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10 Causes of Human Trafficking

The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of people through force, fraud, or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit.” It exists in almost every industry, including domestic work, agriculture, mining, fishing, factory work, and commercial sex work. Victims of human trafficking can also be forced into marriage and armed conflict. Victims may be paid (they often aren’t), but their wages are so low, they are essentially slaves. Why does human trafficking exist? Understanding the roots of trafficking can help the world address it. Here are ten of the primary causes:

#1. Poverty
#2. A lack of education
#3. The demand for cheap labor/sex
#4. A lack of human rights protections
#5. A lack of legimiate economic opportunities
#6. Cultural factors
#7. Conflict and natural disasters
#8. A lack of safe migration options
#9. Deception and intimidation
#10. Profit

#1 Poverty

Poverty, especially extreme poverty, is one of the most significant drivers of human trafficking. Extreme poverty is defined as living with less than $1.90 a day. While efforts to end extreme poverty were on the right track, the COVID-19 pandemic reversed progress. In 2020 – for the first time in twenty years – the number of workers living in extreme poverty rose from 6.7% in 2019 to 7.2%. That increase represented 8 million people. To find better work, many people migrate, which makes them more vulnerable to traffickers. People also sell their own family members – including their children – to survive or in the hopes their loved ones might get a chance at a better life. Other causes of human trafficking, like a lack of education and legitimate work, are closely tied to poverty.

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#2 A lack of education

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists education as a human right in article 26. “Everyone has a right to education,” the text reads. It goes on to stipulate that education should be free (at least in the elementary and fundamental stages) and compulsory, while technical and professional education should be made “generally available.” Higher education should be “equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” When people don’t get a good education, it negatively impacts their lives and the lives of their families, including their children. Income potential is a big reason why. It is much harder to escape poverty without education. Additionally, the types of jobs that tend to not require academic education – like agricultural work, mining, fisheries, construction work, and domestic service – have higher rates of trafficking. Good education helps people get better work and avoid the conditions that lead to exploitation.

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#3 The demand for cheap labor/sex

Consumers are always looking for cheaper products and services. Unfortunately, this drives corporations to look for cheaper and cheaper labor, which incentivizes exploitation and trafficking. Industries like agriculture, fishing, mining, and domestic work are especially ripe for exploitation. Commercial sex is also very in demand, which encourages traffickers to supply more people, especially women and girls. According to 2020 UNODC data, women and girls make up 65% of trafficking victims. 90% of them are trafficked for commercial sex. Children are also especially vulnerable to exploitation like forced labor, forced marriage, armed conflict, and commercial sex as they’re easier to manipulate and abuse. Globally, 1 out of every 3 victims are children. As long as there’s demand, vulnerable groups like children are in danger.

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#4 A lack of human rights protections

Many legal frameworks forbid human trafficking like debt bondage, child sexual exploitation, forced marriage, and forced prostitution. However, as the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner Fact Sheet 36 on Human Rights and Human Trafficking reads, not all legal frameworks center on human rights. Certain aspects of trafficking may be addressed as immigration, crime, or public order issues as opposed to human rights issues. When human rights aren’t centered, it can be trickier to determine who is responsible for responding to and preventing human trafficking. Anti-trafficking efforts can be scattershot and ineffective. Even when they do identify victims, victims can be retraumatized when their rights aren’t protected. Trafficking is a clear violation of human rights, but if anti-trafficking activities don’t use a rights approach, attempts to end trafficking can cause more harm.

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#5 A lack of legitimate economic opportunities

No one wants to be trafficked and exploited, but a lack of legitimate economic opportunities can drive people into dangerous situations. They’re more likely to take risks if they have no better options. COVID-19 caused an increase in unemployment, especially among women and youth workers, who are already at a higher risk for trafficking. People from low-income countries with high unemployment and the most vulnerable groups in wealthy nations are the most vulnerable. Stabilizing economies and improving economic development give people more legitimate economic opportunities, so they aren’t driven into risky situations by desperation.

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#6 Cultural factors

There are a handful of cultural factors that impact the prevalence of human trafficking. According to the UNODC, sending a child away to work is commonly accepted in places like Central America, East Asia, and the Caribbean. It’s much easier to exploit children in these environments, so trafficking can often happen out in the open. Bonded labor, which occurs when people are forced to work to pay off a debt, is also still prevalent in India, Pakistan, and other Asian countries. Debt bondage is itself a form of exploitation, but it can lead to worse trafficking as many are trapped after their debt has been paid. Devaluing the personhood of women and girls is also a persistent cultural factor impacting human trafficking. When women and girls are not seen as full humans worthy of rights and respect, they’re the first group to be targeted by traffickers.

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#7 Conflict and natural disasters

When society faces severe disruptions, people get more desperate and trafficking becomes more prevalent. As the OHCHR says, “conflict tends to fuel impunity,” so traffickers are more willing to break laws and traffic others for profit. People also lack safe, legal options for work and/or migration, which opens the door to exploitation. In armed conflict, children as young as 8 years old can be forced to work as soldiers, spies, messengers, or lookouts. Women and girls are often victims of sexual trafficking during conflict, as well. What about during natural disasters? Large groups of people can lose their homes, access to education, access to work, and access to basics like water and food. Traffickers swoop in and exploit these vulnerabilities, often promising help.

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#8 A lack of safe migration options

Refugees and migrants are among the most targeted groups for trafficking. When they lack options for safe, legal migration, people may turn to smugglers. Smugglers aren’t always traffickers since the migrant agrees to pay them for their services. The situation can quickly turn into trafficking, however. The smuggler might demand more payment than agreed upon, sexually exploit the people they’re smuggling, or sell them. We don’t have accurate information about how many migrants are trafficked or how many are taking “irregular pathways” versus regular migration channels. This means that not only are people at risk when they lack safe migration options, they’re still vulnerable even if they aren’t being smuggled.

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#9 Deception and intimidation

No one wants to be trafficked, so traffickers use a variety of tactics to manipulate and intimidate vulnerable people. Deception is key. According to the UNODC, some trafficking networks pretend to be legitimate recruitment agencies. They target migrants who want to work abroad, lying about fees, documents, transport, and more. Once the victim is given work, the network may steal their salaries. These “agencies” also often lie about the nature of the job, especially to women. Promised domestic work like childcare or housekeeping, women and girls can end up forced into commercial sex. In addition to deception, traffickers rely on intimidation tactics like physical assault, sexual abuse, harassment, and psychological abuse to keep victims trapped.

#10 Profit

As is the case with any criminal activity, traffickers and trafficking networks are in it for the money. It’s difficult to get clear, updated information on how much the human trafficking industry brings in, but in 2014, the ILO reported the industry’s worth at $150 billion. $99 billion came from commercial sexual exploitation while forced labor was worth $51 billion. According to the UNODC 2020 report on human trafficking, some large criminal organizations can make millions or even tens of millions of dollars over the years. Smaller groups or individuals may only make a few thousand dollars for a woman or girl, but in many places, that money goes a long way. There’s also the money saved by using trafficked labor for services and product creation. As an example, a fishing boat with trafficked workers only has to pay for the supplies necessary to keep their workers alive; they aren’t paying a wage. The traffickers keep the wages and raise their profits.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.