Someone in the Crowd

In 2012 Barack Obama said of human trafficking: “It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric.”[1]

I think it’s a challenge which is helpful, because it brings into sharp juxtaposition an individual responsibility, and a collective one. The global trafficking problem is on such a huge scale that if things are going to change it’ll require huge engagement..

But it takes a community of individuals, in which every person cares, counts and contributes, to make such a collective.

Let’s take a moment to look at the numbers involved.

This week I compiled some figures from the September 2017 report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Walk Free Foundation. It’s worth a caveat that numbers are difficult and differing, because this is a ‘hidden crime’ and definitions vary.

But here are a few statistics to highlight key areas:

  • An estimated 24.9 million victims are trapped in modern-day slavery.
  • Of these, 16 million (64%) are exploited for labour, 4.8 million (19%) are sexually exploited, and 4.1 million (17%) are exploited in state-imposed forced labour.
  • 71% of trafficking victims around the world are women and girls.
  • 5 million victims (25%) are children.
  • The Asia-pacific region accounts for the largest number of forced labourers— 15.4 million (62% of the global total), followed by Africa with 5.7 million (23%), then Europe and Central Asia with 2.2 million (9%).
  • It really is true that sex sells. 19% of victims are trafficked for sex, but sexual exploitation earns 66% of the global profits of human trafficking. The average annual profits generated by each woman in forced sexual servitude is $100,000.
  • There were only 9,071 convictions for trafficking globally in 2016.[2]

Those numbers are nothing short of appalling.

And I wonder if sometimes statistics can numb our capacity to care – I struggle to imagine a crowd of 1000 people. So what do I do with a statistic like 5.5 million children?

Maybe here, too, we find a tension between the collective and the individual.

Because surely the moment we let individual lives be subsumed under this huge, unimaginable collective – the moment that we neatly package stories of suffering into tidy statistics – our thinking is on dangerous ground. We cease to see people as individuals, but numbers. And to take that image to its full, horrific extension is to see 24.9 million people with barcodes scrawled upon on their skin.

We’ve got to understand the figures to grasp the scale of the problems, but maybe then we need to ask how we make space to care about those affected.

And maybe an answer is that we start by caring about the one. We let ourselves hurt for the single life that was stolen and sold – the one girl whose childhood was robbed, hopes snatched, body damaged, health wrecked, future lost. We weep for the one girl, because she was made for so much more. Because how dare it be the case that her utter beauty, her worth and preciousness were stripped down to the $100,000 she will make for the sex trade annually.

4.8 million people are being sexually exploited.

But may we never, ever stop agonising over the one.

And maybe this is the moment to ask what part you and I will play in this. We’re each just a ‘one’ in this huge problem.

In future weeks we’ll look at this in greater depth, but perhaps you might review the way that you give. Maybe you work out your slavery footprint, ask who picked your tomatoes or made your clothes, or look at the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. Maybe you write a letter to lobby policy makers… or maybe you do any combination of the above, but invite 10 others to join you.

You are one, but you have so much power as an influencer and you’re a part of a collective.

We’re looking at statistics in the millions.

Let’s make the ones count.



[1] According to the 2017 State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report

2] In an address at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York, September 25, 2012.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *