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10 Causes of Human Trafficking

Human trafficking happens in every country in the world, in many different forms; however, the causes behind human trafficking are essentially the same for labor trafficking, sex trafficking, child trafficking, and all other types of modern day slavery. Although different countries face different causes, the root causes remain similar throughout the world. What are the causes of human trafficking? When we know where the root of the issue is, we can start to address trafficking at a deeper level and promote sustainable change. Here are the 10 causes of human trafficking around the world.

  • Poverty

Poverty is one of the largest contributors to human trafficking. It can drive people to become traffickers; it can drive parents to sell children or other family members into slavery. People in poverty are targeted by traffickers, who offer them a way to earn money when, in fact, they will actually earn nothing and be treated as a slave. Poverty also plays a large piece in many of the other root causes of trafficking, driving people to migrate, making education and legitimate work difficult to obtain, making recovery and safety from war and disaster impossible, and more.

Recommended free courses on poverty issues: 
Oxford University – From Poverty to Prosperity: Understanding Economic Development
SDG Academy – Human Rights, Human Wrongs: Challenging Poverty, Vulnerability and Social Exclusion

  • Lack of education

A lack of education can lead to decreased opportunities for work at a living wage, and it can also lead to a decreased knowledge in rights. Both outcomes can cause people to be at a greater vulnerability for human trafficking. In prevention of trafficking, education can also empower children to make changes in their community as they grow older that will prevent situations and vulnerabilities of which traffickers take advantage.

Recommended free courses on global education and inclusion:
Columbia University – Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom

  • Demand for cheap labor/demand for sex

Basic economics tell us that for a market to form, supply and demand need to exist. The demands for cheap labor and for commercialized sex lead to opportunities for traffickers to exploit people. Traffickers can make a large profit by producing goods and services through cheap or free labor and selling the products or services at a higher price. Commercialized sex is a lucrative market that allows traffickers and pimps to become the only profiter from their victims through an endless cycle of buyers and high prices.

Recommended free courses on cheap/child labor:
Harvard University – Child Protection: Children’s Rights in Theory and Practice

  • Lack of human rights for vulnerable groups

In many countries, groups that are marginalized in society lack institutionalized human rights, which can lead to them be potential victims of trafficking. Traffickers can prey on these marginalized groups because they lack protection of the law enforcement, their families, and even the society they live in. Also, when countries lack fundamental laws regarding human rights, traffickers feel as though they can get away with what they are doing more easily. A lack of human rights laws can also end in punishment for victims, if the laws and government don’t recognize that human trafficking is exploitation of other people.

Recommended free courses on human rights:
Harvard University – Child Protection: Children’s Rights in Theory and Practice
Amnesty International – Human Rights: The Rights of Refugees
SDG Academy – Human Rights, Human Wrongs: Challenging Poverty, Vulnerability and Social Exclusion

  • Lack of legitimate economic opportunities

When people lack legitimate economic opportunities, that can also lead to increased vulnerability to human trafficking. Groups that are especially vulnerable in this area are migrants without work permits, those who lack education, those who live in rural areas where there are less jobs available, as well as women and certain ethnic groups who may not be able to get jobs due to discrimination. Traffickers offer seemingly legitimate jobs to people who cannot get them otherwise, only to lure them into forced labor, sex trafficking, bonded labor, and more.

Recommended free courses on economic development:
Oxford University – From Poverty to Prosperity: Understanding Economic Development
Leuven University – The UN Sustainable Development Goals: an Interdisciplinary Academic Introduction

  • Social factors and cultural practices

In many countries, cultural practices and social factors are a major cause of human trafficking. In some places, bonded labor is seen as an acceptable way to pay off debt. In other places, selling children to traffickers is the norm, especially for poorer families in rural areas. Some countries, such as Mauritania, still practice antiquated slavery, where families are held for generations by slave-masters. There are also instances, like in Uzbekistan, where forced labor is institutionalized. During the cotton harvest, all adults and children are expected to work in the cotton fields until the crops are harvested. Cultural and social factors can also lead victims not to speak up about being trafficked or who their traffickers are, especially if they come from groups who lack human rights protections.

Recommended free courses on forced labor:
Wits University – Forced and Precarious Labor in the Global Economy: Slavery by Another Name?

  • Conflict and natural disaster

Conflict and natural disaster can lead to economic instability and lack of human rights, giving traffickers an advantage and making people more vulnerable to human trafficking situations. In conflict zones and wars, some rebel or military groups will use child soldiers and keep sex slaves. Additionally, both conflict and natural disaster can lead people to migrate out of their hometowns and home countries, making them more vulnerable to traffickers, especially if they are looking for work or paying smugglers to get where they want to go. And with increased economic instability, traffickers have opportunities to offer false job offers to people, leading them into trafficking situations.

Recommended free courses on forced labor:
Harvard University – Humanitarian Response to Conflict and Disaster

  • Trafficking generates a large profit

One major cause of human trafficking is the large profit that traffickers gain. This is an incentive for them to continue trafficking people in both forced labor and sex trafficking. For traffickers using forced laborers and bonded laborers, they get cheap labor and can sell their product or service at a much higher cost. For those using sex trafficking, they can easily take all of the profit, forcing women to make a certain amount each night, and keeping them in the situation through drugs, violent force, threats, and more.

  • Lack of safe migration options

For those looking to migrate out of their home countries due to safety concerns or economic opportunities, they are especially vulnerable to traffickers. Traffickers can use illegal smuggling as a way to trick people into forced labor or sex trafficking. And for migrants looking for jobs in other countries, traffickers typically offer them job opportunities that seem legitimate, only to force them into a trafficking situation. For instance, when Russia was preparing for the Sochi Olympics, several men from Serbia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other nearby countries were promised construction jobs, only to be paid very little and be treated poorly. And many women from countries like Nigeria, Ukraine, and other Eastern European and African countries are offered nannying or restaurant jobs in Western Europe, only to trapped in sex trafficking.

Recommended free courses on human rights:
Harvard University – Child Protection: Children’s Rights in Theory and Practice
Amnesty International – Human Rights: The Rights of Refugees

  • Traffickers

Above many other factors that cause human trafficking are the traffickers themselves. Beyond cultural practices, the profit, vulnerabilities of certain people groups, lack of human rights, economic instability, and more, traffickers are the ones who choose to exploit people for their own gain. While many of these factors may play into the reasons why traffickers get into the business, they still make a willful decision to enslave people against their will—either because of the profit or because of a belief that certain people are worth less or because of a system of abuse and crime that they were raised in. Trafficking ultimately exists because people are willing to exploit others into trafficking situations.

Through understanding the root causes of human trafficking, human rights workers and other development professionals can begin to address the causes at the base level. Enforcing human rights, helping people access education, and helping to increase economic opportunities for people are just a few ways that we can address causes and help prevent human trafficking for future generations.

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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.