Category Archives: Human Trafficking

How Do We Define & Determine the Use of Force, Fraud, or Coercion.

(The following is an excerpt from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery (2016). Beginning on January 11th, every other day I’ll be posting excerpts from my book to help readers learn more about this issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Essential Abolitionist answers the most often-asked questions about human trafficking, and the response to modern slavery.)

When examining any incident to determine whether it could be considered human trafficking, we must look for force, fraud, or coercion. Only one of these elements needs to be present, not all three. When examining an incident to determine whether a person should be considered a victim of trafficking, we must establish how force, fraud, or coercion was used to obtain the commercial sex act or labor or service from the victim.

When looking for force, fraud, or coercion, we must look at it from the victim’s perspective, or state of mind. The degree of force needed to make one person do something they don’t want to do may be far greater, or far less, for any given individual. As a result, determining the type of force, fraud, or coercion—and the extent, or degree, to which it was used—in the case of a trafficking victim is especially difficult. Investigators and prosecutors seeking proof of force, fraud, or coercion must examine the evidence in detail and will often find, for example, that fraud is difficult to distinguish from coercion. Because even professionals debate among themselves what constitutes force, fraud, or coercion, illustrating each element in more detail can be helpful.

Force is the use, or potential use, of physical power or violence. Physically assaulting or threatening to assault a victim in order to force them to perform an act of labor or commercial sex is the most common example of force. A trafficker need not actually assault the victim; simply threatening to assault the victim can constitute force. Also, violence threatened against another person can be considered force—even if the trafficker does not have the ability to actually commit the violence—so long as the victim reasonably believes they do. For example, a trafficker may threaten to harm a victim’s family if the victim does not comply with the trafficker’s demands. Even if the victim’s family is located in another state or country and the trafficker has no realistic way to carry out the threat, if the victim reasonably believes the threat is real, this threat can be regarded as force (or coercion, as we will learn).

Force can also be seen as constraint if, for example, a victim is locked in a sweat shop and forced to sew clothing. But constraint does not always mean being locked in a room; a victim who is not allowed to eat if they do not perform or complete their labor is constrained from eating; often, victims of street-level commercial sex trafficking are not allowed by their pimp or trafficker to eat until they have performed a certain number of “tricks” (i.e., performed sex acts with a purchaser).

In legal terms, fraud commonly refers to misrepresenting facts through words or conduct, or by concealing or omitting facts that should have been disclosed with the intention to deceive another person. Perhaps the most common method of recruiting a slave is simply offering them a job. If a trafficker offers a job they know does not, in fact, exist, or if they lie about the working conditions and salary of a job, they are using fraud to obtain the victim’s labor or services. Let’s say a trafficker offers a woman a job working as a domestic servant in another country and offers to pay the transportation costs, which the woman will repay through her earnings. The trafficker promises the victim a certain salary and work conditions. However, when the victim arrives she finds she is forced to work more hours or for less pay than originally promised. The victim may feel compelled to continue to work simply because she does not have the money to return home or because she is hopeful conditions will improve. If it can be shown that the trafficker never intended to pay the victim as offered, this could constitute fraud.

Fraud can also lead to the use of force. Suppose the trafficker in the above scenario offers the same woman the same job, but the trafficker knows, in reality, no such job exists and when the woman arrives she will be forced to work in a brothel to “repay” the transportation costs. When the woman refuses to work in the brothel, violence is used (or threatened) to force the woman to work. Fraud was used to get the woman to voluntarily travel from her home to the country in which the commercial-sex exploitation occurs, and force was used to compel her to do work she did not want to do.

Traffickers also defraud victims by telling them the salary they will earn will be paid to family members, yet the earnings are never sent to the family. The trafficker is obtaining labor from the victim who works willingly, believing their family is receiving the money. In this scenario, the trafficker will have to monitor any communication between the victim and their family so the ruse will not be discovered. Despite the fact that the labor in this case is provided willingly and the victim is not constrained or threatened with force, this situation meets the definition of human trafficking.

