What is Human Trafficking?

There is no one definition of trafficking that the world follows, therefore we will go with the most inclusive* and most used definition:

[1] The act: “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons”; [2] the means: “threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim”; [3] the purpose: “exploitation, which includes exploiting prostitution of another, sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery or similar practices and the removal or organs – Palermo Protocol, UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crimes, 2000


*Many anti-trafficking laws do not include all of these purposes (especially the removal of organs). Differing definitions not only result in confusion surrounding the issue, but also in neglect of victims in need of protection.

Why is Human Trafficking an Issue?

It is believed that Human Trafficking is one of the fastest growing areas of organized crime, estimated to be the third largest international crime industry (UNODC) after drugs and arms. The human trafficking industry generates an estimated $32 billion, $15.5 billion of which is generated in industrialized countries. There are no concrete statistics of how many people are in slavery,and the numbers range from a few million to 27 million. The range of estimates given by governments, NGOs and advocates may range, but there is no mistaking that this is a global crisis.

Is Smuggling and Trafficking the same thing?

NO! Human smuggling and human trafficking are closely related but should be clearly separated with regard to legal consequences and the purpose of identification of the victim. There are four main elements that distinguish the two illegal situations. Smuggling of a person does not have a coercive element: the participant hires the smuggler and therefore is willing; there is no subsequent exploitation intended. Smuggling requires the crossing of borders, while trafficking can simply be internal, and entry into a State is always illegal. Smuggling, therefore, can be summarized as an act of facilitating illegal migration. This is a very important to note because for many victims of human trafficking who go unidentified, one of the main reasons is because they are assumed to be of smuggling or illegal immigration, when, in fact, the situation is more complicated and dire. It is important to understand that there are cases of human smuggling turned into trafficking. For example, the victim hires the smuggler and upon arrival is held captive and exploited.


Types of Human Trafficking

Forced Labor

Forced labor, or labor trafficking, is the largest form of trafficking throughout the world. It is the “recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining – involved when a person uses force or physical threats, psychological coercion, abuse of the legal process, deception or other coercive means to compel someone to work”. The ILO (International Labor Organization) identified 6 factors of forced labor which included threats of physical or sexual violence, restriction of movement of the worker, debt bondage where the employer may provide food and accommodation at such inflated prices that paying off the debt is extremely difficult for the worker, withholding wages or refusing to pay the worker, retention of passports and documents and threat of denunciation to the authorities.

The most vulnerable population to this kind of trafficking is migrants. In fact, many researchers describe human trafficking as migration gone awry. These are individuals who are looking for work and may be trafficked into other countries or forced into labor in their own countries. This section of trafficking is unbelievably difficult to understand, as it is enormous. Slave labor contributes to the products of at least 122 goods from 58 countries around the world.

EVERYONE is affected by this form of trafficking, from the clothes you wear that could have been produced in forced labor to the stones in your jewelry that were mined in potentially similar circumstances. Some of the most common areas of forced labor include agriculture (crops and livestock), fishing and aquaculture, logging, mining, construction, factories, restaurants, hotels and private homes.

These are all areas that have various levels of public visibility, yet somehow these people stay “hidden.”

Track your goods. See how many slaves work for you.

An increasing challenge in understanding labor trafficking is the fact that this sector already has multiple issues with working conditions, illegal immigrants and low pay.An already exploitative field, many migrants labor in modern-day sweatshopswhere employers get away with paying poverty wages under bad conditions because they know they have the upper hand, as their victims fear detection and deportation.

Sex Slavery

In simple terms, sex trafficking is the “recruitment harboring, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act”.

Variations on sexual exploitation occur all over the world, here are just a few examples of sexual exploitation.

