April 23, 2014

Is human trafficking really the third most profitable business for organized crime?


“Trafficking in persons is now the third most profitable business for organized crime.”  UN Office on Drugs and Crime (2000)

“…it is now the third largest source of profits for international organized crime, behind only drugs and guns.”  U.S. Department of State (2000)

“…migrants’ smuggling becomes a very attractive market for criminal organisations. In 1999, the worldwide profits made by individual smugglers and smuggling networks, have been placed between US$ 3 billion and US$ 10 billion. By the end of this year, some sources say that the worldwide trade in human trafficking is worth around US$ 30 billion a year. According to that estimation, trafficking in human beings is now the third largest source of profits for organized crime, behind drugs and arms trafficking.” Interpol (2002)


Evidence for this claim either does not exist or is impossible to locate.  Despite the efforts of the authors and two professional reference librarians to locate the original reliable source, the research only turned up similar statements and not one article was uncovered that contained any evidence to support the claim.  Perhaps the spectacular claim arose from a slip of the tongue, as in the above statement by Interpol. As many people confuse smuggling and trafficking, it is not unusual to hear statements that claim to be about trafficking but are really talking about smuggling. Perhaps this is how the claim of “third largest” became imbedded in the trafficking language – in error.  It would certainly make more sense to say that smuggling is the third largest source of organized crime profits.

Whether the claim comes from a slip of the tongue or not, errors of this type, like many other assertions to be discussed in Fact Checker, enter the world of ‘myth’ but are perceived to be ‘fact.’

The “third largest” claim has spread and changed over time. The following examples demonstrate how the claim has given birth to even more unsupported claims   Recently, U.S. Congressman Chris Smith made the unsubstantiated claim that “[t]rafficking is…the second fastest growing criminal activity in the world, equal with illegal arms sales.”    In another variation, the U.S. government claims that “[a]fter drug dealing, trafficking of humans is tied with arms dealing as the second largest criminal industry in the world, and is the fastest growing.” As so much of the discussion about trafficking focuses on the sex sector, it is no surprise to read a new claim that “[p]rostitution and the trafficking of women have become the third highest ‘black market’ income earner after drugs and the arms trade.” There are probably more variations on the theme yet to be uncovered.


Assuming that there is no reliable evidence of the truth of any of these claims, the question is – what is the harm?  Some people may consider that, because human trafficking is a serious problem, hype and exaggeration can help to raise awareness and push people and governments to action.  Nonetheless, we believe that such claims are harmful on at least two counts.

First, myths obscure reality. Human trafficking is reportedly only about 20% (2.45 million) of the 12.3 million people whom the ILO estimates are held in forced labor, debt bondage or slavery. The claim that profits from human trafficking are right behind arms and drugs would mean that the profits from 2.45 million victims are greater than the profits from the other 10 million victims – all of whom are also held in forced labor, debt bondage, and slavery. Could this be possible?

It is difficult to see how it could be true.  The term ‘organized crime’ conjures up images of fairly large, complex, often global, networks.  If the statements are referring only to these large networks, then the profits they mention can only come from some of the 2.45 million trafficked persons because many people are trafficked by families and other small groups.  It is difficult to understand how so much profit could come from so few victims.

The United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime defines an ‘organized criminal group’ as only three or more persons. If the term ‘organized crime’ includes all of these small groups, then the claim would mean that organized crime is earning those profits from all 2.45 million victims.  However, this raises the question of whether the profits are greater from trafficking 2.45 million people or the other 10 million people held in forced labor, debt bondage and slavery.  The families and small businesses holding those people would also constitute ‘organized crime.’  Again, it is difficult to believe that more money is made from the labor of 2.45 million victims than from almost 10 million victims.

So we are left with at least three scenarios:  (1) the claim is really about smuggling and not trafficking; (2) the claim refers only large organized crime and the profits made from fewer than 2.45 million victims or (3) the claim refers to small organized crime and the profits made from all 2.45 million victims.  It would be useful to know which of these scenarios is the subject of the claim and whether there is any reliable evidence in support.

Nonetheless, all of these options obscure the reality that another 10 million human beings are suffering under conditions of forced labor, debt bondage and slavery and that criminals are reaping enormous profits off of their labor.  It is extremely important that we move beyond ‘human trafficking’ as the iconic image of suffering and focus on the harm done to and the profits made off of the labor of all 12.3 million victims.

Second, myths lead to bad policies. When highly publicized but unsubstantiated claims become accepted as ‘fact,’ then bad or ineffective laws, policies and programs are sure to follow at the international, regional, state and local levels. Money, time, personnel and energy is invested in addressing the ‘organized crime’ involved in human trafficking – with a focus on transnational trafficking –with very little new or creative energy being expended to address the oppression of the 10 million people in forced labor, slavery and debt bondage. Furthermore, and perhaps more problematic is the fact that this focus on human trafficking as a problem of organized crime cannot and will not address the root causes that render people vulnerable or produce targeted, creative, long-term solutions for victims.


Policy makers, NGOs, academics, the media and advocates should be careful not to assert opinions as facts.  It is not enough for authors and advocates to refer to a source, such as the UN, to support a claim.  In many cases, a little research will reveal that those sources are unreliable. We should all take care not to become part of the hype producing machinery that continually presents opinions or ideology as ‘facts.’

Readers must also become demanding and skeptical consumers of information. They should insist upon better research and not believe what they read until they are able to evaluate the evidence.  If no evidence is available, they should consider such statements as opinions and nothing more.

Human trafficking, forced labor, slavery and debt bondage are horrendous human rights abuses that are complicated by history, place, social customs, patterns of discrimination, migration patterns and economic development and dislocation. It is imperative, therefore, that we all seek a deeper and broader understanding that does not rely on catchy phrases and opinions.

FINAL NOTE: If readers are aware of any reliable research supporting any of these claims, please send them to info@rightswork.org and we will post them.

Ann Jordan is Director of the Program on Human Trafficking and Forced labor, Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, American University Washington College of Law.

Lynn Burke is a J.D. / M.A. Candidate at the Washington College of Law.

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