The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act, passed in 2000, defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain labor or commercial sex. The term can encompass forced marriage, domestic servitude and the recruitment of child soldiers in war. But it's hard to pin down the total number of trafficking victims, and the organizations that attempt to do so differ somewhat in their definitions. The International Labor Organization, which uses the term "modern slavery," has estimated that on any given day, 40.3 million people are exploited, and that traffickers earn an estimated $150 billion in profits every year. The phenomenon, though, is widely misunderstood.
Myth No. 1: Victims are trafficked by strangers
In January, a TikTok video showed a white van in Eugene, Ore., and claimed that it contained young women — setting off a panic at the University of Oregon that traffickers were plucking people off the streets. (The driver was an innocent carpet cleaner.) Rumors began in 2018 in San Angelo, Texas, that human traffickers were leaving zip ties on the mailboxes or cars of women targeted for kidnapping; the false story still spreads on social media. Popular movies including "Trade" and "Taken" depict people being kidnapped by strangers and forced into the commercial sex industry.
But while it's the stories — true or not — about strangers that go viral, traffickers can be relatives, neighbors or other people well known to the victim. "Parents or family members of victims" and "intimate partners" are among the perpetrators reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, according to Polaris, the group that runs the service. In at least one case, parents who were enthralled by the self-help advice of Keith Raniere, leader of the sex cult Nxivm, introduced their children to him; they essentially became sex slaves. In others, women recruited their friends into Nxivm.
In Togo, a trusted community leader persuaded families to send their daughters, ages 10 to 19, to New Jersey with her, promising them a better education. Instead, she put them to work in hair-braiding salons for up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week — and was convicted of trafficking.
Myth No. 2: Trafficking is a developing-world problem
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof famously brought attention to one corner of trafficking 17 years ago when he purchased the freedom of two teenage girls who were trafficked in Cambodia. The dramatic gesture helped reinforce the idea that trafficking happens only abroad, in poor countries. Inspired by his example, Americans flocked to charities that sought to free such people in the developing world.
But while human trafficking is certainly worse in some countries than others — Belarus, Myanmar, Eritrea, Russia and China are among those rated near the bottom by the State Department — it happens in every single country. The U.S.-based trafficking hotline reported being contacted by 22,326 trafficking victims and survivors in 2019; of those, 14,597 people were sex trafficked and 4,934 were victims of labor trafficking. Unfortunately, fewer people abused in the United States may be seeking help these days: The State Department concluded in its 2020 human-trafficking report that exploited foreign nationals residing here were afraid to turn to the authorities because of the general crackdown on immigration-related offenses.
Myth No. 3: Human trafficking increases during sporting events
Before the 2020 NFL championship, the Miami Herald published the headline, "A bonanza for traffickers: Why a Miami Super Bowl is a magnet for sex-trafficking." It's a popular subject: Researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Minnesota identified 111 print media articles published between 2009 and 2016 that used the words "Super Bowl," "sex trafficking" and "prostitution": Overwhelmingly, they suggested a correlation (or causal connection) between the event and a spike in trafficking. Similarly, in 2010, the South African Central Drug Authority claimed that 40,000 sex workers would be brought to Johannesburg for commercial sex during soccer's World Cup.
But the Texas and Minnesota researchers reviewed academic studies and found no reason to believe that the Super Bowl provokes more sex trafficking than any other large public event. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, looked into the Johannesburg statistic and concluded that "researchers haven't been able to track down the basis for that claim."
The real problem is labor trafficking in the lead-up to such events. Through interviews with 210 construction workers in 2012 and 2013, Amnesty International established that significant exploitation of workers from South Asia was occurring as Qatar prepared for the 2022 World Cup. "People were engaged in work for which they had not offered themselves voluntarily — because they had been deceived about their terms or conditions, or had pay withheld for months at a time," the group's report said. On Tuesday, the Guardian reported that more than 6,500 migrant workers have died while working on World Cup infrastructure projects in Qatar.
Myth No. 4: Trafficking is perpetrated by gangs and cartels
"Gangs of all kinds are the driving force behind much of the human trafficking industry," asserts a Feb. 11 article on the website of WBLT in Jackson, Miss. "From Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs to street gangs, most of those organizations are funded in part by sex dollars." President Donald Trump often stressed the role of "vicious cartels and gangs" in trafficking "thousands of children" into the United States.
While organized crime is certainly prevalent at the border, placing all blame there oversimplifies matters and overlooks other forms of trafficking. Family members are responsible for some cases — and governments for some of the most egregious instances. China's systematic persecution of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in its northwestern Xinjiang region is just the most extreme example of a state-run forced-labor system: Since 2017, more than 1 million Uighurs have been detained in "reeducation" camps for weeks or years, and many are forced to work in factories that provide goods to Western consumers.
Similarly, a coalition of human rights organizations found that in Uzbekistan, "the state forcibly mobilized hundreds of thousands of employees of state organizations to pick cotton" — one of the country's main exports. In times of labor shortages, it forces students and teachers, among others, into the fields.
Myth No. 5: Human trafficking requires movement
"Essex lorry tragedy must spur greater effort to stop trafficking from Vietnam," read a headline in the Guardian on Jan. 1. The article referred to the tragic story of 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated in the back of a container truck in England in October 2019. But the transport of these migrants from Belgium to England was human smuggling, not human trafficking — and there is an important distinction between the two. In the Essex case, desperation led the migrants to pay a smuggler to help them enter the country illegally through risky means.
Movement is not required for trafficking to have occurred. As Catholic Relief Services notes, "You can be a victim of human trafficking in your hometown." In 2016 a Texas man was found guilty of exploiting workers in the United States who had arrived through valid work visas. He confiscated their passports and documents, housed them in "inhumane conditions," according to the State Department, and forced them to work more than 80 hours per week in dangerous heat — threatening them with deportation if they left their worksites or complained. Crucially, the trafficking happened after their arrival in Texas.
The misconception that human trafficking requires the moving of victims across borders is particularly dangerous during this pandemic, given that the opportunities for exploitation have expanded. The International Labor Organization estimates that the pandemic will eliminate 195 million jobs globally, resulting in increased economic pressure on families. As these hardships have increased, traditional support networks have become overburdened — and anti-trafficking organizations are overtaxed, too. This results in ever more desperation and isolation, two things that traffickers exploit.
Samir Goswami has worked with trafficking survivors, civil society groups, corporations and multilateral institutions to promote labor and human rights around the world. Natalie Jesionka is a Dalla Lana global journalism fellow and has worked on human-trafficking issues in Southeast Asia. This piece was written for The Washington Post.