Human trafficking is the trading of human beings for sexual slavery, commercial sexual exploitation, and forced labor. It affects millions of women, men, children, migrants, LGBTQ+ people, and others. In this article, we’ll provide the most important facts about human trafficking, define the many forms of human trafficking, and discuss the best ways to help. As the drivers of human trafficking – like poverty, armed conflict, and gender inequality – persist, so must the efforts to stop trafficking.
Human trafficking occurs when people are traded for sexual slavery, commercial sexual exploitation, and forced labor. Examples include familial child trafficking, organ trafficking, forced criminality, and “Romeo” sex trafficking. Communities can combat this global issue by tackling its causes.
What should everyone know about human trafficking?
The epidemic of human trafficking has gotten more attention in recent years, but this attention has coincided with another epidemic: misinformation. Inaccurate or misleading information makes it much harder for governments, nonprofits, and individuals to combat human trafficking in their communities and abroad. Here are five facts everyone should know:
#1. Human trafficking takes many forms
While popular media tends to focus on one type of sex trafficking, the reality is more complex and diverse. According to the International Labour Organization, almost 50 million people lived in modern slavery in 2021. 27.6 million were in forced labor while 22 million were in forced marriages. Commercial sexual exploitation is a form of modern slavery, but there are also millions forced to work in agriculture, fishing, construction, manufacturing, mining, and more. Trafficking victims may receive wages, but if the wages are low and working conditions are abusive, it’s still considered trafficking. It’s also still trafficking even if people initially consented to work or sex acts.
#2. Human trafficking happens everywhere, but it’s concentrated in certain places
Human trafficking is a global issue, but it’s more prevalent in certain parts of the world. According to the International Labour Organization, Africa; Asia and the Pacific Region; and Europe and Central Asia have the highest ratios of human trafficking. This picture may not be accurate, however, as the Americas and Arab States don’t collect as much data. A lack of data is a persistent barrier for those combating human trafficking. Without clear information, it’s challenging to assess the problem’s scale.
#3. COVID-19 impacted trafficking
According to the UNODC’s 2022 report on trafficking, which covers 141 countries, the COVID-19 pandemic had “far-reaching implications” for trafficking and the efforts to fight it. For the first time since the UNODC started collecting data, the number of detected victims decreased by 11% compared to 2019. However, this likely means detection efforts suffered due to COVID. There weren’t necessarily fewer victims. As an example, the report suggests that the closure of public spaces likely drove sexual exploitation from more easily detected spaces to “less visible and less safe” areas. The pandemic also had a huge impact on economies and gender equality around the world. Poverty and gender inequality both fuel trafficking.
#4. Many factors drive human trafficking
While trafficking can affect anyone, certain factors impact a person’s risk. Poverty is one of the most important. When people are desperate, they may sell themselves or even their children to survive. They’re also more likely to accept work that quickly becomes slavery. If there aren’t any legitimate employment opportunities, rates of exploitative work increase. Similar issues emerge during armed conflict, which destabilizes the economy and forces people to flee their homes. Migrants and refugees are among the most targeted groups for traffickers. While these factors affect everyone’s risk, women and girls are subjected to more violent forms of trafficking.
#5. Human trafficking has financial implications
While precise numbers are impossible to track, the human trafficking industry could be worth $150 billion a year. Governments, corporations, and individuals around the world benefit from these profits. According to research, countless products including cotton, bricks, cocoa, bananas, and smartphones can be linked to forced labor, including child labor. In 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified 83 foreign and Chinese companies directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uyghur workers. Since 2014, the Chinese government has been accused of subjecting Uyghurs, who are an ethnic minority, to persistent human rights abuses such as forced sterilization and forced labor. The use of trafficking to create everyday products makes this an issue everyone should care about.
Learn more human trafficking facts.
What are examples of human trafficking?
Understanding what trafficking looks like is essential to prevention and solution strategies. Experts have identified several forms of trafficking around the world. Here are five of the most common:
#1. Forced labor
According to the International Labour Organization, 27.6 million people are in forced labor. Most are in the private sector, while 6.3 million are in forced commercial sexual exploitation and 3.9 million are in forced labor imposed by the state. Agriculture, domestic work, construction, manufacturing and entertainment are hot spots for forced labor. Psychological abuse, physical violence, and debt bondage keep people from running. Debt bondage is a form of trafficking that burdens people with debts they can’t pay off. Forced labor can affect anyone, but it’s more common for people experiencing poverty, children, people without a good education, and people who can’t find regular work. Migrant workers are also vulnerable and can become trapped in countries where they don’t speak the language or know what their rights are.
#2. Familial child trafficking
Trafficking affects over 1 million children every year. 66% are girls, while 58% of all kids are trafficked for sexual exploitation. According to the International Organization for Migration, family members are involved in almost half of all child trafficking cases. Kids from poor areas are most at risk as their parents may feel they have no choice but to force their children to work. Child marriage is another type of familial child trafficking that, according to UNICEF, affects around 1 in 5 girls around the world. While it’s less common, millions of young boys are married off, too.
#3. Organ trafficking
Thanks to advances in science, it’s possible to transplant organs from one human to another. However, the need has always surpassed supply, which creates a market for illegal organ trafficking. According to research, the illegal trade generates around $1.5 billion every year from 12,000 illegal transplants. Unemployed people, people experiencing homelessness, and migrants are especially vulnerable as they may sell their organs to survive. In other cases, traffickers mislead victims about what’s happening. In Nepal, one district is known as “Kidney Valley” because of how many men have been abducted for their organs or driven by poverty to voluntarily sell. Organ removal surgery is risky, so many people end up unable to work or more vulnerable to severe illness.
#4. Forced criminal activity
When traffickers gain control of a person, they often force them to commit crimes. This takes work off the trafficker’s plate and shields them from liability. They weren’t the ones to commit the crime, after all, it was their victim. Instead of offering help, the justice system often punishes survivors without recognizing the abuse and exploitation that led to a crime. In 2013, a report from Anti-Slavery International found that trafficked young people, many from Vietnam, were being forced to work in cannabis factories. When they were discovered, the victims were prosecuted and deported despite their exploitation. In the UK, other common crimes included pickpocketing, ATM theft, metal theft, and forced begging.
#5. The “Romeo” or “lover boy” sex trafficking method
While the media often portrays sex traffickers as dangerous strangers, most sex trafficking victims know their abusers. In fact, many believe they are in a romantic relationship. Known as the “Romeo” or “lover boy” method, this type of exploitation involves a trafficker grooming and manipulating a victim into an intimate relationship. The relationship may seem normal at first, but soon, the trafficker manipulates their victim into sex exploitation. Threats of blackmail and violence are also used to keep victims trapped. According to the Government of the Netherlands, the internet and social media have given traffickers easier access to victims, especially young ones.
How do we stop human trafficking?
Human trafficking is not a new problem, but it’s a persistent one. Because it’s happening all over the world, it can be hard to find hope. Luckily, the solutions to human trafficking are fairly simple, although not easy. Here’s what needs to be done:
Poverty is one of the main causes of trafficking. It makes people more vulnerable to trafficking and creates the conditions that drive people to become traffickers. According to the World Bank, almost 8% of the global population lives on less than $2.15 a day while a staggering 47% live on less than $6.85 a day. These meager wages make it harder to access essential services like education and healthcare. If governments substantially address poverty, rates of trafficking would plummet. Individuals can do their part by advocating for better wages, investing in quality public education, and learning what their community needs.
Address climate change
Like poverty, climate change has a compounding effect on every aspect of life. It endangers people’s health, safety, access to education, and much more. As climate change worsens, people are forced to leave their homes. Traffickers target refugees and migrants, especially women and children. Desperation makes these groups easier to exploit and manipulate, while other factors like language barriers, a lack of education about a different country’s laws, and discrimination make it hard to seek help. To fight human trafficking, individuals can draw attention to the climate crisis, advocate for better protections for climate refugees, and demand accountability from the corporations most responsible for C02 emissions.
Achieve gender equality
According to the World Bank, 2.4 billion women of working age are not getting equal economic opportunities compared to men. This doesn’t just affect individual women; it impacts entire families across multiple generations. Gender inequality affects economics, as well. The International Monetary Fund found that if countries with the greatest gender inequality closed the labor force participation gap, they could increase economic output by an average of 35%. Individuals can help their communities achieve gender equality by supporting women’s leadership, empowering girls through education, valuing traditionally “feminine” work, and fighting against gender bias.
Did you find this article useful? Sign up to our newsletter for paid human rights internships, online courses, master’s degrees, scholarships and other human rights opportunities.