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September 14, 2015

What We Can Learn from San Francisco about Human Trafficking

Last month the San Francisco’s Mayor’s Task Force on Human Trafficking released its first report. Mayor Edwin Lee launched the task force in March 2013 with the goals of identifying gaps in victim services, improving anti-trafficking policies, and increasing San Francisco’s responsiveness to the crime.

The study compiled data from 19 government and community-based agencies on known and suspected victims of trafficking they encountered or provided services to during the last six months of 2014. While the report is not meant to provide a prevalence estimate, it’s a step towards determining the scope of the problem in San Francisco.

The study identified 291 victims of trafficking, the majority of which are survivors of sex trafficking. Of the total, 118 were minors.

These findings are a starting point for exposing the depth of the problem in San Francisco and highlight many of the challenges in addressing this crime, such as data limitations. Given the clandestine nature of modern slavery, there are likely many more instances of trafficking than were identified in the report. It’s also possible that some of the identified victims may have been counted twice if they encountered more than one reporting agency.

Limited data about trafficking is a major hindrance in addressing it. The U.S. government needs to use a peer-reviewed and transparent methodology to make an authoritative determination of the number of victims in the United States. Systematic, consistent, and uniform data collection can help direct resources to identify and prosecute all actors engaged in trafficking.

San Francisco’s report also notes the difficulty in identifying labor trafficking, and recommends that more effort and resources be directed towards these cases. Seventy-eight percent of those identified were victims of sex trafficking, and only eight percent were victims of labor trafficking. These findings are in line with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which found that 71 percent of reported domestic slavery cases fall under sex trafficking, while only 16 percent involve labor trafficking.

This data is in stark contrast to global trends identified by the International Labor Organization, whose data indicates that labor trafficking accounts for 68 percent of the estimated 20.9 million victims of human trafficking.

The San Francisco study’s higher percentage of sex trafficking victims is likely due to a lack of understanding about how to recognize labor trafficking cases. Law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and service providers need clear and uniform guidelines for identifying and addressing labor trafficking.

Human Rights First applauds the Mayor Lee’s task force and its efforts to combat trafficking, along with its recognition that more needs to be done. For more recommendations on what the state, local, tribal, and federal government can do to dismantle the business of trafficking, see our blueprint