Even though human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry, most people are unaware of what it looks like, who it affects, and how it can be addressed. A good documentary can provide essential information, engaging stories, and further resources for those interested in learning more. Available online from a variety of platforms, these nine human trafficking documentaries cover topics such as sex trafficking, forced labor, and how survivors heal:
#1. Brides and Brothels: The Rohingya Trade
#2. Sex Trafficking in America
#3. By the Name of Tania
#4. Food Chains
#5. Ghost Fleet
#6. The Dark Side of Chocolate
#7. The Apology
#8. Children of War
From: Al Jazeera English | Available on: Youtube
After escaping Myanmar’s brutal military, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya girls and women seek safety in Bangladesh. However, the refugee camps are anything but safe. This 25-minute documentary from Al Jazeera English centers on what happens in those camps that shelter almost a million refugees. Facing financial hardships, families sell their female relatives into child marriages. Many also end up in brothels after being promised good work. The documentary, which is available on Youtube, follows the stories of three girls. It reveals that the risk of trafficking doesn’t go away after people escape a conflict. While the world may believe that the Rohingya women are safe once they leave Myanmar, they’re actually entering a new hell.
The conditions shown in the 2018 documentary have likely only gotten worse. In February 2021, a military coup deposed the democratically-elected Myanmar government. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, which significantly increased the risk of human trafficking. Efforts to stop trafficking have also decreased as the military regime focuses on punishing political enemies and targeting religious and ethnic minorities.
Directed by: Jezza Neumann | Available on: PBS Frontline
Filmed over three years, this 54-minute documentary from PBS Frontline takes a look at sex trafficking in the United States. At 16, Kat was kidnapped and trafficked by men she met online. Through her story, the film explores how victims are chosen, groomed, and sold. In the documentary, Kat says that she didn’t even know something like that was possible in the US. The film also follows a unique police unit based in Phoenix. They fight sex trafficking through techniques like undercover social media operations. While “Sex Trafficking in America” reveals the trauma of trafficking, it also offers a glimmer of hope.
Jezza Neumann, whose first film was about trafficking in China, became interested in the issue in the US after talking to Kevin Bales, a professor specializing in modern-day slavery. PBS Frontline has been running since 1983 and focuses on hard-hitting topics. Each broadcast is a stand-alone feature-length documentary. “Sex Trafficking in America” is available to watch for free on the PBS Frontline website.
Directed by: Bénédicte Liénard and Mary Jiménez | Available on: Tubi
While technically not a documentary, this film is based on eyewitness accounts. While working on other projects in Peru, the filmmakers encountered stories of poverty, trafficking, and other traumas. “Tania” is a composite character created using real stories. In the film, Tania tries to leave her small Peruvian village for a better life, but she’s soon forced into sex work. The film features first-person narration, striking shots of Tania and her community, and the natural beauty of the Amazon.
The project began when the filmmakers met a former prospector held prisoner in Peru’s gold mining area. He told them the story of how at 15 years old, he tried to leave with a woman he’d met at a brothel. Struck by the story, the filmmakers went looking for more information. They ended up meeting women in the area’s brothels and a police officer who gave them a USB containing testimonies from girls he’d helped escape trafficking. With these stories, the filmmakers created “Tania.”
Directed by: Sanjay Rawal | Available on: Amazon Prime (to rent)
In Florida, migrant farmworkers spend hours in the fields picking vegetables and fruit for huge food corporations. The manual labor is hard enough, but farmworkers are frequently exploited, sexually abused, and harmed in a myriad of other ways. While supermarkets make trillions of dollars every day, the people responsible for working the fields face awful conditions and low wages. “Food Chains” focuses on a group of tomato pickers who form the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. To raise awareness of their working conditions and demand more than a penny per pound of tomatoes, they go on strike.
When discussing human trafficking, many people forget about agriculture, where exploitation and abuse are long-persisting issues. In 2015, “Food Chains” won the James Beard Foundation Award for Special/Documentary. It received additional praise from the media and has a 91% score on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is available in both English and Spanish.
Directed by: Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron | Available on: Apple TV, Prime Video, Tubi
With a premiere at TIFF in 2018, this documentary focuses on the slave trade that powers Indonesia’s seafood industry and a group of activists committed to changing it. Being responsible for a huge part of the world’s seafood supply is a tall order, but there aren’t enough fishermen. To meet demand, the industry is rife with human trafficking. People from Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, and other places are sold to fishing fleets for a few hundred dollars apiece. Abused and kept in cages, these enslaved fishermen can go for months or even years without leaving the ships.
While many human trafficking documentaries focus on sex slavery, it’s important to remember that forced labor also affects millions of people. “Ghost Fleet” brings the situation to light. Viewers are also forced to reckon with their own ethics and consumption of seafood that likely comes from sources that use slave labor.
Directed by: Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano | Available on: Youtube
Fresh produce and seafood aren’t the only food industries affected by trafficking. For decades, slavery has fueled the chocolate industry. Places like West Africa are especially dependent on child labor for their cocoa production. The film begins in Germany with questions to vendors about suppliers. The journey continues to Mali and then the Ivory Coast, where children are enslaved on cocoa plantations. Huge corporations like Nestle use that chocolate, and despite promises to stop, very few changes have been made. Deadlines for complying with new rules kept getting pushed back.
Directors Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano used secret cameras to film much of this documentary. In 2012, it was nominated for the Adolf Grimme Award in the Information & Culture category. Have things changed much since this film came out? Big companies have made lots of promises, but slavery is still a huge problem for the industry. The 46-minute documentary is currently available to watch for free on Youtube.
Directed by: Tiffany Hsiung | Available on: Tubi and Amazon Prime (rental)
During WWII, the Imperial Japanese Army forced around 200,000 women and girls into sexual slavery. Known as “comfort women,” these women were kept at “comfort stations” that Japanese soldiers visited when they needed a sexual outlet. Japanese women were among the first victims, but women from across occupied territories were kidnapped or tricked with promises of legitimate work. “The Apology” follows three women from the Philippines, who after decades of silence and shame, share their experiences while seeking a formal apology from the Japanese government.
“The Apology” is a powerful film showing the lasting effects of sexual slavery on survivors, as well as their strength. It won a 2018 Peabody Award after airing on PBS. It’s available for free on Tubi.
Directed by: Brian Single | Available on: Kanopy (with a public library card or university login)
The Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group led by Joseph Kony, has been accused of human rights violations like murder, child-sex slavery, mutilation, and using child soldiers since 1987. While not as active today, the group leaves behind a long legacy of pain and trauma. Filmed over three years, “Children of War” follows a group of former child soldiers as they try to heal in a rehabilitation center with the help of counselors.
Since its premiere at the United States Institute of Peace, the documentary has received a handful of awards, such as the Justice Award from the Cinema for Peace Foundation in Berlin. It’s also been screened by organizations like Amnesty International and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
#9. Machines (2016)
Directed by: Rahul Jain| Available on: Amazon Prime (rental), Apple TV
Sweatshops are dangerous, exploitative, and responsible for producing many of the clothes we wear today. In this documentary, Ruhal Jain gains access to one of the thousands of textile mills in Suchin, India. Viewers witness the dehumanizing practices, dangerous conditions, and suffering of workers hidden in these buildings. They describe what their lives are like, which include grueling 12-hour work days and long commutes.
“Machines” played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 and premiered in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. It has a 92% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes. The film is in Hindi with English subtitles.