Human Trafficking Estimates and Statistics

The U.S. State Department released the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report) in June and included a warning to reporters to be careful when doing stories about human trafficking. One of the subjects the State Department raised a red flag about was “numbers.” Here is the cautionary statement:

“Numbers game. Reporters often lead with numbers, but reliable statistics related to human trafficking are difficult to find. Human trafficking is a clandestine crime and few victims and survivors come forward for fear of retaliation, shame, or lack of understanding of what is happening to them. Numbers are not always the story. Pursue individual stories of survival, new government initiatives, or innovative research efforts until better data are available.”

Concerned Women for America has been urging caution for several years about using any of the numbers purporting to show the scope of the problem. CWA’s report, “Children in Prostitution: How Many Are There and What To Do,” traced the origins of most of the numbers of child victims in the U.S. commonly touted today and found that all are based on “guesstimates.”  In the United States, the bottom line is that no one knows how many child and adult victims of human trafficking are here.

In the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005 (see Section 201), Congress mandated the U.S. Department of Justice to undertake a study of the illegal commercial sex industry. The TVPRA 2008 reiterated the mandate to undertake the study because the 2005 mandate had been ignored. To date, it still has not been done.

So where do reporters get the figures they cite? Since the early 2000s, a quick review of U.S. government sites provided some figures, but lately the numbers have been disappearing. Here is a sample of what is offered now. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that, worldwide, there are between 12 million and 27 million trafficking victims.

Seventeen government departments and agencies collaborated to create the “Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States 2013-2017,” which states, “While it is difficult to measure the magnitude of human trafficking, the International Labour Organization estimates that more than 20 million men, women, and children are victimized by forced labor and sex trafficking worldwide, including in the United States.” Two pages later, it states, “Current statistics on human trafficking are limited.” Interestingly, the plan to help victims in the U.S. gives no estimate as to the scope of our nation’s problem. The plan, instead, states at the beginning of the section dedicated to improving the means for research, “Due to the hidden and complex nature of the crime, the full scope of human trafficking in the United States is unknown.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) however, includes this statement in its training material for school administrators and staff, “Each year, as many as 100,000-300,000 American children are at risk [emphasis mine] of being trafficked for commercial sex in the United States.” During the past decade, the State Department estimated 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year (TIP Report 2004) and the Justice Department estimated 293,000 minors in the U.S. were at risk [emphasis mine] of commercial sexual exploitation (U.S. Attorneys’ Bulletin, 2004).

Where can reporters go for actual data? There are a few sources: the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ (FBI) Uniform Crime Reports, the FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative, and the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons reports.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports show how many minors are arrested for “prostitution and commercialized vice” each year in the United States. The 2013 report is due out in September, and it contains new data that was the result of an amendment Concerned Women for America authored in the TVPRA 2008 bill (section 237). That amendment disaggregates the figures in the category into three categories: pimps/traffickers, buyers of sex and sellers of sex. In previous years,the category is aggregated so some minors may have been arrested for pimping or buying sex, but there is no way to tell. (Beginning in the 2013 report, the FBI will also collect data on offenses and arrests for sex trafficking and forced labor.) For the past five years, the number of minors arrested nationwide for prostitution and commercialized vice offenses has been steadily declining:

The FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative strives to eradicate the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the U.S. The website states that as of June 2013, 2,700 children have been rescued since the initiative began in June 2003. That is an average of 270 children rescued a year through this FBI effort. The Innocence Lost program runs Operation Cross Country’s (OCC) three-day nationwide efforts to rescue minors in prostitution and goes after those who are exploiting them. The OCC website states the 3,600 children have been rescued since 2003 through Innocence Lost efforts. It is not clear why these numbers differ.

During OCC VII in June 2013, 106 children were recovered “in 76 cities nationwide, utilizing 47 FBI divisions, and more than 3,900 local, state, and federal law enforcement officers from 230 agencies.” In OCC VIII in June 2014, 168 minors were rescued in a nationwide effort that spanned 106 cities, utilized 54 FBI divisions and local, state and federal law enforcement personnel from 392 separate agencies. In both operations, more pimps/traffickers were found than minors. In 2013, 152 pimps were arrested; the number rose to 281 in 2014.

The 2014 Trafficking in Persons report contains global law enforcement data that show how many victims have been identified worldwide. Secretary Kerry in his introductory note stated there are more than 20 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. The chart shows data obtained from law enforcement around the world of the number of victims identified from 2008-2013 (which the report notes are estimates, due to a lack of reporting uniformity):

  • 2008:   30,961
  • 2009:   49,105
  • 2010:   33,113
  • 2011:   42,291
  • 2012:   46,570
  • 2013:   44,758

As for the number of aliens in the U.S. who are victims of trafficking, the number is unknown. However, between fiscal year 2002 and fiscal year 2012, there were 3,269 T-visas approved. T-visas were created by the TVPA 2000 to be issued to aliens who are victims of severe forms of trafficking, enabling them to stay in the U.S. for up to four years. After three consecutive years, they may apply to become legal permanent residents. The victims must be physically present in the U.S., cooperate with reasonable requests from law enforcement regarding their trafficking cases, and be in danger of harm if they are removed from the U.S.

These are the data available for the number of human trafficking victims. The difference between the estimates and the numbers of victims found is enormous. If the estimates are to be believed, less than one percent of victims have been identified and rescued. Perhaps that is why the State Department prefers that reporters not use numbers and instead focus on individuals’ stories.