Data on human trafficking is notoriously difficult to compile, but back in 2016, the International Labour Organization estimated there were just over 40 million victims that year. Men, women, and children can all be forced into human trafficking. What should people know about this human rights issue? Here are 11 of the most important facts:
#1. There are many kinds of human trafficking
Not all of the millions of trafficked people are forced into the same work. According to an ILO report, 24.9 million people were in forced labor, which means they were forced to work “under threat or coercion” on farms, houses, fishing boats, construction sites, and in the sex industry. Around 3.8 million adults and 1 million children were forced into sex work in 2016. 15.4 million were also forced into marriage, which is a double-edged sword because a marriage can disguise further coerced labor.
Both private individuals, groups, and state authorities can force people into human trafficking. For many years, almost two million people worked during the annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. Forced labor and systemic child labor were prevalent, but after an almost decade-long reform movement, there are now very few forced labor cases.
#2. The causes of human trafficking vary, but traffickers use a similar playbook
While many may be under the impression that poverty drives human trafficking, there are many other factors at play. A lack of education, government corruption, political instability, war, a lack of job opportunities, and racism all contribute to human trafficking, as well. The fewer protections a person has, the more vulnerable they are. Causes also vary by region and country. What drives human trafficking in, say, the United States can be different than in South Africa.
While the causes of trafficking are multi-layered, traffickers employ similar strategies. They often lure a victim (who they may already have a relationship with) using promises of legitimate employment or safety. With deception, threats of violence, or physical force, traffickers trap a victim. The goal is to strip a person of their ability to resist, so even if a person isn’t physically restrained, they’ve been psychologically tormented to the point where they’re too afraid to run.
#3. Human trafficking is a global issue, but it’s more prevalent in certain countries
While it’s very difficult to get accurate numbers, experts know human trafficking is a global problem. Based on available information, it seems to be more of a problem in certain regions. The ILO estimates that modern slavery is most prevalent on the African continent. For every thousand people, there are 7.6 victims. Asia and the Pacific region are next (6.1 per 1,000) while Europe and Central Asia have 3.9 per 1,000. Arab States (3.3 per 1,000) and the Americans (1.9 per 1,000) are last. The report points out that these numbers should be “interpreted cautiously” because the Arab States and the Americas are lacking data. Areas with more data will naturally show a higher prevalence of human trafficking, but that doesn’t mean they actually have more.
#4. Human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry, but earnings range widely
According to a 2014 report from the ILO, human trafficking is worth $150 billion a year. ⅔ of total human trafficking profits came from sexual exploitation, while the rest came from trafficked people working in domestic service, manufacturing, construction, mining, and other forced labor. In some cases, traffickers make a significant income, but big earnings tend to be limited to large criminal organizations with dozens of victims over the years. In one case, the UNODC found a group that made tens of millions of dollars over five years. That said, many traffickers aren’t making much more money than they would from other criminal activity. The UNODC analyzed many cases where women and girls were sold for less than $5,000. Within national borders, some were sold for as little as $250.
#5. Women and girls remain the most common victims of sexual exploitation
In 2018, of every 10 trafficking victims identified in the world, five were adult women and two were girls. For women, sexual exploitation is the most common form of trafficking, while in other areas like domestic service, sexual harm is often wielded as a form of control. In the trafficking of children, 72% of sexual exploitation affects girls. As forced labor increases, the proportion of adult women victims is going down. That doesn’t mean things are “getting better,” however, as over the last 15 years, the number of both male and female victims has gone up. Because the number of trafficked adult men, boys, and girls has increased faster, the share of adult women victims has decreased.
#6. Child sex trafficking is very hard to track
If you’ve read any reports on trafficking, you’ll quickly see that the authors are rarely confident in their numbers. This is especially true when it comes to child sex trafficking. As Michael Hobbes explains in his Huffington Post article on the subject, social media claims – like that there are 800,000 missing children each year – muddy the waters. That number comes from a 2002 survey of parents saying whether they had reported their kids as runaways. It does not factor in that 99% of kids reported missing come home within days or even hours. It also doesn’t identify the specifics of the cases. Most missing kids are not kidnapped by human traffickers, but rather runaways leaving abusive homes, LGBTQ+ kids getting kicked out, or kids caught in nasty custody battles. Anytime you see a number related to child sex trafficking, especially if it’s in a meme, understand that it may not be accurate.
#7. In the US, children raised in foster care are especially vulnerable
Kids raised in foster care are at risk for several negative outcomes, including trafficking. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network finds that kids who have experienced sex trafficking tend to have been involved in “child-serving systems,” which include foster care. The reasons why aren’t set in stone, but it could be due to things like housing instability, disruptions to education, and abuse. Kids in foster care are often coming from abuse, but they can be abused within the system, too, which further increases their risk. Traffickers target kids dealing with instabilities, insecurities, and trauma.
#8. Indigenous women are at a higher risk
A 2018 report on trafficking in Canada found that as of 2016, Indigenous women were over-represented in domestic cases of trafficking. While only making up 4% of Canada’s population, Native women made up 50% of trafficking victims. The reasons are not a mystery as Native women are also at a higher risk for homelessness, poverty, and sexual violence. These factors all make them more vulnerable to trafficking. The vulnerability of Indigenous women is also part of a long history of exploitation that includes forced government assimilation, sexual abuse in boarding schools, and a lack of legal protections against rape and sexual violence.
#9. Migrants and refugees are vulnerable
Migrants and refugees leaving areas of conflict are often targeted by traffickers. With very few resources and few options, migrants often turn to smugglers. If the smuggler follows through with their end of the deal, it’s not human trafficking. However, if the smuggler exploits a person by holding them for ransom or forcing them to pay off their debt through sex or labor, it becomes human trafficking. It is not unusual for smugglers to take advantage of a migrant or refugee’s vulnerability. Even if a migrant or refugee arrives safely in a new country, they remain vulnerable to exploitation as they often lack a strong community, legal protections, and resources. Discrimination can also put a migrant or refugee at risk.
#10. Major companies benefit from forced labor
A handful of big corporations have forced and/or child labor in their supply chains. The bigger the company, the harder it is to monitor the supply chain to make sure human trafficking has not been used at any stage. How do you know if the products you’re buying may have used forced labor? The Bureau of International Labor Affairs keeps a database of goods they believe were produced using forced labor or child labor. As of summer 2021, the list included 156 goods from 77 countries. Examples include bananas from Belize, Brazil, Ecuador, and Nicaragua; bricks from Argentina, Bolivia, and Cambodia; and cocoa from Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, and Nigeria.
#11. Misinformation is a major issue
Across the world, conspiracy theories about human trafficking have increased significantly, mostly due to social media. They can vary in extremity. Some people believe in a conspiracy of blood-drinking pedophiles. Others have simply misunderstood how data is collected. As an example, a 2021 piece from WYSO describes that while political officials say Ohio has one of the country’s highest rates of human trafficking, that understanding is based on the number of calls made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. It’s true that in 2019, Ohio had the fifth most human trafficking cases reported to the hotline, but the hotline does not verify the accuracy of the reports. Hotlines are not a good source for accurate trafficking numbers.
Misinformation has a high cost. The Polaris Project lists several negative effects. Hotlines can get overwhelmed with calls about conspiracy theories while real reports get lost in the wave of inaccurate reports. Survivors, victims, and people mistakenly believed to be connected to trafficking can end up further traumatized or harassed. Widespread misinformation also makes it harder for legitimate organizations to provide the public with accurate information about warning signs, vulnerable communities, and resources. Those who want to aid in anti-trafficking efforts need to understand how to spot misinformation and respond appropriately.