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Although slavery is thought to be a thing of the past, a form of slavery is thriving in the United States and all around the world. It goes by the name of human trafficking.

Each year, about 40 million people worldwide fall victim to human trafficking, according to the International Labour Organization. Although human trafficking is thought to be a problem of developing nations, the issue is present in the United States, as well. Thousands of human trafficking cases are documented locally, with countless others going unreported.

Not only is human trafficking morally unacceptable and unethical but it also violates several state and federal laws in the United States. Even though human trafficking victims are often from vulnerable populations, they have successfully brought lawsuits against perpetrators and those who profited from their trafficking.

Human Trafficking Definition

Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery that happens when people use force, fraud, or coercion to make victims engage in labor services or commercial sex acts. The physical movement of a victim is not necessary for it to be trafficking.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security warns that traffickers use different tactics to lure people who are susceptible due to any number of reasons, whether psychological or emotional vulnerability, economic hardship, lack of a social safety net, natural disasters, or political instability.

The United Nations defines human trafficking more specifically in its “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.” Here is the full U.N. definition of the term:

“Trafficking in persons” shall mean 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.

The term exploitation is broader than the definition used by the United States. It can be prostitution, other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery, or even the removal of organs.

Although human smuggling is often lumped in with human trafficking, they are related but different crimes. Smuggling usually involves consent while trafficking does not.

Types of Human Trafficking

In the United States, human trafficking is broken down into two categories that are not mutually exclusive: labor trafficking and sex trafficking.

Labor Trafficking

The International Labour Organization estimates that 24.9 million of the 40.3 million victims of human trafficking are forced into labor. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act defines forced labor as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

Forced labor can include domestic servitude, sweatshop work, agricultural work, peddling, and more.

Sex Trafficking

The other “severe” form of human trafficking is sex trafficking. This occurs when someone is forced, coerced, or defrauded into a commercial sex act. It also includes times when a person under 18 is pushed into a commercial sex act — voluntarily or not. A commercial sex act is any sexual act in which value is given to or received by someone.

Examples of sex trafficking include prostitution, forced marriage, sex tourism, mail-order brides, pornography, and more.

Human Trafficking Statistics

Human trafficking is often called a hidden crime because victims rarely come forward due to a language barrier, fear of retaliation, or fear of authorities. However, it is a problem that affects every part of the world, from the wealthiest nations to the poorest.

The exact numbers of human trafficking are impossible to know. However, estimates put the number of victims around the world as high as 40 million.

It is also big business to criminals. Human trafficking shows profits of about $150 billion for traffickers. Nearly $100 billion of that comes from sexual exploitation.

Slaves are cheaper than they have ever been. During the slave trade back in the mid-1800s, the average cost of a slave was about $40,000 in today’s money. The current average cost of a slave is only $90, according to Free The Slaves.

The vast majority of victims of human trafficking are women and children.

Human Trafficking in the United States

The United States is not immune to the problem of human trafficking, though the numbers are unclear. The U.S. State Department estimates that the number of people trafficked into the country each year is anywhere between 14,500 to 17,500. Victims of human trafficking in the United States are largely immigrants from other countries, but U.S. citizens can also be victims.

The crime most commonly occurs around high-population areas like cities. Most cases frequently come from California, New York, Florida, and Texas.

Since 2007, the Human Trafficking Hotline run by Polaris and funded in part by the Department of Health and Human Services has received more than 150,000 calls reporting human trafficking.
Convictions of human trafficking around the world are alarmingly low. In the United States, the Department of Justice convicted only 439 human traffickers in 2016. Those numbers were up from 297 in 2015 and 184 in 2014, according to Human Rights First.

Past & Current Human Trafficking Cases

The United States has made strides toward implementing laws to combat and prevent human trafficking. Although the number of prosecutions related to human trafficking is low, they are not unheard of. Here are a few examples of past and current human trafficking cases.

In 2014, the state of Pennsylvania passed a law to allow victims to sue those who profited indirectly from their trafficking. The first case was brought by a girl going by the initials of M.B. in 2017. She claims the budget motel Roosevelt Inn in Philadelphia turned a blind eye while the 14-year-old girl was forced to have sex with men several times a day for over two years.

Motel 6 settled a lawsuit in 2017 filed by the city of Los Angeles for $250,000 after accusations that the chain’s management let one of its locations be used as a hub for prostitution and other crime.
Three women sued Backpage.com in 2012 after alleging they were sold for sex as teenagers on the website. They agreed to a settlement for an undisclosed amount in October 2017.

In January 2018, two Indonesian fishermen settled a human trafficking lawsuit in which they claimed they were forced into labor while on an American fishing boat. The fishermen settled for an undisclosed sum.

With more states passing laws allowing victims to sue hotel owners and staff if they knowingly allowed traffickers to rent rooms, more cases are expected to be brought in the future.