The Global Cost of Human Trafficking

1 January, 2019

Andrew Wallis OBE, CEO of Unseen

The Global Cost of Human Trafficking

The UK Government estimates that at any one time there are between 10,000-13,000 victims of modern slavery, with an economic and social cost estimated to be £4.3 billion per year.

The murky nature of human trafficking makes precise figures and impacts hard to come by. However, there are compelling reasons to suggest that the challenge facing society and Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) is much graver than officially recognised.

For example, the 2018 Global Slavery Index estimates that there are 136,000 victims in the UK, which, if true and applied to the government’s economic and social model, would mean the cost would be £43bn which is more or less equivalent to the Brexit divorce bill. This disparity between estimates is simply too enormous to ignore.

Undoubtedly, the demand for cheap goods, services and labour has fostered the growth of a black-market economy, making traffickers richer. While a huge cultural shift is required to stem this flow, in the meantime, the authorities must be empowered to combat modern slavery as it currently exists. Innovative technologies which help break up modern slavery supply chains, catch perpetrators, analyse the limited data sets effectively and safeguard victims are central to achieving this.


Victims of modern slavery are often hidden in plain sight. They are beholden to criminal individuals or organisations and many fear that their discovery will result in deportation. In many cases, they are unaware of their location, stripped of their documentation and moved around constantly. Their captors are also extremely well versed in avoiding the authorities’ attention. This makes the discovery and safeguarding of human trafficking victims incredibly complex.

Unseen has played a central role in making modern slavery a bigger political priority in recent years and calls to our helpline increase by 60-70% every year, partly as a result of this. Our training of LEAs has helped to make them aware of tell-tale signs of human trafficking and slavery and to make them as victim-focused as possible.

Although the increase in national awareness has shone a light on modern slavery’s multifaceted nature, techniques at the disposal of charities and the authorities have tended to be reactive. To reduce the cost of trafficking in the UK and beyond, proactive approaches are desperately needed.

Leveraging technology

To appropriately leverage technology in the fight against modern slavery, transnational co-operation between governments and LEAs is required. The issue of data sharing has, of course, become more complex in light of the introduction of GDPR in early 2018, presenting an additional challenge for the authorities to overcome.

But only with a huge amount of data, spanning cities, nations and continents can real trends be identified, and real disruption caused to criminal rings. The ever-expanding CameraForensics database – now comprising over two billion images – goes some way towards facilitating this.

The role of CameraForensics

99% of slavery victims in the commercial sex industry are women and girls. The acts they are forced to perform may traditionally have been private, but as traffickers become more technologically astute in their pursuit of profit, they are further monetising their victims’ plight via the Dark Web.

Harnessing the power of CameraForensics’s huge image database, producers of illicit material can be found, shining a light on human trafficking supply chains. This is achieved by agile technology, which is resistant to resolution changes, resizing and cropping.

Find out more about our Tactical Licence and Agency Platform

A proactive tool is also in development, which will notify investigators looking at the same image, facilitating more co-operation and getting closer to the criminal kingpins who inflict misery on the vulnerable for capital gain as quickly as possible.

Ultimately, this has the power to significantly reduce the cost of human trafficking to wider society, allowing the authorities to force gangs out of the shadows and to safeguard more victims.

Future battles

There are an estimated 40.3 million people in modern slavery worldwide – more than the populations of Portugal, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland combined – and the landscape facing LEAs and NGOs, remains enormously challenging, even with a successful deployment of innovative technology.

However, the potential for authorities to become proactive is socially and economically transformative. If more traffickers can be brought to account, the impact on victims can be minimised and the existence of goods and services that are simply too good to be true can be eradicated.

RELATED: The Digital War on Modern Slavery: 4 Ways Tech is Fighting Trafficking

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