Coercion can be a more difficult element to understand. Luckily the term is defined in the United States Code, Title 22, Chapter 78, § 7102.[i]

The term “coercion” means—

  1. threats of serious harm to or physical restraint against any person;
  2. any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act would result in serious harm to or physical restraint against any person; or
  3. the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process.

The definition speaks to “threats of serious harm” or a “pattern intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act would result in serious harm.” Coercion does not require an actual act of violence; coercion is used to control a victim’s state of mind, or their perceptions, and gain compliance through fear. It is also important to understand that the threatened harm can be against “any person” and not necessarily against the victim. A trafficker may threaten to harm a victim’s family member, and if the victim complies with the trafficker based upon the fear his family member may be harmed, that equals coercion.

This example also illustrates how the terms “force” and “coercion” can both be used to describe the same activity, in this case threats of physical violence made by the trafficker. This overlap can lead to confusion, but the exact legal definition of these terms is most important to prosecutors and should not interfere with our general definition of human trafficking.

Section C of the definition of coercion refers to “the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process.” A common example of this form of coercion occurs when a foreign national victim either arrives in the United States without legal documentation or enters the United States on a valid short-term visa but then overstays the visa’s time frame (i.e., they do not leave the United States before their visa expires), and their traffickers threaten to turn them over to law enforcement or immigration authorities. The trafficker might tell the victim she will be imprisoned for being in the United States illegally. If the victim continues to perform the commercial sex acts, labor, or services, as demanded by the trafficker because of her fear of being imprisoned, she is being coerced. The supreme irony of this scenario is that the TVPA created victim protections to stop exactly this type of coercion! (These protections will be discussed in Chapter 4.)

In truth, most incidents of human trafficking involve some degree of two or even all three elements of force, fraud, or coercion. And though the TVPA does not require force, fraud, or coercion in incidents where the victim is under age 18 and involved in commercial sex, any force, fraud, or coercion used should be investigated and documented by investigators. (After receiving proper training it should be easy for investigators to articulate these criminal elements.) Mastering these terms is especially important for investigators and prosecutors since many laws have greater prison sentences for traffickers who use force, fraud, or coercion. For instance, under California law, a trafficker who exploits a minor through a commercial sex act—and whose use of force, fraud, coercion, fear, duress, or other means are not shown in court—can be sentenced to 5, 8, or 12 years in prison. However, if the investigator can articulate how force, fraud, and/or coercion were used to compel the victim, the trafficker can receive a sentence ranging from 15 years to life!

These are just some common examples of how modern slaves are compelled by their traffickers to perform sex acts or labor. Every instance of trafficking must be closely examined on its own merits. Sometimes, when a trafficking incident is suspected, the most difficult part of the process is simply identifying the form and degree of force, fraud, or coercion involved.

[i] Trafficking Victims Protection, U.S. Code Chapter 78, § 7102. (2000). Available from Cornell University Law School:

How is Human Trafficking Defined?

(The following is an excerpt from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery (2016). Beginning on January 11th, every other day I’ll be posting excerpts from my book to help readers learn more about this issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Essential Abolitionist answers the most often-asked questions about human trafficking, and the response to modern slavery.)

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines human trafficking as the following.

  1. Sex Trafficking: the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; and
  2. Labor Trafficking: the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

Several important elements of this definition need to be clearly understood. The most obvious is that there are two different categories of human trafficking, with distinct specifications. Note that both include the words “force, fraud, or coercion,” which are addressed in detail later. However, there is a key distinction between these definitions. When the type of trafficking is commercial sex and the “person induced to perform such act”—the victim—is under the age of 18, no force, fraud, or coercion needs to be shown. Yet, in the specification for labor trafficking, force, fraud, or coercion needs to be shown regardless of the age of the victim.

The first category in the definition of human trafficking addresses “commercial sex acts,” not sex acts in general. A commercial sex act is defined in the TVPA as “any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.” So to be considered human trafficking, the incident must include a commercial element; something of value must be given or received. This requirement distinguishes human trafficking from, for example, rape or other forms of sexual assault where no commercial element exists. Value is often represented by money but can be satisfied by anything of recognizable value.

