Human Trafficking Statistics: What Numbers to Use

In my last blog post I discussed why anti-trafficking organizations must be careful using and promoting statistics: most of them are flawed. The post received a lot of positive feedback, illustrating that many of us in the anti-trafficking community are concerned with this issue. Using dated or poorly researched estimates Pie Chartcan hurt an organization’s credibility. And while I believe we should place more focus what we are doing (more on that later), there are times when we need solid estimates to share for awareness, educational, or fundraising purposes. So what estimates can we use?

Two estimates I routinely use come from the International Labour Organization. The first is the ILO 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour, in which the ILO estimates the worldwide number of trafficking victims at 20.9 million people.

The second is the ILO’s 2014 report, Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour. Here we find some interesting estimates:
Estimated worldwide profits from trafficking: $150 Billion
68% of victims are exploited via forced labor
22% of victims are exploited via forced sexual exploitation
(10% of victims are state-imposed forced labor)
Of particular interest, we see that while the vast majority of victims are exploited via forced labor, 2/3 of the profits (estimated at $99B) come from forced sexual exploitation.

I use these estimates because the ILO is an agency of the United Nations, their reports include their methodology, and they will update the reports in the years to come. (I also make sure that I list the ILO reports as the source when I offer these estimates. Estimates or statistics promoted without the source listed is big red flag.) I realize there are other estimates, including some from very knowledgeable professionals. But if you want to give global estimates, you cannot do much better than these. And, in any case, these are estimates: we really don’t know the exact numbers.

When addressing victims and incidents within the United States we can only, at best, piece together disparate sources of data, and some of these sources are seriously flawed. Better to say we just don’t know.

What are the best estimates to deliver to your audience, especially if you are a local anti-trafficking organization or task force? You should be promoting statistics and data from your own work!

For example, if you are serving victims, you should be sharing the number of victims you have assisted, their forms of exploitation (i.e. sex or labor trafficking), and some basic demographic information, such as their gender, nationality, and age range. (None of these elements violate confidentiality protocols.) Law enforcement statistics can include: the number of incidents suspected (an incident can be initially suspected to be trafficking but then proves to be something else, but capturing this number illustrates law enforcement are looking for trafficking cases); the number of incidents investigated as actual trafficking; cases brought before a prosecutor; cases in which charges were brought against suspected traffickers, and; convictions. Obtaining this data is not that difficult: many organizations and task forces have this information readily available.

But too often, organizations and agencies don’t take the time to gather this data. They pass it off as too much work to do; a complex process involving many reporting agencies; or push back on data sharing as a breach of confidentiality. Sometimes I’ve been told, “We don’t have many victims or cases and we will look like we are not accomplishing anything.” Well, every service agency had to have their first client (i.e. victim). Every law enforcement agency had to have their first human trafficking case. Don’t hide from the complexity and difficulty of fighting modern slavery, inform others about the hard work you are doing!

Audiences want to know about your organization’s accomplishments and challenges. And if they are donating, they should be given an honest picture of your work. Also, when you educate others about the difficult work you are doing, you are highlighting the commitment and passion of those doing the work; your staff! Even more important than sharing your stats is sharing stories of commitment by your organization. And share success stories of the survivors you have served.

Don’t focus on big numbers, focus on work you do!

In my next post I’ll explore how to conduct a basic community assessment to gather data on trafficking and response efforts. If you are interested in more information on the problems with many of the commonly-quoted statistics, they are addressed in The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery.

8 thoughts on “Human Trafficking Statistics: What Numbers to Use

  1. Cindy Archer

    Thank you, John! Just what PATH needs to help us along at this point, as we address developing our community assessment.

  2. Mary Benson

    Thanks, John. Your information is helpful in emphasizing the importance of using only accurate statistics when we report on our work in human trafficking. You made the point of how assessments and evaluations can more often than not be unhelpful and misleading. I’m keenly aware of this having recently sat in a couple of meetings where tattoo removal for trafficking survivors has been a topic. (We know there is a need to remove the tattoos that are symbolic and demoralizing reminders of a survivor’s’ former identity with their trafficker.) I’ve been working on steps to potentially accommodate survivors who are residents of safe houses or in the foster care system by integrating them into the City of San Jose’s Clean Slate program where they will have access to tattoo removal at Valley Medical Center. An important question that comes up in meetings addressing tattoo removal is related to the number of survivors who need this service. So far numbers have been difficult to determine. I know there are more than one, but the “less than” number is not there. Until I can provide an accurate answer as to how many survivors have this need, and as I continue to work to obtain numbers, my response is that I don’t yet know but continue to pursue an accurate answer.

    1. John Vanek Post author

      Mary, that is is unique segment of HT victims. It’s fantastic that you are trying to help survivors in this way. I’ve sent you an email with more information.

  3. Frank

    The fact of the matter is that there are enormous incentives for people in the ‘anti-trafficking’ field to lie about statistics. Nearly all of these anti-trafficking laws were, at least in part, passed based on the use of bogus statistics and these bogus statistics are still in use today. Like the example you used about “The average age of entry into forced prostitution is 12-14 years of age”. How about all of that trafficking around the Super Bowl lie? That one sure does a good job of extorting money. How about the movie ‘Taken’? That was based on a lie. That 12-14 years old lie is based on a bogus report from 15 years ago. Why is it still being used today? Is it really hurting anyone’s credibility? If it were, it wouldn’t be repeated and repeated.

    It doesn’t cut it say, “These are the best numbers we have”. Actually, if you can’t come up accurate numbers then admit it and don’t report them. That ILO report you mentioned is also false. They openly admit to using “mostly secondary sources” and that the “practice is extremely difficult to research and quantify”. For a discussion on the fraud of “secondary sources”, check out Neil Howard’s article in The Guardian from January 2014. Howard did real on-the-ground research on trafficking in Benin.

    The bottom line is that nobody knows what the numbers are, but government funding and grants from foundations/corporations depend on inflated numbers, so there is enormous pressure to come up with something, whether it is a lie or not.

    1. John Vanek Post author

      Frank, you raise some good points. And, yes, some people do feel pressure to inflate numbers. But more often, I believe, there is a lack of coordinated assessment at the community level. And these are the most important numbers. We should be focused on the cases – and the stats – at the local level. Not only should they be easier to determine, they reflect real people who have been victimized or have exploited others.

  4. John O. Meekins

    To me the money and funding is skewed towards minors. Nobody wants to be against kids. A judge in Ohio has a program for women who have been arrested for prostitution or related charges. The average age of the women who are in his program is 34. There are few services for someone who meets the federal legal definition of a sex trafficking victim.


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