Season 1, Episode 4: Fact or Fiction? - Understanding Human Trafficking Statistics


You’re listening to Episode 4 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel. This episode will discuss the role of statistics in the fight against human trafficking, and how these “statistics” often mislead us.

If you listened to the last episode, you’ll know that I just attended the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference at the University of Toledo. I got to meet advocates of all ages. Some were college students like myself, while others had been working in the anti-trafficking field for decades. I met everyone during the six sessions I attended. Some of the sessions focused on sex trafficking, while others focused on the importance of art therapy in helping survivors heal. One really interesting session was about giving young boys academic and emotional support so that they don’t end up making money by trafficking girls in their communities.

The sessions were vastly different from one another, but one thing they all had in common was that none of them discussed the “numbers” on human trafficking. What do I mean by “numbers”? Well, presenting statistics is one of the most common ways to get people involved in the fight against human trafficking because these statistics seem to confirm our beliefs and emotions with “facts”. When you hear that there are at least 40 million slaves worldwide, you’re likely to feel surprised, sad, and even angry. How can so many slaves exist, and what can we do to help? This statistic gives you the right to feel these emotions because gives you a statistical representation of how big the problem is. But then you hear that there are actually 27 million slaves worldwide. You might feel slightly better since the number has been reduced. But wait, you realize, which number is the right one? Both are really large numbers, but 13 million is too big of a difference between the two to make us feel confident in both statistics at the same time.

That’s the problem with human trafficking statistics -- many of them are outdated, exaggerated, or just plain wrong. Instead of keeping us accurately informed about human trafficking, they’re often used to sensationalize the situation and keep us in a constant state of panic. After all, there are apparently 27 or 40 million people out there waiting to be set free! We have to do something!

But hold on a second, let’s take a closer look at these numbers. Where did they come from, and what can they really tell us about human trafficking? The 27 million slaves statistic is widely cited in major newspapers and even by government officials. I tracked this statistic to the Department of State’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report. It’s from a government agency, so it sounds pretty promising until you actually read the report. On page four, it says that “social scientists estimate that as many as 27 million...are trafficking victims at any given time.” This brings up several questions. First of all, this statistic is at least four years old, so why are people still citing it today? Do we not have more updated information? Secondly, who are these “social scientists” that came up with this number, and how did they do it? There is no citation attached to this number, so we can’t answer these questions. Page 7 of the report gives the same statistic, but again, there is no way to track down where this number came from. The report does have a methodology section, but this describes their tier ranking system, not how they came up with the 27 million. It seems that this statistic actually gives us more questions than answers.

Is it possible that this number was just made up? Definitely. After scouring through multiple articles on this number, all of them brought me back to the uncited, anonymous “social scientists” who supposedly did the calculations. This statistic, though unfounded, is still in circulation because top government officials and experts in the field keep using it. If the US government reports this statistic, and if Kevin Bales, one of the top anti-trafficking advocates in the world, uses it in his own books, then what’s to stop other people from spreading this information too? Well, that’s just it: there isn’t anything stopping them. Well-meaning anti-trafficking organizations can use this statistic in their advertisements, without even realizing that they’re spreading misconceptions about the very issue they’re fighting.

The other popular statistic is that there are 40 million slaves today. This number comes from the International Labor Organization and the Walk Free Foundation. The end of their report has five pages dedicated to their methodology. They explain the nationally representative surveys they conducted, and break down the methodology for each type of slavery. For once, we can see where these numbers come from so we can trust it more than the US State Department’s statistic. The 40 million slaves statistic highlights another important point. In the first episode, I talked about how our definitions of human trafficking influence the way we fight it. It turns out that the way we define it also determines the way we form our information about it.

The ILO came up with a number that is 13 million more than the US State Department’s because the ILO’s definition of human trafficking is more broad than the US government's. For example, the ILO considers forced marriage a form of modern slavery, while the State Department barely mentions it in their report. Since the ILO includes more types of oppression in their definition of human trafficking, then they are going to have the larger number.

But why talk about numbers in the first place? Well, for one thing, it helps us understand the issue of human trafficking more clearly. If we can determine which statistics are factual and which are fictional, then we can also tell if someone is using these numbers just to grab our attention, or if they actually want to help us know the truth. Which brings me to the next point. Knowing the true numbers from the fake ones helps us view anti-trafficking organizations more critically. Take Polaris Project, for example. On their homepage, they say that you should support their cause because there are 20.9 million slaves worldwide. If you click on this number, it takes you to another page where you can see that this statistic comes from the ILO. So far, so good. But then you’ll see that this comes from the ILO’s 2012 report. This means that while the ILO has recently published an updated report, Polaris Project has chosen to use statistics that are 5 years old or just hasn’t gotten around to updating their page. Using outdated information may not break the reputation of the organization, but it certainly doesn’t help it.

You’ll notice that many of the organizations mentioned in this episode were also discussed in previous episodes. The Department of State was mentioned in episode 2 when I explained their tier system. Polaris Project was mentioned in the last episode about domestic work. While these organizations may not always have the most accurate or current statistics, they do still provide valuable information about human trafficking, so we shouldn’t rule them out entirely. What’s more, these organizations are constantly striving for improvement. Even if the 27 million statistic has lasted this long, there is always hope that these organizations will uncover new statistics that actually answer our questions and provide new ways to understand and fight human trafficking.

This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on October 15th at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.

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