For now, there are three important reasons to understand these basic definitions. First, when discussing human trafficking, we must all have a mutual understanding of the definition. Second, when potential victims of human trafficking are identified, these definitions set the criteria used to classify them as victims of trafficking, which then allows them access to specialized benefits and reliefs available to trafficking victims by law. Finally, this definition is the standard by which individual state laws are measured, with most states using similar language in their statutory definition of human trafficking.

Two other points to clarify: The TVPA uses the term “severe forms of trafficking in persons,” implying there are forms of trafficking less than “severe.” This language causes confusion, but any case of human trafficking involving the use of force, fraud, or coercion is considered “severe.” Also keep in mind that this definition is not a criminal statute used to prosecute traffickers. Both federal and state statutes exist which address more specific elements of the crime of human trafficking and their associated monetary and penal penalties.

In short, human trafficking is using force, fraud, or coercion to obtain commercial sex acts or other labor or services—with the exception that when the type of trafficking is commercial sex, and the victim is under 18, no force, fraud, or coercion need be shown.

Backpage Shutters Adult Ads Section: What Happens Next?

Backpage shuts down adult ad section, citing government pressure and unlawful censorship campaign.

Of course this story is making news today, especially within the anti-trafficking community. But is also raises the debate – among many passionate people within the community – on the real value of this action. (If you read the article you will see a quote from the founder of Children of the Night who considers this a loss of a valuable investigative tool – just one argument among many.)

If we want to know what will really result from this shutdown, we need only look at what happened after Craigslist shuttered their Adult Services section in 2010.

First, Backpage (just like Craigslist) shut down these ads ONLY in the United States, so the impact on trafficking (and the loss of revenue) is domestic, not global.

Next; someone, somewhere, at this very moment is desperately building a platform to replace the void from Backpage’s departure – just as Backpage filled the void when Craigslist exited. Both Federal and local law enforcement officials (who actually work HT cases) will tell you that both Craigslist and Backpage were typically very helpful to law enforcement, quickly responding to subpoenas and other requests for help. Yes, this is a little like playing with the devil, but a cooperative devil, at least.

There are several other online platforms buyers of sex can access, many of which are private and require membership to access (My Redbook was among the most infamous until they were indicted). Pushing the advertising further underground can create operational and financial challenges for many law enforcement agencies. When these companies operate off-shore, they can thumb their noses at law enforcement, which may be powerless to act against them.

Looking back to 2010, there is scant evidence that shutting down Craigslist’s Adult Services section had any real impact. We will have to wait and see what the real impact will be here.

My point is not to defend Backpage, Craigslist, or any other advertiser; it is to point out the complexity in these issues (and tactics) within the anti-trafficking community.

I addressed this issue in my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery. (See the special offer notice below.)  I’ll end here quoting the final paragraph from my answer to the question: What was the impact of shutting down the Craigslist Adult Services section?

“Not all anti-trafficking initiatives actually reduce human trafficking, or are they always intended to. Analyzing the potential consequences and looking for unforeseen consequences are both critical steps when exploring potential anti-trafficking actions. Some efforts raise public awareness; other improve the response of law enforcement or service providers. And some efforts arise from the simple moral ground that requires us to act if we oppose slavery. But, however worthy these aspirations, they do not guarantee our efforts will always have a tangible outcome.”

**January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. To help educate others about modern slavery, during January the Kindle version of The Essential Abolitionist is 50% off on Amazon. **

New Data on Youth in the Sex Trade, Everyone Should Read

Two of the most commonly promoted “facts” about the human trafficking of children within the United States tell us “100,000-300,000 children are at risk of sex trafficking every year in the United States” and, “the average age of entry into the sex trade is between 12-14 years of age.” Both of these estimates are, in fact, based upon outdated and fuzzy research. Even the authors of the report from which the “100,000-300,000” estimate is based have stated their findings should not be promoted. Yet these myths (and others) persist at an alarming rate.

But a new report (supported in part by the United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) gives us fresh information on this topic. And based upon this research effort, the two trafficking myths of at-risk youth and age of entry into the sex trade are seriously challenged.

