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1.5 Combatting human trafficking holistically through proactive financial investigations

Coster van Voorhout, J. E. (2020)

Keywords: Human trafficking, Crimes that undermine the rule of law, Financial investigations, Holistic approach, Interdisciplinary research

Author Jill Coster van Voorhout on the article:

Human trafficking – the offence of exploiting people in sex work, labour sectors like agriculture and construction, illicit activities like drug or weapon trafficking or for organs removal– is a complex crime. While the Netherlands is deemed globally foremost in its anti-human trafficking efforts, all but 1 of 5 estmated victims escape detection. Our understanding of human trafficking and related crimes like money laundering or corruption is hampered due to the clandestine nature of operations of criminal networks, victims' fear of both perpetrators and law enforcement and more. Available data are often discordant, not probative and unreliable. A holistic complexity-based understanding of these crimes can provide a solution, for it requires an understanding of the context and interconnections, and of the system and the spheres with which the act (crime), actor (criminal) and the organisation (the criminal group) interact. Although our understanding of complex systems grows, its transposability to understanding crimes remains to be seen. We now realize that it is reductionist to look at a complex system purely as a sum of its parts. However, considering criminal networks are, by the nature of their undertakings, shrouded in secrecy and encompassing a heterogeneity of actors across the board, we cannot know what their composite parts are or what they are capable of adapting into, given the need. This is exacerbated by the amount of resources funnelled into these offences. Human traffickers, for example, estimatedly annually ‘earn’ $150 billion worldwide. Due to nearly bottomless resources and constant adaptation for fear of discovery, these criminal organisations have evolved to self-organise within, causing actors to assume other roles (adaptability) or take on new roles that the circumstances may require (emergence). Combined with the fact that criminal networks, as complex systems in themselves, indeterminatelyinteract with other complex systems such as law enforcement, legislative climate, economic actors of demand and supply and broadly even push and pull factors, we cannot remain static in our understanding. While criminals are innovatively adaptive in their means and methods of perpetration, our understanding and means of disruption are arrested at a less complex time, leaving us with a debilitating decision-making disadvantage, which may lead to nonlinear consequences.

The core of a complexity-based understanding rests on interdisciplinary research involving new, reliable data sources. The one thing we unequivocally know is that given the presence of criminal activity in a transactionary sphere, there will be tangible deployment of financial resources. This provides an elegant solution- using foundational anti-money laundering legislation, it is possible to use financial information for evidence, enabling us to uncloak a more realistic dataset along with a more detailed understanding of the criminals/organisations, the victims and the crimes themselves, thereby taking us closer to understanding, detection, and ultimately disruption.


Coster van Voorhout, J. E. (2020). Combatting human trafficking holistically through proactive financial investigations. Journal of international criminal justice, 18(1), 87-106.