The crime of human trafficking is complex and dynamic, taking place in a wide variety of contexts and difficult to detect. One of the greatest challenges in developing targeted counter-trafficking responses and measuring their impact is the lack of reliable, high-quality data related to the scale of human trafficking and the profile of victims.
The need for improved international response to human trafficking and commitment to its eradication is illustrated by its prominent inclusion in the targets of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM). Eradicating human trafficking is addressed specifically in goals 5.2, 8.7 and 16.2. The GCM’s 10th Objective also calls for specific measures to prevent and combat trafficking in persons in the context of international migration.
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The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines human trafficking or trafficking in persons:
- “Trafficking in Persons”… mean[s] the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. (Article 3, paragraph (a)).
The Protocol further elaborates that the consent of a trafficked person may be rendered irrelevant when obtained through improper means:
- The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) have been used; (Article 3, paragraph (b)).
In the case of trafficked children, the Protocol elaborates that the vulnerable status of children makes it impossible for them to consent regardless of whether any improper means were used or not:
- The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered "trafficking in persons" even if this does not involve any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article; (Article 3, paragraph (c)).
- "Child" shall mean any person under eighteen. (Article 3, paragraph (d)).
The number of identified victims of human trafficking who are men has increased significantly over time, raising awareness that men are also victims of human trafficking for different types of exploitation.
The average age of an identified victim of trafficking is 26 years old (at the time of assistance), and half of those identified are between 18 and 34 years old. The average age of victims identified in 2015–2016 was 29 years old, with male victims being, on average, older than female victims. At least 16 per cent of identified victims in the same period were children. On average, a victim is trafficked for approximately two years, therefore the average age of entry into trafficking is below 26 years.
In recent years, the proportion of identified cases of trafficking for sexual exploitation has declined, while the share of identified cases of trafficking for forced labour has increased. There is now a higher propensity to identify victims of human trafficking for the purposes of labour exploitation.
The vast majority of victims identified between 2002 and 2016 entered the trafficking process through labour migration, although a large share of identified child victims in 2014–2016 were sold by their families or entered the trafficking process through family or relatives. Victims identified in sectors like mining and construction are almost exclusively men, while victims identified in prostitution and sectors such as hospitality are mostly women.
Several UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have collaborated to produce data sources on the profiles of victims of human trafficking, the prevalence of human trafficking, and on related phenomena such as forced labour and forced marriage.
Data sources on the profiles of victims of human trafficking include:
The International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s global database on victims of human trafficking: Through IOM’s provision of direct assistance to victims of trafficking, it has developed the largest database of victim of trafficking case data in the world. The database contains over 50,000 individual cases, with approximately 5,000 new cases added each year. IOM currently assists between 7,000 and 9,000 victims annually, collecting a unique source of data on victims of trafficking that is international in scope. Data captured include information about the victims’ backgrounds, trafficking locations and routes, how people fall into the trafficking process, associated forms of exploitation and abuse, sectors of exploitation, means by which victims are controlled, and some information on perpetrators.
IOM’s database has not been publicly available in the past due to the sensitivity of its content, and data protection and confidentiality considerations. However, in 2017, IOM has made de-identified, individual-level, primary data on victims of human trafficking available online through the Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative (CTDC) data portal. This data portal provides registered users access to download anonymized human trafficking data contributed by counter-trafficking organizations around the world. This global dataset currently contains approximately 45,000 records, while the non-anonymized combined dataset currently contains over 80,000 observations, on which the data portal’s visualizations are based. IOM and Polaris are the first contributors to the global dataset, and they are joined by Liberty Asia. Other organizations have also expressed an interest to contribute.
UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Global Report on Human Trafficking: UNODC surveys governments on trafficking victims identified in their respective countries using a common questionnaire with a standard set of indicators, and then aggregates the results. The most recent global report was produced in 2016. Over two years, this exercise produced data on approximately 63,251 identified victims of trafficking from 106 national governments. Data are largely not only unit record information, but absolute numbers disaggregated by variables such as sex, age, and type of exploitation, wherever possible. In addition, UNODC collected official information such as police reports that are available in the public domain and which were verified with national governments. Inter-governmental and NGOs collected eight per cent of this information.