Youth Involvement in the Sex Trade, is the result of interviewing 949 individuals (respondents), age 13-24, in six regions across the United States: Atlantic City, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Las Vegas, and the San Francisco Bay Area (including Oakland and the South Bay/San Jose area). Researchers focused on the exchanging of sex for money, food, housing, drugs, or other goods. While looking for data on youth involvement in the sex trade, the researchers rightly understood that the issue of youth involvement doesn’t end when the youth turns 18, which is why the interviews included subjects up to age 24. The researchers also factored in arrest data, and examined the intersection of youth with law enforcement and service provision agencies.

As the report relates to the two myths mentioned above, the research found that 77% of those interviewed first exchanged sex for goods under age 18; the average age being 15.8 years.

But the most striking finding suggests that the number of children engaged in the sex trade is 10,506 — far less than the “100,000-300,000” estimate promoted as fact for so long. The researchers acknowledge that this number is not precise: the number could be as low as 4,457 or as high as 20,994.

The researchers were focused on the dynamics of youth involved in the trading of sex for money or goods, not solely those being exploited by a pimp or trafficker. Using a liberal definition of pimp, the researchers believe their data more likely over-estimates the prevalence of pimps. While it is striking that only 15% of respondents reported having a pimp, the researchers make clear the line separating force, fraud, and coercion from complete consensual involvement is hazy: “The population is often involved in complex social relationships that, for a vast majority, does not involve direct coercion, control, or force–but often involves others who find themselves in broadly analogous positions in the underground economy.” (Executive Summary, p. xv)

So what does this mean for those of us involved in the response to trafficking? Do we reduce our efforts because–potentially–far fewer youth are at risk than previously believed? Of course not! We will not rest as long as anyone, anywhere, is at risk of exploitation or enslavement. While all research includes the caveat that the data is only a sampling and that more research is needed, we should take this data to heart as we develop and implement strategies and programs to reduce all forms of trafficking and aid all types of victims.

We should also bury outdated and baseless “facts” that misrepresent the work we do, and often preys on the emotions of donors and others from whom we seek support. This report should be studied by all involved in the response to trafficking.


Note: The two myths described above are among many promoted by well-meaning groups and organizations within the anti-trafficking community. As a result, in The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery, I devote an entire chapter to myths and misconceptions. As an abolitionist community, we need to share with others the best information we have, or explain why we don’t have better information. Using bad data reflects upon our community as a whole. When quoting or promoting data or estimates please make sure your information is reliable and based upon sound research.

Human Trafficking Estimates: Local is Best, Part 2

StatisticsIn the past weeks we have examined how trafficking estimates can be flawed, and the challenges in obtaining local or regional estimates. With this understanding, let’s focus on exactly what we need to know (and share) to answer this question: How much human trafficking is occurring in our community?

But before we begin, two caveats: First, laws (along with agency protocols) dictate what type of information can be shared with other persons and agencies. This is commonly referred to as confidentiality. Confidentiality laws also protect certain persons — for example, case managers and attorneys — from disclosing certain information in court. Do not violate confidentiality; when in doubt, do not share information. But, as we will see, we should be willing to share generalized information that helps us understand the prevalence of trafficking.

Second, we must be willing to accept that the silos of data regarding human trafficking victims and incidents are difficult to keep nice and neat; more often, we must be willing to accept (and explain to others) the complexity of trafficking. We are not professional researchers; we are just trying to collect information from a variety of anti-trafficking stakeholders from our community.

What information really needs to be shared? We do not need names, specific age, or other personally identifiable information. We need basic information regarding victims: gender; age range (5 year segments are good); type of exploitation (labor or commercial sex) and perhaps a category, such as domestic servitude, agricultural labor, forced prostitution, etc., and; nationality. If partners are willing, it is also useful to know what country the victim is from. That’s it. No additional information is needed. A specific victim cannot be identified based on this information. When we realize this is all the information we need to share–not names or other identifying information–sharing becomes much easier.

When collecting this information, steps should be taken to avoid a victim being reported more than once. For example, if a victim has received assistance from more than one service provider, the providers should ensure the victim is not reported more than once. This can be avoided in a couple of ways: The victim will usually have one case manager, so they can help avoid duplicate reporting; in addition, case managers and agency attorneys usually are protected by confidentiality laws, so the case manager and attorney can share details in private to avoid duplicate reporting.

