The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Human trafficking statistics: Politicians love them though they remain imprecise

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order that relied on an imprecise measure of human trafficking. (Scott P. Yates/Roanoke Times/AP)

“According to Polaris, a nonprofit resource and advocacy center combating human trafficking, there were 179 cases of trafficking and seventy-seven traffickers identified in Virginia in 2019 alone.”

— Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), in executive order No. 7, Jan. 15

“In 2020 alone, there were 11,000 instances of human trafficking that were reported in the United States.”

— Vice President Harris, in remarks to the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Jan. 25

Human trafficking, both for sex and labor, is a horrific crime plagued by poor statistics. Readers may recall that in 2015, The Fact Checker published a series of articles that debunked or exposed faulty statistics that anti-trafficking groups had used to garner institutional and financial support.

The good news is that many anti-trafficking groups responded and scrubbed their websites and literature of unproven claims. The bad news is that there still are no reliable and up-to-date statistics that might illuminate the scope of the problem.

During her remarks, Vice President Harris noted that “globally, human trafficking is a $150 billion business.” That’s a 2014 estimate from the International Labour Organization that has not been updated, even though it is eight years old.

This month, both the new governor of Virginia and Harris relied on the same data source — an anti-trafficking group called Polaris — for the comments above. But it’s mostly an anecdotal one. We’re not going to put these remarks to The Pinocchio Test, but we thought it would be useful for readers to understand the limitations of this data.

The Facts

Note that Youngkin referred to “cases” whereas Harris referred to “instances” that were “reported.” With her careful language, Harris is closer to the mark, but the Polaris document that Youngkin relied on (but got one of the numbers wrong) used the word “cases.” So we can’t really fault him for that.

“They are not court cases or necessarily criminal cases,” acknowledged Polaris spokeswoman Caren Benjamin.

Youngkin also cited 2019 data, when 2020 data is available. That showed a decline in “cases,” from 189 in 2019 to 119 in 2020.

Polaris derives these figures from an analysis of calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline that it operates. In the 2021 fiscal year, according to budget documents given to Congress, the Department of Health and Human Services provided $4 million to operate the hotline, which receives calls, texts, chats, emails and other online reports. If the staff members answering the calls or other inquiries identify elements of fraud, force and coercion, then that gets listed as a possible instance of human trafficking.

The hotline “identified 11,193 potential cases of trafficking, responded to 13,129 signals from potential victims, and reported 3,353 cases to law enforcement,” the HHS document says.

Notice that these are “potential cases” — and only about 30 percent ended up being reported to law enforcement. The budget document also notes that “viral misinformation about human trafficking” — such as “complex schemes involving child sex trafficking” — led to a surge of a “well-intended but inaccurate, secondhand reports” that distracted from helping real victims.

Polaris, in assembling the material that Youngkin and Harris drew from, includes small-type caveats that warns that policymakers should be careful with the numbers.

For instance: “Trafficking situations learned about through the Trafficking Hotline likely represent only a small subset of actual trafficking occurring in the United States. Therefore, this data must not be confused with the prevalence of human trafficking in the United States.”

Also: “The information reported by the Trafficking Hotline is only able to represent who has access to and knowledge of the Trafficking Hotline, who has the means to reach out, and who is more likely to self-identify as a likely victim or someone in need of assistance. The data reported by Polaris should not be compared to the findings of more rigorous academic studies or prevalence estimates.”

The FBI, meanwhile, publishes state-level data on human trafficking arrests. That, in theory, would get us closer to actual crimes being committed. But there are caveats with this data as well.

For 2019, in Virginia, the FBI reports that there were 41 incidents of human trafficking — and 29 cases led to arrests, including one for a person under the age of 18. That’s much smaller than the 189 “cases” reported by Polaris.

For the entire country, the FBI reported a total of 1,883 incidents of human trafficking in 2019: 1,607 were in the category of commercial sex acts, and 274 were instances of involuntary servitude. That’s about one-fifth of the incidents cited by Harris.

The FBI says 708 people were arrested in correlation with these incidents — 684 adults and 24 juveniles. That’s an even smaller number.

Confusingly, in the database, the FBI uses the word “cleared” to mean arrest. But this still not a measure of an indictment or a criminal case being pursued by prosecutors.

Amy Farrell, co-director of the Violence and Justice Research Lab at Northeastern University, has studied the flaws in the FBI data-collection system on human trafficking. State and local officials often misclassify trafficking cases, leading to chronic underreporting.

“The arrest data quality varies by state significantly. The cleared information does not tell us if cases are prosecuted,” Farrell said in an email. “The human trafficking hotline data similarly does not tell us if cases result in arrest or are prosecuted. Getting data on prosecution of human trafficking is incredibly challenging. We have done some work following up on cases where there are arrests by following up on media with suspect names but it is time consuming and difficult to gather aggregate prosecution data.”

According to the State Department, human trafficking investigations at many agencies fell from 2019 to 2020.

In fiscal 2020, the Department of Homeland Security opened 947 investigations related to human trafficking, a decrease from 1,024 in fiscal 2019. The Justice Department formally opened 663 human trafficking investigations in fiscal 2020, an increase from 607 in fiscal 2019, but prosecutions and convictions fell. The State Department reported investigating 95 human trafficking-related cases worldwide during FY 2020, a decrease from 134 in fiscal 2019. Only the Defense Department reported a big increase — going from 65 human-trafficking-related cases involving DOD military, civilian, and contractor personnel in 2019 to 160 in 2020.

The Bottom Line

These numbers remain incredibly fuzzy and imprecise. The hotline operated by Polaris is an imperfect measure because of course people being trafficked may not call the hotline — or even know about it. Then only about a third of the reported human-trafficking incidents end up being reported to law enforcement. From those reports, a smaller percentage leads to arrests — and even fewer are prosecuted. Meanwhile, the FBI’s data has its own flaws, so its much lower figures do not tell you much either.

Yet politicians love to cite precise numbers, and so they continue to rely on imperfect statistics.

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