ‘too far’ in terms of achieving an actual positive impact.

This of course does not mean that universities should seek, through their work, to replace other invaluable actors, such as grassroot associations or state agencies, as this would clearly fall into the other pit, namely that of  being ‘too close’. What I advocate for is a revisiting of the role of research centres that would go beyond their traditional remoteness to explore innovative ways of contributing to the fight against THB.

Without aiming to create a comprehensive list, some of the areas worth exploring for this ‘reinvented’ role of universities could include:

  • Creating a space, where dialogue can flourish between different state agencies and civil society. This is a long-term process that would require universities to build – where these do not already exist – trusted relationship with each of these categories, listen to their concerns and bring science to their aid while creating privacy-friendly and trusted environments for discussion (e.g., platforms, workshops, closed meetings).
  • Assisting in the development and provision of training to different types of stakeholders, by acknowledging the need for flexible, tailor-made programs, that may not be within its traditional remit.
  • Providing the evidence-based support/approach for different processes, through intensive and periodical field research; and finally
  • Harnessing its most valuable resource – its students – to foster creative approaches to old problems as a means of empowering new generations.

I would like to conclude with a quote by Terry Pratchett “light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.”. And while this may sound bleak, I would like it to instead act as an encouragement and reminder that all of us, individuals and institutions need to do our very best to bring as much light into the world as possible if we are to keep the darkness at bay.


Aitana Radu

Lecturer & Security Research Coordinator

Department of Information Policy and Governance, Faculty of Media and Knowledge Sciences

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