Information regarding traffickers who have been arrested is usually public information, but for basic information to be shared in public, track the same information as for victims.

What categories should we use?

1 – Potential Victims of Trafficking: This is a good term for describing those who we believe are victims, yet we lack statements or evidence to clearly classify them as victims. For example, if police conduct an operation at a brothel, locating five persons whom they believe are working against their will, but all five are too afraid to disclose their victimization, count these as five Potential Victims. From the victim services perspective, this could be an individual who sought assistance for another reason (e.g., domestic violence or sexual assault) but whom the service provider believes is also a victim of trafficking. Yes, this is a vague category based upon our observations and perspective, but count them! Just be careful to avoid over estimating the number, and never combine this estimate with others categories, below.

2 – Identified Victims of Trafficking: This is a person who has either received services as a victim of trafficking from a service provider, or who has been identified by law enforcement as a victim of trafficking. This person has been exploited via forced labor or sexual exploitation through force, fraud, or coercion. This is the number which will be most beneficial to estimating the level of trafficking in a community.

3 – Suspected Incidents of Trafficking: This category reflects instances where law enforcement examined a situation for the elements of human trafficking, but were unable to find them because they either didn’t exist, or victims chose not to cooperate. In the above example where police investigated the brothel, this could count as one Suspected Incident of Trafficking, with five Potential Victims. Again, this is far less precise than the categories below, but is shows that law enforcement is looking for trafficking!

4 – Trafficking Suspects Arrested: This number should reflect individuals who have been arrested on the specific charge of human trafficking.

5 – Trafficking-related Suspects Arrested: The most common example to illustrate this category is a pimp/trafficker who is arrested for pimping and pandering, but not for the specific charge of human trafficking. There are many reasons a law enforcement agency would arrest on pimping charges but not human trafficking, but they are too numerous to explore now.

6 – Trafficking Charges Filed: A prosecutor has filed the specific charge of human trafficking against a suspect.

7 – Trafficking-related Charges Filed: See #5; this is the prosecution equivalent.

8 – Convictions: Again, these should also be separated by specific charges of trafficking, and trafficking-related charges. Frankly, this number can be abused. A prosecutor’s office may count convictions of pimping, pandering, and assault against the trafficking victim as three convictions of “human trafficking,” when the specific trafficking charge was never filed and, obviously, only one person was convicted.

When a community of anti-trafficking stakeholders share minimal information with each other, we all begin to see the bigger picture, and the value of combined efforts. These numbers are critical for agencies seeking grant funding. Collecting these numbers illustrate that partnerships and trust already exist and, that based on these numbers, realistic performance targets can be established. Even better, those responsible for educating the public are not forced to use estimates of questionable origin.

Wouldn’t it be great to stand before an audience and say, “Based on the efforts of all our collaborative partners, we have identified and served 173 victims. They included 143 adult women, eight adult men, and 22 victims under age 18. 57% were victims of commercial sex exploitation, 43% victims of forced labor, including domestic servitude, agricultural labor, and work in local restaurants. 22% are foreign nationals, from South America, Africa, and Asia.  We have made contact with another 332 individuals whom we believe are victims but who, for a variety of reasons, we are not able to classify as victims. 32 cases have been investigated by our law enforcement partners, with over a dozen traffickers arrested. Three have been convicted on charges of human trafficking, and two suspects are awaiting trail.”

At first, the numbers will be much smaller, but don’t worry about that! Your local numbers are best! Your community will understand the challenges of data collection if you educate them about the hurdles you face. And they will support your efforts. In any case, it is always better to have your own numbers than to tell your audience, “Ah, we just don’t really know.”

Are the partners in your collaborative efforts sharing numbers so you all have a better understanding of the level of trafficking in your community? If not, why not?

