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Human trafficking (a.k.a., trafficking in persons) has been referred to as "the face of modern slavery" and usually refers to illicit labor managed by a boss, pimp, or other middleman who arranges the transaction. The more desperate the worker, the less autonomy they have to leave their job, and the worse their wages and working conditions, the more likely the situation is to be considered a case of human trafficking. In many countries, much of the behavior now being called "human trafficking" is criminalized under other laws too; for example, a pimp's confiscating a prostitute's passport to prevent her from leaving the country is theft; threatening a prostitute with death if she tries to escape is a crime of violence; and locking someone up in a sweatshop is false imprisonment. However, there is a push among NGOs and federal officials to get local law enforcement and courts to recognize and punish these offenses as human trafficking.
In some cases, the people being trafficked take the initiative to cross borders in search of a better life, but it is still considered human trafficking when they end up working at a sweatshop or as a prostitute (which often happens because, as undocumented immigrants, they don't have a work permit that would allow them to work outside the underground economy).
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000, which offers amnesty and T-1 visas to foreign women in exchange for co-operation with investigations of international prostitution rings. It was also one of the first legislations in America to define either sex trafficking:
[T]he recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.
or human trafficking:
the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.
While some claim that 'prostitution' is being slowly redefined as 'sex trafficking', this assertion is simply incorrect, since the very text of the law states that force, fraud, and coercion must be present under TVPA in order for it to be considered 'trafficking' – unless the victim is under 18 years of age, which would make the person incapable of informed consent by definition.
Most confirmed cases of force, fraud, or coercion that are related to prostitution, particularly underage, unlicensed prostitution, have involved either solitary pimps or small domestic rings of pimps. To combat prostitution among minors, sex with minors above the age of consent has been criminalized if said sex was an act of prostitution (age of consent varies between 16 and 18 in US states). There is some controversy about the fact that trafficked children are also sometimes treated as criminals themselves.
Large numbers of people are trafficked each year according to the flawed U.S. State Department "2019 Trafficking In Persons Report", which shows 70,000-90,000 identified victims, and had also found that 6,000-9,000 traffickers have been convicted each year for the past 4-5 years- with thousands more possibly unseen, thus dispelling the notion that human trafficking is simply a hoax or a moral panic. However, the issue of sex trafficking can sometimes indeed rise to the level of a moral panic or be connected to hoaxes.
From the 2019 Trafficking In Persons Report, we can see anecdotal personal testimonies from victims across several countries including America, which paint a ghastly sight of coercion, forced prostitution, rape, and violence, also dispelling the notion that our fears of trafficking stem primarily from sex-negativity.
Measuring the problem
Human trafficking is a classic case of something where it is very hard to measure the prevalence or gather statistics. By its nature, human trafficking is very secretive. Victims are normally closely watched or imprisoned by their traders. Victims are also unlikely to speak the same language as researchers, and being without legitimate visas or travel documents, may be fearful of reporting their captivity or exploitation due to fears of being deported by the state as well as fears of violence from their captors. Victims may not even know that they have been the victim of a crime or possess rights that are denied to them. It is also possible that people working voluntarily as prostitutes and illegal immigrants who arrived by their own actions may be mistaken for the victims of human trafficking, or may even claim to have been trafficked to avoid prosecution or deportation.
A 2008 report by the Vera Institute of Justice looked into some of these issues. It found that a rise in concern about human trafficking in the 1990s and 2000s was not due to any actual increase in the problem, but was due to other social and political currents and to mobilization by interest groups. This is not necessarily a bad thing when the increased awareness is reality-based, but it becomes a bad thing when it is based on conspiracy theories that are based on false ideas about human trafficking (Pizzagate and QAnon). The report also found that most published estimates were based on obscure or undocumented methodologies: it said the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Reports were "performed by a single analyst who failed to fully document the work, the data-generating process has been inaccessible for review or replication." International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates were based on a capture-recapture model which also involved unproven assumptions. They also found that poor-quality or methodologically-dubious estimates were repeatedly cited throughout the literature without a clear understanding of what they measured or how they were gathered: they reviewed 144 estimates in 45 published studies which claimed to discuss the prevalence of human trafficking, and found that in only one publication was the estimate based on original and documented work; others often cited only vague sources like an agency name with no date or further details. The conclusion was that existing figures on human trafficking failed to cite sources, failed to be clear about what they were measuring, and failed to document their methodologies. Thankfully, "Over the years, the methodology, content, and design of the TIP Report have evolved, reflecting in many ways the broader anti-trafficking movement's progress in understanding the crime", and the 2020 TIP report now uses information from "U.S. embassies, government officials, nongovernmental and international organizations, published reports, news articles, academic studies, research trips to every region of the world, and information submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org."
Regardless of the accuracy of the numbers reported and estimated, only two things are clear: that the current problems with human trafficking are severely under-identification rather than over-identification, and that there is a lack of ability to prosecute, rather than over-prosecution, and that human trafficking is a form of slavery, and is a grave evil in our time. 80,000 victims a year represents a terrifying amount of human suffering, and that may well only be the tip of the iceberg.
- Trafficking in Persons Report (2013) U.S. Department of State (archived from November 14, 2016).
- On This Day In History: The Trafficking Victims Protection Act Passed in Congress by Rebecca Jun (October 28, 2019) Trafficking Matters.
- Why Do We Treat Child Sex-Trafficking Victims Like Criminals? D.C. just fixed its law. More than half of U.S. states still haven't. by Juan David Romero (December 4, 2014) The New Republic.
- Measuring Human Trafficking: Lessons from New York City by Neil A. Weiner & Nicole Hala (August 2008) Vera Institute of Justice.
- 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report U.S. State Department.
- "This Modern Day Slavery": Sex Trafficking and Moral Panic in the United Kingdom by Angela Hill (2011) University of California, Berkeley Ph.D. Thesis.
- Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic by Nick Davies (19 Oct 2009 20.42 EDT) The Guardian.
- Fact check: No evidence to suggest text scam is linked to sex trafficking (August 27, 20209:36 AM) Reuters.
- Improving Human Trafficking Victim Identification—Validation and Dissemination of a Screening Tool by Laura Simich et al. (June 2014) Vera Institute of Justice. Final Report.