Maggie Bellone serves as O.U.R.’s Education Program Administrator and Paralegal. She formerly worked for the United States Department of Justice as a criminal paralegal, assisting in the trial preparation and prosecution of various defendants. She now assists O.U.R. in staying up to date on the latest human trafficking research and data to best present this issue to the world.
When someone poses the question, “How big is a problem...” they usually are looking to quantify an issue. They want a number. How big of a problem is human trafficking? To answer this question, we don’t want to just tell you that human trafficking (most commonly labor and sex trafficking) is a huge problem, but also provide numbers that can be readily understood.
According to the most recent International Labour Organization (ILO) study, there are an estimated 49.6 million people currently living in modern slavery around the world. This alarming number includes 27.6 million in labor and sex trafficking and 22 million in forced marriage (ILO, 2022). To make these unimaginable numbers more easily understood, 49.6 million people is about 1 in every 150 people in the world, or approximately 15 times the population of the state of Utah (U.S. Census Bureau, 2022). And this number has been on an upward trend. In 2016, the ILO reported an estimated 40.3 million people in modern slavery—24.9 million in labor and sex trafficking and 15.4 million in forced marriage. All have risen significantly over the five years between studies.
Human trafficking is truly a global issue being fought by government and non-government organizations, such as Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.). O.U.R. currently provides international support in over 40 countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Canada. We also support law enforcement in the United States.
When discussing the human trafficking problem, it is easy to think that while human trafficking may be horrific, it is not happening here, not in the United States. Unfortunately, the same ILO study estimates that approximately 5.1 million people are in modern slavery on any given day in the United States (ILO, 2022). That is about 1 in every 65 people (U.S. Census Bureau, 2022).
Child sex trafficking has been reported in all 50 United States (NCMEC, 2021). Children can often be groomed by traffickers from very young ages. This process includes manipulation during vulnerable moments, working angles, and leveraging fears to get the victim to love or trust their trafficker. Human trafficking does not need to begin with a violent abduction, popularized by media, which only increases the size of the problem by failing to address the much more prevalent risks (Polaris, 2021).
The relative scale of a problem must also be considered. Human trafficking is the second most profitable illegal industry in the United States, second only to the drug trade (Gould, 2017). Drugs are bought and sold in one single transaction. Human beings, however, can be sold over and over again. Some victims report being forced to engage in commercial sex with up to fifty “clients” in single day (Kloer, 2010).
This system of forcing victims in commercial sex or labor is a relatively low risk/high reward system that motivates other to engage in the trafficking industry. While it is difficult to estimate the exact amount of profit this industry brings in yearly, the ILO last estimated this number to be $150 billion annually (ILO, 2014). The massive price tag on this illicit industry only escalates the problem, as criminals seek to exploit the most vulnerable populations to their own advantage as much as possible for maximum profits.
Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act, although force, fraud or coercion do not need to be present to be considered sex trafficking when it involves children under the age of 18 (DHS, 2022, Human Trafficking Hotline, n.d.). “Human trafficking,” “modern-day slavery,” “forced labor,” “sex trafficking,” and “online exploitation” are all terms people may use to describe similar interlinking problems. They all involve preying on victims’ vulnerabilities like poverty, unstable housing, substance use, history of sexual abuse/assault, child abuse/neglect/drug endangered, runaway, recent migration or relocation (Human Trafficking Hotline, 2019). Those who are marginalized or in difficult circumstances are often the most vulnerable to being trafficked (UNODC, 2020).
Technology and the world of online exploitation are only making the human trafficking situation worse. At any given time, there are an estimated 750,000 child predators online (FBI, 2011). These predators prey on vulnerabilities to recruit victims into trafficking. Often, this can start with soliciting explicit images—in the case of children, child sexual abuse material (CSAM). This material can then be used for extortion, or “sextortion,” for further sexual acts or images. These traffickers have adapted with changing technology to make it work best for them.
With all this discussion about how enormous human trafficking is, it may feel like there isn’t much you can do to help. But there is:
If you believe you may have information about a trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free at 888-373-7888.
If you are unable to call, you can text the Hotline at 233733 or chat the Hotline online at www.humantraffickinghotline.org/chat.
To learn more about online safety, visit O.U.R.’s Start Talking: An Online Safety Guide for Parents at https://ourrescue.org/online-safety and text “SAFETY” to 75004 for online safety tips.
O.U.R. currently has various films about human trafficking you can watch:
The Abolitionists shares the rescue of 57 children and the arrest and incarceration of 7 of their traffickers.
Operation Toussaint shares an undercover mission in Haiti to bring a ring of sex traffickers, who bribed their way out of jail, to justice.
It’s Happening Right Here unveils the truth that sex trafficking can happen in every community in the United States.
Links to these films and O.U.R.’s upcoming films are available at https://ourrescue.org/films.
If you would like to get involved with Operation Underground Railroad directly, you can join our Conductor Club, which invites community members to get involved in awareness and prevention efforts in the fight against human trafficking. More information on our Conductor Club can be found at https://ourrescue.org/conductor-club.
Finally, if you would like to directly help support Operation Underground Railroad and our mission to rescue children from sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, you can donate now at https://ourrescue.org/give-now. Your donations go directly to supporting rescues, law enforcement, survivors, and so much more.
However you decide to offer support, it makes a difference in the fight against human trafficking. We can tackle this big problem, one small step at a time, together.