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Human trafficking (aka 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. 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 illegal immigrants, they don't have a work permit that would allow them to work outside the underground economy).
Prostitution is increasingly being relabeled "sex trafficking", regardless of whether or not force, fraud, or coercion (denial of agency) are involved. Lurid tales of foreign women (mostly from Eastern Europe) being abducted or deceived to serve as prostitutes against their will during the 1990s led to passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which offers amnesty and T-1 visas to foreign women in exchange for co-operation with investigations of international prostitution rings. Despite the ghastly estimates of the numbers of women crossing international borders as prostitutes against their will, there have been very few takers for T-1 visas.
Most confirmed cases of force, fraud, or coercion related to prostitution, particularly involving minors under the age of consent, have involved either solitary pimps or small domestic networks of pimps. To combat prostitution among minors, legislatures are criminalizing sex with minors who are above the age of consent if the sex was an act of prostitution (age of consent varies between 16 and 18 in US states). There's some controversy about the fact that trafficked children are also sometimes treated as criminals themselves.
The failure to confirm large amounts of international trafficking (defined as denial of agency) for prostitution coupled with the profiles of traffickers that have been confirmed through criminal investigation suggests that the broad-brush approach to promoting the issue of sex trafficking is a moral panic that disregards actual circumstances.
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 00s was not due to any actual increase in the problem, but was due to other social and political currents and interest groups mobilizing. It 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 what they were measuring, and failed to document their methodologies.
- Measuring Human Trafficking: Lessons from New York City, Neil A. Weiner and Nicole Hala, Vera Institute of Justice, August 2008