Human trafficking is one of contemporary society’s most shameful acts; the act of trafficking is omnipresent and has discreetly become one of the world’s most prolific underground markets, generating over $150 billion in profits annually. A sensationalized image of human trafficking is promulgated from film to social media, often portraying both victims and traffickers incorrectly.

While “kidnapped-child,” “smuggling-foreign-tourist,” and “forced-prostitution” tropes appeal to the box office and television consumers (see, Taken, Trade, Criminal Minds, CSI: NY, Law & Order: SVU, etc.), most human trafficking exposé pieces get the basics wrong. In turn, more obstacles are created for victims and survivors, and harsh inaccuracies become the foundation of how modern slavery is perceived. 

An inquiry into the five most pervasive trafficking myths show that while some are born from fact, others are purely perpetuated error:

Myth 1: Human trafficking is the illegal transport of a person across foreign borders. 

Reality: The idea of illegal transport or movement of a victim is human smuggling. Trafficking and smuggling are often used synonymously, but this is not the case.

Smuggling is typically a financial transaction in exchange for illegal entry into another jurisdiction. Where smuggling focuses on transportation, trafficking focuses on exploitation. Trafficking is defined as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.” 

Victims of trafficking may not ever have to leave their original location to be trafficked and exploited by a family member or over the internet, among other methods.

Myth 2: Sex trafficking is the only/main form of human trafficking.

Reality: Sexual exploitation and forced labor are the two most commonly recognized forms of trafficking. Sexual exploitation is not the most common form of trafficking, but it generates the most revenue. Sexual exploitation comprises ~19% of survivor reports but $99 billion in revenue; forced labor compromises ~64% and $43 billion in revenue.

Other forms of trafficking include domestic servitude, forced marriage (over 15.4 million cases annually), child soldiers (over 60 state/non-state armed forces are estimated to recruit children), forced criminal activity, and organ harvesting (over 10% of all organ transplants involved trafficked organs.)

These statistics were also reflected in a 2017 report from the International Labour Organization.

Myth 3: Traffickers target victims they don’t know. 

Reality: Most victims of trafficking are trafficked by someone close to them, like a parent or an intimate partner. Polaris compiled information from 22,326 survivor reports in 2019 and found that the most common recruitment tactics involve:

  • An intimate partner or a marriage proposal.
  • Familial trafficking.
  • False job offers/advertisements.
  • Posing as a benefactor.
  • Fraud/false promises.

Force and coercion are encompassed in fraud, and can include:

  • Inducing or exploiting substance abuse issues.
  • Physical/sexual abuse.
  • Intimidation by display/threats.
  • Denying basic needs.

Myth 4: Trafficking is an illegitimate, underground operation. 

Reality: Trafficking infiltrates legitimate businesses globally. Some examples of legitimate industries include:

  • Financial Services: Traffickers use the lack of disclosures in the Finance Industry to set up money laundering schemes.
  • Hospitality Industry: Many hospitality corporations use subcontractors for hiring employees. When hospitality employees are not directly hired, there is a greater likelihood that the workers will be subject to debt bondage, threats, and other labor violations. 
  • Housing Industry: Trafficking can operate out of domestic shelters, residential facilities, public housing units, etc. This is most commonly seen in labor trafficking, where traffickers rent small, cramped properties requiring their workers to reside.

Myth 5: Only women and minors are trafficked. 

Reality: Adult women are the most commonly trafficked in terms of gender, at 51%, followed by adult men at 21%, then minor girls at 21%, and finally minor boys ay 8%. While these are global statistics, it is crucial to recognize that these percentages may vary depending on the geographical location. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, 62% of trafficking victims are children.