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 be vulnerable 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 a definite 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 industry in 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 the same 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 of East 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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