Baseball and Human Trafficking: Unlikely Lessons on Slavery From America’s Favorite Pastime

baseballThe baseball season is upon us once again. Fans are pouring into stadiums to cheer their favorite teams, while sports writers wax poetic on the rejuvenating powers of a new season, freshly mown baseball fields, and the simple joys of a day at the ball park. Every spring, baseball offers us the hope of fresh starts, clean air and sunshine, and an unapologetic opportunity to enjoy hotdogs and beer.

Few fans would ever suspect a connection between baseball and the dark world of human trafficking; where victims are exploited through their labor, or commercial sex acts, by means of force, fraud, or coercion. Fewer still would suspect we can learn two valuable lessons about the complexities of human trafficking when viewed through the prism of America’s favorite pastime.

The first lesson we can learn is that anyone—even professional athletes—can be exploited when a trafficker instills fear in their victim.

Last February, certified Major League Baseball Player Association agent Bart Hernandez was indicted in federal court on charges of human trafficking and conspiracy, stemming from his alleged involvement in bringing Cuban baseball players into the United States who, in some cases, have received lucrative contracts. The indictment focuses on the case of Seattle Mariners center fielder Leonys Martin. Hernandez allegedly conspired with others to hold Martin and his family hostage while he negotiated Martin’s first MLB contract. Hernandez may have also coerced Martin into signing a contract which paid Hernandez a much higher agent fee than is usual. If true, Hernandez profited through Martin’s labor (playing baseball), after using force, fraud, or coercion to gain Martin’s compliance. This is human trafficking. If Hernandez is found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in prison. Lest we think this is an isolated case, associates of Hernandez are already serving time in federal prison for similar offenses.

Though trafficking cases involving professional athletes are rare, it illustrates an important concept in combating modern slavery: Human trafficking is limited only by the imagination of the trafficker, and the trafficker’s coercive skill in manipulating their victim through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. If true, Hernandez invented a ploy to exploit a talented baseball player, and by separating Martin from his family and then holding them hostage forced Martin into signing a contract favorable to Hernandez. Martin, a highly skilled athlete, may have been victimized while on the path to playing in the major league—just as other talented and smart people have fallen victim to traffickers.

The second connection we can make between baseball and human trafficking is examining the level of performance that equates with success. Major league players who can maintain a .250 batting average (getting a hit 1 in 4 times at bat) will likely have a successful career, given they possess the requisite defensive skills. A batter with a .300 average will be among a team’s better hitters. “Success,” in the case of a batter, equates with failing far more often than actually achieving their goal of getting a hit. This success rate is quite similar to those who assist victims of human trafficking, especially those who have been victimized through commercial sexual exploitation.

It is an unfortunate reality that many victims of trafficking do not immediately embrace those who offer to help them, whether law enforcement or victim services providers. Victims are often emotionally bound to their exploiter through the same fear that was used to exploit them, through a misconceived notion of “love” for their exploiter, or because the victim lacks trust in the social and legal systems that have failed to protect them in the past.

Ask a police officer or victim advocate experienced in working with sex trafficking victims how often they are successful in removing a trafficking victim from “the life” of forced commercial sex, and they will likely answer 1 in 4. Professionals skilled in working with sex trafficking victims achieve success the same percentage of time as batters. Sadly, it is not uncommon for the same victim to have multiple contacts with professionals who are ready, willing, and able to help, before they accept it. Tragically, some never do.

But does this stop the police officer, victim advocate, or community activist from continually going to bat for victims of modern slavery? Of course not. Dedicated professionals—just like the athletes who play on emerald fields under a spring sun—accept that success comes in a minority of their attempts. Abolitionists who oppose trafficking in all its form are not defeated by success rates of 1 in 4; they rejoice in it. And like the baseball player who “hits for average,” they take pride in the singles and doubles they hit, yet rarely experience the thrill of a home run.

The response to human trafficking, like baseball, is much more complex than it appears. The trafficking victim advocate, and batter, employs a nuanced approach to increase their chances of success, if only to a small degree. But they are both professionals in their tasks—in responding to human trafficking, and baseball—and they are the heart of the game. Their tenacity, not their high average, is their star quality. They are diligent, consistent, and dependable. And they take pride in their success, even if only a quarter of the time they step to the plate. We applaud them both!

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.