Public Discourse on Human Trafficking in International Issue Arenas

Niina Meriläinen, Marita Vos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


The purpose of this study is to better understand how the complex problem of human trafficking is addressed in international debates. How the discussion about human trafficking develops and how it is debated ultimately influences how the decision-making process unfolds. In order to understand the formation of public policy and laws, therefore, it is important to study the debate that occurs prior to decision making. This analysis focuses on the narratives used by major, well-established human rights and political actors that argue for necessary actions to be undertaken—such as the formation of new policies and laws in the European Union—as an attempt to protect citizens of the EU and other regions in the world from becoming victims of trafficking networks. Our research examines how the topic of human trafficking is framed and how this framework is intertwined in the debate with other social problems. We focus on how human trafficking is discussed by two well-established human rights Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Amnesty International (Amnesty) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), in addition to the European Parliament (EP). The research questions for this study include: (1) In what context is human trafficking discussed by the three actors? (2) How do these actors frame the definition of human trafficking in their presentations? To answer these questions, we have conducted a systematic content analysis of documents that include official statements and research reports of the NGOs, as well as resolutions and recommendations of the EP. Altogether, 240 documents were analyzed in detail. These findings indicate that the two human rights organizations, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, along with the European Parliament, all address human trafficking as an important social problem, albeit to varying degrees. Each actor has a different method of correlating human trafficking with many other social problems, thereby emphasizing different causes and effects. In our analysis, we examine the concept of framing and, in particular, responsibility framing in order to understand the causal relationships between actors and events. The findings of this study suggest that the formation of various social policies and laws in the international political forum are deeply affected by the dynamic interrelatedness between the political issues, actors, and form and content of the debates about human trafficking that precede the formation or revision of a policy and law.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14-42
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes
Publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • human trafficking
  • human rights
  • power relations
  • framing
  • agenda setting


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