How do you identify sex-trafficking victims when such cases go largely undetected or unreported?*
It’s an issue with which law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. continually struggle. Detective Bill Woolf with the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force has experienced this first hand. Over the course of his tenure, he’s interviewed over 300 victims. In many cases, those who have been exploited believe that they are offenders, Woolf told me. “They fear law enforcement…because they’re technically committing a crime and that is prostitution,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as a “modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain.” In 2012, the International Labor Organization estimated that there are 20.9 million human trafficking victims worldwide. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, sexual exploitation is the most commonly identified form ahead of forced labor. Numbers released by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center suggest that also holds true in the U.S., where more than 4,000 cases of sex trafficking were reported. And as a whole human trafficking is a lucrative industry that around the globe rakes in $150 billion.
But it’s unclear whether the numbers are an accurate representation of the problem, because many cases aren’t reported, according to Monique Villa, the CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which works to combat human trafficking. “The problem with human trafficking is that of course the victims are silenced,” Villa said. “We don’t have good data about it. You don’t know how many slaves there are around the world.” Traffickers also play into the narrative by telling victims, who are exploited for sex, that they are offenders, threatening to call the police and report them for prostitution if they push back. This makes sex trafficking particularly challenging because victims might be fearful of going to law enforcement and being charged with a crime.