In Switzerland, young girls are brought in on “artist” visas as exotic dancers. They work as striptease dancers to meet their visa requirements, but are often forced into prostitution as well. In Germany, “bar girls” are women who work in the bars or clubs but are also sold by the bartender or bouncer to men for the evening. During the 1980s Japanese sex tours to Thailand began, where Japanese businessman would visit Thailand for what is now referred to as sex tourism. Sex tourism continues to be a booming industry today. Brothels are located all over the world and can be hidden so that only locals may be aware of them, or out in the open for all to see and visit. Brothels may be large or small establishments holding anywhere from 10 to 300 prostitutes. Club brothels, which act as dance clubs, have prostitutes for purchase as well. Karaoke clubs in Southeast Asia offer a night of singing and partying, but you may also purchase a young woman to take home for the evening. Pornography is also a growing trend because someone can exploit someone over and over again by continuing to sell the pictures or video. What is often misunderstood is the fact thatsexual exploitation in private homes by individuals who often demand sex and work (in the home or even outside the home) is categorized under many laws throughout the world as labor exploitation or labor trafficking, rather than sex trafficking It is important to stress that sex trafficking and sex work are very different. Some choose to be in this work and are referred to as sex workers, they are still free to live and to leave as this is their job.

The ILO estimates that female sex trafficking or exploitation accounts for only 22% of the human trafficking industry, and it is important to remember that men and boys are exploited in this industry as well. Although we don’t know how accurate this statistic is, it is important to realize that number is not 100% as though the media shows human trafficking is just sex trafficking. There are other forms of trafficking that are being ignored. Despite that sex trafficking is one of the heaviest types of human trafficking pushed in the advocacy world, the information is still woefully inadequate and misdirected.

Child Trafficking

Children are used in every sector that adults are used in, and the conditions are usually worse, as they are put in more dangerous situations, being small and naïve. Most laws have followed the U.N. definition of human trafficking when they define the role of children in their laws, but how the children are exploited is further defined. For example, most laws state that when a child (under 18 years of age) is recruited, enticed, harbored, transported, provided, obtained or maintained to perform a commercial sex act, proving force, fraud or coercion, it is not necessary for the offense to be characterized as human trafficking”

When it comes to forced child labor, in many countries it is legal for children to work, therefore child labor is defined by criteria of age, duration of labor and type of economic activity. Some flags of possible forced labor of a child include situations where the child appears to be in the custody of non-family members who require the child to perform work that benefits someone not involved with the child or their family, and similar to trafficked adults, the child does not have an option of leaving.

Commercial sexual exploitation of minors are commonly overlooked, misunderstood and unaddressed forms of child abuse. The range of this sector is extensive and includes the following: using a minor for the purpose of sexual exploitation, exploiting a minor through prostitution, exploiting a minor through survival sex (exchanging sex/sexual acts for money of something of value [e.g., shelter, food, drugs]), using a minor in pornography, exploiting a minor through sex tourism, mail order bride trade and early marriage, and exploiting a minor by having her or him perform in sexual venues (e.g., peep shows or strip clubs).

Some other forms of child trafficking that are more common are those in forced labor. This includes scavenging the streets and landfills for recyclables to sell in India, begging and stealing in western Europe, working in the fields gathering poppies that will be made into opium or heroin in Afghanistan, collecting cacao beans in Africa, household work in the U.S, factories in Bangladesh and construction South America. Note that all of these sectors exist globally.

One emerging trend is that of child soldiers. UNICEF estimates there are over 300,000 children being exploited in over 30 armed conflicts throughout the world. While the majority of child soldiers are between the ages of 15-18 years old, some are as young as 7 or 8. Child soldiers are the unlawful recruitment or use of children, either through force, fraud, or coercion, or by armed forces as combatants or otherforms of labor. Perpetrators may be government armed forces, parliamentary organizations or rebel groups. Some children are abducted to be used as combatants, while others are used as porters, cooks, guards, servants, messengers or spies. Both male and female child soldiers are often sexually abused and some are used as sex slaves, all of which put them at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

Organ Trafficking

One industry that receives perhaps the smallest amount of press and research but is very much a concern is the trafficking of organs. More than 114,000 legal organ transplants are performed every year around the world, but this only satisfies less then an estimated 10% of the global need for organs such as kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs and pancreases. This shortage of organs, combined with the desperation experienced by patients in need of transplants, is driving an international shadow market.

The sale and purchase of organs themselves, while illegal in many countries, is not necessarily human trafficking. The crime of trafficking in persons requires the“recruitment, transport or harboring” of a person, this time for organ removal through coercive means. To constitute trafficking, the person must have been alive when the organs were taken, which means the organs that are donated from deceased donors who have died from natural causes do not involve human trafficking.

