Statistical Shortcomings: Our Bad Data Hurts Victims

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better do better.” 
                                                 – Maya Angelou

These words by poet Maya Angelou should be a source of inspiration for the anti-trafficking movement. While we have tried to convey the importance of human trafficking using statistics and numbers, the truth is that we do not have reliable data to support many of the “conventional wisdoms” that have developed about human trafficking.

This post is the second of a 3 part series that seeks to dispel some common myths about human trafficking that are frequently stated but always wrong.

Myth #4: We Know the Global Prevalence of Human Trafficking

Everywhere we turn we see a different statistic about the prevalence of human trafficking globally. As just a sample, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated in 2009 that 4 million people are trafficked each year. Kevin Bales, author of several books on human trafficking, estimated in 2011 that the number was closer to 27 million. The International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2015 estimated the number of people engaged in forced labor to be 21 million. The U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) relies on ILO data and is generally assumed to be the most accurate data available – but it is still flawed.

Truth: The truth is that we don’t know how many people are being trafficked globally. The data just doesn’t exist so it is impossible to count data that we do not have. If we don’t have underlying baseline data, then we can’t say much else about local prevalence, hot spots or hubs either. Bottom line: we know that human trafficking is common and occurs in all countries throughout the world. Isn’t that enough?

Myth #5: We are a “Hub” for Human Trafficking or We Rank #3 in the Nation

We’ve all read the statistics: “Houston ranks No. 1 among U.S. cities for human trafficking,” “Chicago is a national hub of human trafficking,” “Michigan ranks third in the country for human trafficking,” “The I-75 corridor is a hub for human trafficking.”

Truth: The truth is that we don’t know how many people are being trafficked in the United States. Currently, we do not have a systematic way to count human trafficking cases. There are no reliable rankings of U.S. cities. Frequently, rankings come from the number of total calls made to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center tip line or from measuring recovery rates from sporadic law enforcement actions. The problem is that we know that this crime is severely under reported. We cannot rely on calls to tip lines or successful FBI raids to determine the size and location of the problem. 

What we do know is that human trafficking is a problem in every state and every city in the United States. We also know that human trafficking is a problem in the suburbs and rural communities as well. Focusing on “hubs” perpetuates the dangerous myth that it is a big city problem, or that it happens elsewhere and not in the community that I am living in.

Myth #6: We Know the Economic Impact

You may have read that human trafficking is the third most profitable business for organized crime or that it is the second most profitable form of organized  criminal activity alongside drug trafficking and arms dealing.

Truth: The truth is that the economic impact of human trafficking is unknown. If we don’t have data on prevalence, we can’t have data on profits. Organizations who used to rely on economic impact data have started to shy away from using it based on its unreliability. 

What we do know is that human trafficking is a profitable business for traffickers with low start-up costs, an unlimited supply of vulnerable human beings to exploit, a strong consumer demand to purchase human beings, and high profit margins for traffickers who sell and resell their “human product” numerous times.

We don’t need mythical numbers to convey the importance of human trafficking. The purchase and sale of human beings is wrong. Every life is valuable and the trafficking of a single person is serious enough to warrant our action.

Take Action: 

  • Now that you know the myths be sure that you don’t perpetuate them. 
  • Share these myths with other caring individuals who are working to fight human trafficking. This means correcting the record when you hear myths repeated.
  • Get acquainted with the “Perfect Victim” and other myths from part 1 of the series.

This blog was written by Carrie Booth Walling (MHTTF) based on the research of Bridgette Carr, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic.