Speculation has mounted over the past two years about the impact of COVID-19 on the human trafficking industry. With a new report from the Polaris Project’s National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH), we can take one step closer to understanding those effects. NHTH analyzed their hotline calls, providing a glimpse into 2020 human trafficking cases nationally and in each state.
2020 and 2019 National Statistics
From January—December 2020, the NHTH detected 10,583 human trafficking situations in the U.S., which could involve one or multiple victims. This was a 956 decrease from 2019. While this may sound promising, the decrease in reporting does not necessarily reflect a decrease in human trafficking.
According to a 2020 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the ongoing pandemic may make it even more difficult than normal to identify victims of human trafficking. Additionally, pandemic-induced restrictions and economic strain caused many people to experience financial instability, which placed them at higher risk for trafficking. Given these findings, it is likely that the 2020 NHTH report reflects the increased difficulty in identifying human trafficking cases, rather than an actual decrease in trafficking.
The covert nature of the industry makes it difficult to detect changes in the prevalence of human trafficking. Yet, Polaris definitively identified a shift of recruitment tactics in 2020. Throughout lockdowns, traffickers recruited victims from in-person venues like foster homes and strip clubs less often than in years past. Instead, online recruitment increased 22%, which shows the adaptability and persistence of the trafficking industry. The relationship victims had with their recruiter also shifted in 2020. Throughout the year, the number of victims recruited by family members or caregivers increased by 47%.
While these statistics may seem bleak, they are essential for better understanding the trends of human trafficking—and ultimately combating it in more sustainable, effective ways.
Comparing National and State Statistics
Comparing the national data from 2019 to 2020 helps us understand some of COVID-19’s impact on the trafficking industry within the U.S. However, national statistics do not always represent the trends in specific communities. In the following section, we’ll look at the NHTH data from Pennsylvania and see how it compares to the nation as a whole.
Pennsylvania Compared to Other States
Of all 50 states, Pennsylvania had the 9th highest volume of tips made to the NHTH in 2020. NHTH received 909 substantive signals of trafficking and identified 221 specific cases in Pennsylvania.
Who is Reporting
Nationally, most tips came from trafficking victims directly (26.3%) and community members (24.6%). In Pennsylvania, the highest percentage of tips also came from victims—underscoring that, in the fight against trafficking, survivors are not passive victims.
Nationally, a low percentage of NHTH reports came from medical professionals (2.1%), friends of the victim (2%), and law enforcement (1.4%). Pennsylvania reports similar percentages, at 4%, 3%, and 3% respectively. With increased training, more medical professionals and law enforcement can better identify cases of human trafficking.
The role of community members is still crucial in assisting victims toward seeking help. Despite the low number of direct NHTH tips from friends of victims, Polaris found that 40% of victims identified in the U.S. during 2020 cited friends and family as their access points to help.
Types of Exploitation
In total, Polaris identified 16,658 trafficking victims within the U.S. in 2020. Specifically:
- 10,836 victims experienced sex trafficking.
- 3,583 victims faced labor trafficking.
- 1,634 of victims experienced unspecified forms of trafficking.
- 631 of victims experienced both sex and labor trafficking.
Within Pennsylvania, the NHTH identified 221 specific instances of potential trafficking in 2020. It is important to remember that one report to the NHTH may involve multiple victims, so the following numbers do not indicate total victims:
- 177 tips cited sex trafficking.
- 21 referenced labor trafficking.
- 17 reports did not specify the type of trafficking.
- 6 identified both labor and sex trafficking.
While this report offers one of the most accurate estimates and breakdowns of human trafficking in America and Pennsylvania, it also reveals our gaps in knowledge about the number of victims—many of whom never make a call.
Addendum: Further Survivor Demographics
- Nationally — 57.8% of sex trafficking tips and 76.4% of labor trafficking tips.
- Pennsylvania — 62% of all NHTH tips.
- Nationally — 28% of sex trafficking reports and 15.4% of labor trafficking reports.
- Pennsylvania — 26% of reports.
- Cisgender Women
- Nationally — 84.7% of sex trafficking tips and 57.8% of labor trafficking tips.
- Pennsylvania — 83% of tips.
- Cisgender Men
- Nationally — 8.1% of sex trafficking reports and 43.2% of labor trafficking reports.
- Pennsylvania — 13% of NHTH reports indicated cisgender men as victims.
- Gender Minorities
- Gender minorities include anyone who does not identify as cisgender male or female. For example, a transgender man or a nonbinary individual would fall within a gender minority.
- Nationally — 0.7% of sex trafficking tips and 0.1% of labor trafficking tips.
- In Pennsylvania — 2% of reports.
- U.S. Citizens or Legal Permanent Residents
- Nationally — 6.8% of sex trafficking reports and 6.3% of labor trafficking tips.
- In Pennsylvania — 10% of tips.
- Foreign Nationals
- Here, foreign nationals refers to anyone who is not currently a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.
- Nationally — 4.6% of sex trafficking reports and 50.4% of labor trafficking.
- In Pennsylvania — 9% of all tips.
 “2020 National Hotline Annual Report,” National Human Trafficking Hotline (2021), https://humantraffickinghotline.org/sites/default/files/National%20Report%20For%202020.pdf.
 “Hotline Statistics, 2019,” National Human Trafficking Hotline (2020), https://humantraffickinghotline.org/states.
 “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Trafficking in Persons,” UNODC (2020), https://www.unodc.org/documents/Advocacy-Section/HTMSS_Thematic_Brief_on_COVID-19.pdf#page=1.
 “Human Trafficking Trends in 2020,” Polaris (2021), https://polarisproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Human-Trafficking-Trends-in-2020-by-Polaris.pdf.
 “Pennsylvania State Report for 2020,” NHTH (2021), https://humantraffickinghotline.org/sites/default/files/Pennsylvania%20State%20Report%20For%202020.pdf.