Recipients of the organs are generally independently wealthy or supported by their governments or private insurance companies, while the victims and owners of the organs are usually poor and from poorer countries, often employed and with a low level of education. The passports or documents of the victims will be withheld as a means to control the participants so that if they try and back out of the agreement or operation they encounter violence or threats of violence.

A recent study by the U.S based Coalition of Organ Failure Solutions has documented the use of debt bondage and extortion as a means of coercing organ “donation.” Victims are given the opportunity to sell a kidney to pay down their inflated debt, but this is very risky, as the conditions for the surgery and post-care are not safe, and the debt is never fully paid off.

Who? How? Where?

The lingering questions of who, where and how are on everyone’s mind when they hear the estimated numbers of people in servitude today. And the truth is, there is no specific type of person that is enslaved. Unlike different periods in history, the slave trade no longer is confined to a race, religion, ethnicity or gender. The one common denominator among victims is vulnerability. Trafficking is a business, a horrific one but a business nonetheless, and there is always at least one person profiting from it, if not more. It has become a more attractive business prospect than other forms of smuggling and trafficking because it does not require technical expertise or a distribution network like other highly profitable enterprises such as narcotics or the smuggling of military arms. Additionally, in many countries, the penalties for the trafficking of persons are significantly lower than they are for crimes like narcotics.


Scholars write about vulnerable countries, as well as the types of people who can bevulnerable to trafficking, and factors of vulnerability include: being female, a child or both, uneducated or illiterate, low income or homeless, members of the LGTBQ community, disabled, or a substance abuser. This is not to say that being male, young and strong cannot be a vulnerability as well, especially when a person gets involved in trafficking because of fraudulent contracts or human smuggling turned to trafficking. What makes the victims vulnerable in this situation is sometimes because they come from an unsafe home or a place of poverty or social inequality.

Countries can also be classified as vulnerable, and place their populations at risk for several reasons including devastating poverty, armed conflicts, rapid industrialization, political instability and rapid population growth. With a lack of unemployment and the hope for a better future, people of all ages and genders will migrate. Motivation for migration is increased by unstable governments and corrupt law enforcement organizations that take advantage of these vulnerable populations. In situations like these, officials can be bribed and forged passports and travel documents are easily be obtained. Parents in desperate situations need to support their family and may sell their children in the hopes of a promise of an education, an income and a better future for their child. While many parents don’t know what they are sending their child into, some do, but they hope it will be a better life than what they can provide. The word force in the definition of trafficking is highly debated, as it can be construed to mean forced physically or forced by poverty or social expectation. The latter force happens particularly to young girls in rural villages in Southeast Asia who go “willingly” when “encouraged” by their families to go to work in cities as domestic workers or prostitutes. The impoverished are more likely to take a loan that their soon slaveholder will manipulate into debt bondage when in desperation, or the migrant worker will take a job in a far away land hoping for more money and opportunity.

Traffickers are known to capitalize on wars, turmoil and natural disasters to target and enslave victims, especially women and children. Wars and natural disasters are pivotal moments for traffickers to take advantage of separated families, especially children. War slavery, which is the enslavement of civilians by the movement or the army, although not as common as other forms of slavery, is adefinite catalyst. For example, there are war slaves in Burma, where the Burmese government kidnaps and enslaves the people of different ethnic states. In Sudan, thousands of women and children have been taken during the decades of civil war. War slavery is used a weapon, as it benefits one side by physical labor, soldiers and even sex slaves, but also instills fear in populations to encourage a resistance to rebellion.

While it seems in the press that women and young girls are the main targets of trafficking, scholars have shown that all genders are targeted in trafficking. It is true that females are more at risk for sexual exploitation, but men are used in that sector as well, exploited for their strength and used in some of the most dangerous sectors of agriculture, fishing, construction and mining. Women make up almost half of the international migrants and are trafficked for multiple forms of slavery from “nibbled fingered” sweatshops to the “maid trade,” from mail order brides to prostitution

It is important to note that women and girls who are already in the sex industryin developing countries could be trafficked, and although these women were trafficked to what seems like the same profession, that is not actually the case. The sex trafficking industry is one in which females have no rights, are constantly beaten, raped, and at times even murdered. This is not the same life as a sex worker.

