“Every day, over 68,000 victims are trafficked right in front of our eyes, often on commercial flights.”
The Fact Checker stumbled across a reference to this ad on Twitter and was completely flummoxed by the statistic. We’ve done a lot of work debunking faulty, misleading or bogus statistics concerning the horrific crime of human trafficking but had never seen this one before.
Well, it turns out this claim is just as silly as the rest. Let’s take a look.
Airline Ambassadors International (AAI), based in Arlington, Va., works with airlines to help provide humanitarian and medical aid for children. In 2009, it began training airlines on how to identify human trafficking and heighten awareness of the problem.
Nancy Rivard, a former flight attendant who is president of the organization, said she came up with the statistic by taking an estimate of the number of people identified by the International Labor Organization (ILO) as engaged in forced labor — 24.9 million people — and then dividing by 365 days. That, according to her math, comes out to more than 68,000 people a day.
“Regarding the ad in American Way, we based our numbers on the most recent statistics,” she said. The ILO figure of 24.9 million is referenced in a recent International Civil Aviation Organization circular for training cabin crew to identify human trafficking.
But this is why you need to be careful with statistics, folks. The organization’s methodology is undermined by the very ILO report cited by Rivard.
The ILO report, published in 2017, is an estimate for the number of people on a given day “engaged in forced labor — being forced to work under threat or coercion as domestic workers, on construction sites, in clandestine factories, on farms and fishing boats, in other sectors, and in the sex industry.” It’s important to remember that although forced labor is being used as a proxy for “human trafficking,” people could be trafficked for other reasons, such as sham marriages. So “forced labor” is an imperfect substitute.
The biggest problem with AAI’s methodology is that 24.9 million is a number for how many people are in forced labor now; it does not say 24.9 million people a year are engaged in forced labor. By dividing 24.9 million by 365 days, the organization is assuming that it’s a new 24.9 million every year. That’s wrong.
The ILO report gives a different figure of 82.7 million in forced labor over a five-year period, or 16.6 million a year. The average time someone is in forced labor was about 20 months, the report says.
Also, AAI appears to assume that virtually all of these people cross borders — and that commercial airliners are often used to transport people. But the ILO report says the figure for forced labor outside a country of residence is only 23 percent of the total, mostly because the people who are mainly trafficked outside their countries are involved in the sex trade. Women and children trafficked for sexual exploitation — which is what most people think of when they hear “human trafficking” — are a relatively small part of the overall trafficking problem. It is mostly labor exploitation, including state-imposed labor.
(Rivard appeared to think that the 24.9 million figure did not include state-imposed forced labor, but in reality that number includes about 4 million people who are estimated to be victims of state-imposed labor.)
So 23 percent of 16.6 million would be 3.8 million. That works out to about 10,000 a day.
But that may be too generous. The report also says that 4.3 percent are coerced by withholding of a passport or other documents, which certainly sounds like people transported by airplanes. That gets us to about 700,000, or less than 2,000 a day.
We’re not going to vouch for that number, because it is an estimate of an estimate, and possibly a lowball figure. But it’s an example of how these statistics are often fuzzy, especially when you dig into the details. Advocacy groups should not try to twist them into talking points.
Meanwhile, a 2016 report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), based on interviews with people who have been identified as victims of trafficking, concluded that in the 2012-2014 period, 57 percent were trafficked across at least one international border. That meant 43 percent were trafficked domestically.
Fifty-seven percent is higher than 23 percent. But you cannot easily use the 57 percent figure from UNODC in conjunction with the ILO report. They have different methodologies. The ILO report was based on a survey of almost 72,000 people in 48 countries, which asked about experiences in their own family networks, and then it was adjusted to produce a global figure — essentially an extrapolated estimate. The UNODC number is based on data from 63,251 victims detected in 106 countries between 2012 and 2014. That is a large data set, but it may not be representative of all victims of human trafficking.
So you cannot credibly claim 57 percent of the 24.9 million in the ILO report were trafficked internationally, when the ILO report says 23 percent are living outside their country of residence.
The International Air Traffic Association (IATA), in a fact sheet, mixes these two factoids from the different reports, even though it is comparing apples and oranges: “25 million people globally are living in modern slavery; over 60% of victims are trafficked across international borders.”
Both facts can’t be true. Either there are 25 million victims of global slavery and 23 percent are living outside their country of residence or 63,000 victims of trafficking were interviewed and 57 percent were trafficked across at least one international border. (An article on the Forbes website makes a similar error to come up with a number of 28,500 trafficking victims a day traveling on commercial airlines.)
We shared the results of our inquiry with Rivard but did not get a response. An IATA spokeswoman also did not respond to a query about our analysis.
The Pinocchio Test
As we often warn, advocacy groups that seek to combat human trafficking do a disservice to their cause by inflating the numbers or using figures that simply aren’t credible. No one really knows how many people a day are trafficked on commercial airlines, and we should not pretend that there is a solid figure.
As framed in the ad, the 68,000 number is simply false. It’s based on bad math and faulty assumptions. IATA should also correct its fact sheet.
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Previous fact checks on human trafficking statistics: