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Human Trafficking in the U.S.

Updated: Mar 24

The co-founder of HEAL Trafficking, Susie B. Baldwin, defines human trafficking as a major global crime, in which people are exploited for the profit or benefit of others. Trafficking has been recognized as a human rights violation, and with the passing of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, U.S. law defines it as a federal crime. 

More specifically, the United States has defined human trafficking as the use of force, fraud, compulsion, trickery or abuse of power to compel a person to perform labor or services. Although many people tend to believe that victims are trafficked across international borders, researchers at the Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work found that 42% of people are victimized within their own countries. Based on the number of victims that have been identified, statistics show that 71% are women and 28% are children. In 2016, the U.S. Polaris National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 7,572 cases, and that number only includes those that were discovered by the hotline.

Some cases are difficult to categorize. Smuggled migrants, in an effort to finance their migration, tend to accept work in conditions that could be labeled as exploitative. It is true that, in some trafficking cases, physical violence is not present, and the trafficked person is aware of the type of labor that they are being asked to perform. The workers’ awareness, and hence apparent “consent,” leads to further scholarly debates regarding the legal definition of a trafficked person. 

On the topic of sex trafficking, critics are divided between those who consider it possible for sex work to be voluntary and those who consider prostitution inherently forced or exploitative. In terms of protocol, consent can be invalidated if any signs of force or abuse, such as coercion, abduction, fraud or deception, are present. These complexities--the plethora of unique ways in which human trafficking occurs, make it difficult to legislate on the issue. 

In 2012, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that 20.9 million people were victims of forced labor and human trafficking worldwide. The Journal of Human Trafficking claims the ILO’s estimate is the most reliable (and most commonly cited) statistic on human trafficking to date. 

This contrasts with the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report data, which claims that there were only 44,462 victims worldwide in 2014. No reports on the issue ever seem to be the same. Underreporting, contested definitions, misclassification and faulty reporting techniques remain prevalent problems to this day.


Baldwin, Susie B., Anne E. Fehrenbacher, and David P. Eisenman. "Psychological coercion in human trafficking: an application of Biderman’s framework." Qualitative health research 25, no. 9 (2015): 1171-1181.

Farrell, Amy, and Jessica Reichert. "Using US law-enforcement data: Promise and limits in    

measuring human trafficking." Journal of Human Trafficking 3, no. 1 (2017): 39-60.

Meshkovska, Biljana, Melissa Siegel, Sarah E. Stutterheim, and Arjan ER Bos. "Female sex 

trafficking: Conceptual issues, current debates, and future directions." Journal of sex research 52, no. 4 (2015): 380-395.

Okech, David, Y. Joon Choi, Jennifer Elkins, and Abigail C. Burns. "Seventeen years of human   

trafficking research in social work: A review of the literature." Journal of evidence-

informed social work 15, no. 2 (2018): 103-122.

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