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NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A human trafficking hotline in the United States reported a 26 percent increase in calls last year with the vast majority from victims of the sex trade, a leading anti-trafficking organization said on Tuesday.
More than 5,000 cases of human trafficking were reported in 2014 to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline operated by the non-profit Polaris which attributed partly the rise to greater awareness about people living as slaves.
Of these the majority, 71 percent, related to sex trafficking while 16 percent were about labor trafficking and 4 percent involved both. Nine percent of trafficking cases were not identified.
In addition another 125 cases of human trafficking, again largely sex cases, were reported to a texting helpline run by Polaris which fights human trafficking in the United States.
"Behind the data are the stories of thousands of women, men, and children in each and every state who were exploited against their will," Polaris Chief Executive Bradley Myles said in a statement.
"This information also helps us learn crucial trends we can use to shut down traffickers and their networks."
The figures come amid growing awareness about modern-day slavery with a global index from Australian human rights group Walk Free Foundation estimating about 36 million people are living as slaves in a business worth about $150 billion a year.
An analysis of 19,724 calls received since Polaris started the hotline seven years ago found the top three sex trafficking venues in the United States are commercial front brothels, Internet ad-based trafficking, and sex trafficking at hotels and motels.
The top three labor trafficking industries in the United States were found to be domestic work, traveling sales crews and the restaurant and food service industry.
Polaris spokesman Brandon Bouchard said it wasn't possible to determine whether the increase in calls meant an actual increase in cases of human trafficking as there is no national prevalence study for the United States.
But he said there was increased awareness of the issue with a rising number of U.S. states strengthening laws to combat human trafficking in the past year, according to a Polaris study released last year.
"There's been a significant increase in phone calls and cases that we attribute to ... the media covering it, lawmakers focusing on it and more people becoming aware of it," he said.
Bouchard said the data showed that human trafficking crosses all geographical areas and all demographics. Most calls received by the hotlines came from U.S. citizens.
But he said it appeared that traffickers targeted the most vulnerable, such as unemployed people, young runaways, and individuals who were victims of sexual assault or a violent past.
"Awareness is increasing but we're really calling on lawmakers across the country to put funding behind (anti-trafficking) initiatives," said Bouchard, noting that some programmes remain underfunded.
Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith