CONSIDERING THE NUMBERS: The challenges of estimating of human trafficking in Canada

The past several years have seen an explosion in the amount of mediacoverage given to human trafficking, both internationally and here in Canada as well. News of new human trafficking cases in Canada has become a regular occurrence.

Because human trafficking destroys untold lives of young Canadians, there are important questions we should be asking: just how widespread is it? How many victims are there?

An often-used statistic when discussing this issue comes from the International Labour Organization (ILO). In 2012, the ILO estimated that globally over 21 million people were victims of human trafficking. A worrying number…if true. But how did the ILO arrive at that number?

Red Shoe2The human trafficking population can be seen as an iceberg. The known cases that we are aware of – the ones that go to court and are reported in the media – represent the tip of the iceberg. However, the true size of an iceberg lies below the surface. In the same vein, the true size of the human trafficking population, globally and in Canada, is unknown. It is in effect a hidden population.

As a result of this, statistics for human trafficking often tend to be estimates, where the known number of cases is taken and then extrapolated to generate a number that strives to approximately represent the actual size of the population. Kutnick, Belser and Danailova-Trainor (2007) note that both the U.S. Government and the ILO used known and reported cases as the starting point for estimates on the size of the human trafficking population.

This method has two significant shortcomings that reduce the quality of the estimate.

  1. At the moment, no country has developed the ability to gather data on human trafficking and many countries do not even recognize it as a problem. In effect, there are too few known cases to use as a starting point
  2. The majority of known cases are related to sex trafficking. This ignores labour trafficking, which is also a big issue. Estimates are thus incomplete in they mainly rely on known sex trafficking cases alone.

In light of this, we must be careful when reading estimates produced by the U.S Government, or organizations such as the ILO, and ask questions about the process that was used to arrive at those numbers.

In 2012, Canada introduced a national action plan on trafficking, though it is short on funding for research and data collection, and makes no mention of assigning responsibilities and working with the provinces to develop national infrastructure for data collection on the issue. I would urge the federal government take the following steps to address these limitations.

  1. Establish national framework for data collection on the issue.
  2. Develop a national referral mechanism that links all anti-trafficking services, organizations, and law enforcement together on the issue and allows them to better identify victims and link victims with services (Barrett, 2010, p.20; ).
  3. Mandate each province to develop a dedicated anti-human trafficking office, with protocols for gathering, addressing and reporting human trafficking activities within their jurisdictions.

As we draw together our fragmented efforts, and develop the effective mechanisms to address human trafficking, we will ready ourselves to more effectively combat this evil, both, within our own communities and across the nation.

-Jonathan Devadason has extensively researched human trafficking, both globally and here, in Canada.  He is also a member of Toronto based Men Ending Trafficking.     



Barrett, Nicole A.: International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy.(2010). An Exploration of Promising Practicesin Response to Human Traffickingin Canada. Retrieved from

International Labour Organization. (2012). 21 million people are now victims of forced labour, ILO says. Retrieved from–en/index.htm

Kutnick, Bruce, Patrick Belser, GerganaDanailova-Trainor: International Labour Office. (2007). Methodologies for global and national estimation of human trafficking victims: current and future approaches. Retrieved from–en/index.htm




Share Button

Leave a Reply

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