Data sources on the prevalence of human trafficking and related phenomena, such as forced labour and forced marriage, include:
Multiple Systems Estimation is the methodology used to estimate the total (unidentified and identified) victims of trafficking at country level. The methodology is based on multiple, independent partial lists of cases of human trafficking provided by different actors in the counter-trafficking field, such as NGOs, courts, police, other authorities and international organizations.
The 2017 Global Estimate of Modern Slavery: Forced Labor and Forced Marriage: This estimate is produced by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation (WFF) in collaboration with IOM. The new 2017 report estimates that 40 million people were victims of modern slavery in any given day in 2016. Out of these, approximately 25 million people were in forced labour and another 15 million people were in a forced marriage. The work to produce this estimate includes ground-breaking survey data from more than 50 countries and provides critical data for measuring progress on achieving Target 8.7 of the SDGs.
The Global Estimate on Modern Slavery consists of two sub-estimates: forced labour and forced marriages. It also refers to forms of coercion prohibited in international instruments on human rights and labour standards. The estimates on forced sexual exploitation, forced child labour, and the duration of forced labour exploitation were estimated using IOM’s global database on victims of human trafficking.
The methodology and the scope of the new Global Estimate of Modern Slavery is a multi-stakeholder, unified approach to measuring human trafficking. It builds upon previous ILO work (global estimates of forced labour in 2005 and in 2012) and work from the WFF (global estimate of modern slavery in 2013, 2014 and 2016). The number of surveys used is larger than previously and covers more countries and respondents. The 54 specially designed, national probabilistic surveys contain interviews with more than 71,000 respondents across 48 countries.
Estimates of trafficking prevalence in crisis (conflict) contexts produced by IOM, ILO and the WFF address the existing data gap on measurements of human trafficking in countries with significant displacement. This is a pilot research initiative in three countries with large numbers of internally-displaced people and where IOM has substantial humanitarian operations and suitable sampling frames. The estimate will be available in late 2017 or early 2018.Back to top
Data strengths & limitations
The existing global data sources on victims of human trafficking and related phenomena, such as forced labour and forced marriage, are valuable baselines and are in a process of continuous improvement in terms of methodology and accessibility. There are, however, limitations to this challenging work, including the following:
Datasets on identified/detected victims of human trafficking are limited in geographic scope and comprehensiveness: The availability of IOM’s data relies on the presence of IOM programming, which varies in extent by country. UNODC’s database relies on the collection of official information primarily from participating governments. However, data comprehensiveness varies by country. Some countries’ laws and policies to counter trafficking, as well as their capacities to identify and report on victims, facilitate better data collection.
Datasets often contain only aggregate data or highly sensitive information in disaggregate form: Data provided to UNODC are sometimes aggregate figures that are not broken down by basic variables, such as sex and age. Data also do not include details of exploitation and the trafficking process. IOM’s data are primary, unit record case data with fine-grained detail on each victim of trafficking. However, such data are highly sensitive. Even when data are anonymized, the risk of re-identification remains with possible severe consequences. Therefore, data access to external stakeholders and its use in various initiatives has been relatively limited to date. Data access is also limited because UN standards for statistics dictate that data should be strictly confidential and used exclusively for statistical purposes (UN, 2013).
Developing prevalence estimates of human trafficking is challenging: Human trafficking has a complicated legal definition that is both broad in terms of the different forms that human trafficking may take and specific in separating it from other crimes and human rights abuses. This makes the phenomena challenging to measure through traditional survey work, for example.
Additionally, there are important sampling limitations for global prevalence estimate work. Not all countries can be sampled due to resource constraints, security reasons, or the presence of large-scale humanitarian emergencies. The resulting selection of countries for survey work is not random. There are also ethical considerations and further challenges related to large-scale household surveys in terms of the sensitivity of certain questions (for example, questions related to sexual exploitation or violence) and the difficulty of collecting data about children.
Many of the same challenges apply to prevalence work on related phenomena such as forced labour, forced marriage and child labour.
The Multiple Systems Estimation is new and cannot be applied globally: This method and its application in the counter-trafficking field is still in the testing stage in a few countries, but can serve as a good baseline estimate where other estimates are not available, using minimal resources. The method, however, depends upon multiple, pre-existing, databases on identified victims of human trafficking in the country of implementation. Researchers developing this estimation method consider that it could potentially be used in approximately 50 countries around the world.