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.

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