Children, or more realistically, teenagers, are often susceptible to trafficking for thesame reason that adults are: migration. In certain situations, parental illness combined with dire economic circumstances places even more pressure on the children to contribute to their family’s income. These pressures can cause the children to search for jobs in areas in which they had previous experience from their home countries, like faming, housework and babysitting. Believing the work will be the same as it was in their home countries, they unknowingly become trapped in phony contracts or debt bondage.

This abuse of power and vulnerability is one of the “means” under the Palermo Protocol of the definition of trafficking. Thus poverty alone, without abuse of that “vulnerability in a manner to make a victim’s submission to exploitation the “only real; and acceptable option,” is not enough to support a trafficking case, whether the exploitation is sexual, forced labor, or the removal of organs”.


While researchers can analyze trends, there is no single trade route in which slaves are trafficked. Human Trafficking affects the world and no country is safe. Although it is hard to rank the countries for importation of slaves, researchers estimate that the top countries include Italy, the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Greece, India, Thailand and Australia, with the trafficked persons coming from Asia, the former Soviet Union, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. But just because people are being trafficked into the country does not mean citizens of that country aren’t trafficked out of their country of origin, because this is the case for many countries.

We also see that regional patterns of female factory and domestic labor mirror those of males, and the export of female services follows distinct geographic patterns ofEast to West and South to North.

The Traffickers?

The traffickers are not one group or organization, rather, they are believed to be part of large and small crime rings that have the capacity and connections for recruitment, transportation, forced labor and for working with corrupt government and law enforcement. No matter who they are, their strengths lie in their adaptability and ability to mentally and physically break down the victims. Some victims are contained in houses or factories, sometimes in chains. Still, many trafficked persons are often hiding in “plain sight,” but have become dependent on their trafficker so they remain silent.

After a person is “recruited” into the industry the traffickers must “season,” “soften” or break the person. They do this either by psychological or physical abuse. Upon arrival they could be told that doing pornography would help pay their debt, and then the photographs are used as a threat to shame the victim’s family back in their home country. Victims are raped, beaten, brainwashed, and threatened with their family’s safety, robbed, starved and held in unsanitary conditions, all of which encourage mental defeat. Traffickers also use isolation as an advantage. Many victims become dependent on the trafficker because they may not speak the language or understand the culture, however they know they are participating in illegal activities and fear deportation, especially if the traffickers confiscated their paperwork. Many are afraid to speak out if the government and police in their home country are corrupt and they feel their life will become worse if they contact them. Some last years, some not as many, but eventually all are psychologically traumatized. Some victims even forget the past altogether and know only their life as a slave.

When picturing these traffickers or slaveholders, especially considering the way the media portrays them, it is very easy to imagine these people as evil or inhuman, but that will not solve anything, nor will it help us figure out the causes of this evil business. Like any other commercial market, the slave trade is driven by the dynamics of supply and demand. It is cheaper to produce odds, or in the case of sex slavery or domestic servitude, to offer valued human services. The profit margins will rise as high as the demand will bear. John Acton’s quote that “power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely” is still very relevant today.

Why don’t they run?

Much of the public wonders why these individuals who are not physically restrained, or even the ones who, are do not try to run away, but the answer is simple: their slaveholders, traffickers, pimps or whoever is holding fear over them. Fear of harm to their body, to their family or fear of the outside world, and the last one is particularly important if the individual came from a country in which the police and government are corrupt, therefore if they know they are in risk of criminal behavior such as prostitution, they would be afraid of arrest or deportation.

Of course, they may not even be able to communicate with anyone in the outside world due to language barriers, and many are also trapped by shame. They often believe it is their own fault that they are in this situation. Victims also experience feelings of self loathing, particularly if there was any sort of sexual abuse, especially if it resulted in any sort of pregnancy or pornographic material. Due to culture norms, the trafficked feel they have a duty to finish paying off a debt, even though it may be impossible due to unjust inflation. Some victims even form a bond with their masters or the children they care for; they fear leaving the children they care for with their parents. The final factor is that many victims are allowed minimal sleep and food, and are therefore living in a constant state of confusion, exhaustion and depression.

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