Modern Slavery Statistics: What We Know and What We Don’t

Last year the Washington Post Fact Checker series investigated several widely used statistics that anti-trafficking advocates often cite, including UNICEF’s estimated numbers of child soldiers. It found that UNICEF and other organizations were using heavily estimated and outdated figures.

Human trafficking is a hidden crime, making it hard to quantify. Anti-trafficking advocates are often faced with the challenge of how to most effectively convey the scope and severity of the problem while putting victims’ stories into context. The swift movement of trafficked victims and the invisibility of these crimes makes it nearly impossible to determine exactly how many slaves there are in the world.

The most compelling global numbers, most likely to attract public attention to the issue, are estimates. But by focusing on the numbers we do know, in relation to estimations, we can raise public awareness without being misleading.

Last year there were 6,609 trafficking-related convictions globally, with only 4 percent of those in the United States. The Department of Justice reported 297 human trafficking-related convictions. We also know that while nearly half of the victims that service providers helped were trafficked for labor, only six of those convictions were labor related. This disparity can be explained partially because sex trafficking cases often involve prostitution, which is illegal across most of the United States, while labor cases can hide in legitimate businesses and require extensive resources to investigate. Many labor victims are foreign nationals who understandably prefer to return home rather than testify.

To address this disparity, law enforcement and prosecutors need more capacity to handle the cases that are identified, and increased collaboration and training to identify and investigate the many more cases of labor trafficking that go unaddressed.

According to the International Labor Organization there are an estimated 20.9 million victims of modern day slavery worldwide who generate $150 billion in illegal profits every year. Of these, it calculates 19 million people are exploited by private enterprises. While the Washington Post series is right to question relying on outdated stats such as UNICEF’s estimated number of child soldiers, the International Labor Organization data taken together with global law enforcement data paints a clear picture of accountability for human traffickers across the globe: there isn’t much.

These numbers show that traffickers and those who utilize trafficked labor operate with relative impunity. To reduce the number of victims, we need to increase prosecutions and hold perpetrators of this crime accountable.

Increasing prosecutions requires increased coordination between agencies and additional funding to up the reach and scope of prosecutors. To do this, we need dedicated human trafficking prosecutors in U.S. Attorney’s offices who can exclusively focus on prosecuting trafficking cases. These attorneys could facilitate coordination and delve into the complicated logistics of these cases to help close the gap between the number of cases reported and those prosecuted. Failing to convict perpetrators leaves them little incentive to stop.

Last year’s 6,609 global trafficking convictions may not be as shocking as hearing that there are 20.9 million victims worldwide, but taken together they begin to uncover real issue at hand. The reforms we need, both at home and abroad, are geared towards lowering the estimated total number, and that means putting perpetrators of this horrendous crime behind bars. We need to draw attention to the numbers we do know and the victims we can identify if we have any hope of reaching those we can’t.


Published on January 12, 2017


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