Human Trafficking
Human Trafficking

Human trafficking, another – often times involuntary – form of migration, is an important international issue. The UN defines human trafficking as, “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation” ( 

Concern over the links between human trafficking, criminal organizations and the exploitation of trafficked people has prompted governments and organizations to actively counter trafficking activities.  Even so, human trafficking forms the third largest illegal industry worldwide, following illicit drugs and arms trafficking and generating more than $32 billion in revenue annually (  The illegal trafficking of people (rather than of goods) has been fueled by four global trends.

  • As previously noted, ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors are important contributors to the phenomenon of migration as a whole.   
  • A second contributory trend has been increased mobility due to improved transportation networks and technology. This facilitates human trafficking as faster and cheaper forms of transportation increase the mobility of people.
  • The third  trend is the increasing involvement of international criminal organizations in the illegal movement of people. During the 1990s criminal organizations from a variety of countries have created sophisticated networks to illegally funnel migrants to developed countries. This new activity has been driven by the relatively low risks compared to other criminal activities and the high profitability. A passage from the Fujian province in China to the United States, where an increase in US Coast Guard boat patrols in response to 9/11 has led to a crackdown on maritime illegal migration, can cost up to $75,000 per person. More mundane passages across the northern Mexican border cost a mere $400, but with tens of thousands of illegal crossings, revenue to human traffickers totals millions of dollars.
  • A rather paradoxical fourth trend facilitating increases in human trafficking is rising incomes in sending countries. Initially increasing prosperity in developing countries does not reduce the need for migration by mitigating the ‘push’ factors. Instead rising incomes allow a greater number of people to afford the steep fees charged by traffickers. This factor primarily applies to migrants who are voluntarily smuggled across borders in order to migrate without necessary legal documents.  The related income phenomenon is known as the “migration hump”, as potential migrants must overcome the obstacle of having enough income to afford the transportation costs before they can make their journey abroad. Migration however, is not relegated to the relatively better off. Much like the ‘indentured servants’ of U.S. colonial times, thousands of illegal immigrants, upon reaching their country of destination through use of professional smugglers, are forced to pay for their passage by working in illegal sweat shops or to enter prostitution.

The International Labour Organization estimates there are 20.9 million victims of forced labor worldwide (2012). This number covers a reference period of 2002-2011 and means that 20.9 million people were in positions of forced labor at any given point during those years. Forced labor includes labor imposed by the State, and labor imposed in the private economy either for sexual or for labor exploitation. 

Rising public opposition to illegal immigration and the increasingly criminal nature of human trafficking has prompted governments of the developed world to take measures to thwart the entrance of immigrants, specifically those employing professional smugglers. In 2006, the U.S. passed a bill that authorized the building of a 700-mile fence between the US and Mexico, while also fortifying the border with extra guards. In May 2011, President Obama declared that the fence was now basically complete though the vast majority was met with vehicle barriers and a single -layer pedestrian fence, rather than the double-layered fence that was requested (Politifact, 2011).

An article in the liberal American Prospect (2012) notes that the fence has increased the chances of dying when crossing the border from Mexico to Arizona have increased significantly since the erection of the fence. The number of illegal aliens caught along the border has decreased from 1.6 million in 2000 to 340,000 in 2011 and the number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico living in the U.S. decreased by one million over the past five years. It is unclear whether these reductions are related to the fence or the economic crisis (Clifford, 2012). 

In 2004, in order to control recurring flows of illegal migrants traveling through the Mediterranean and Atlantic to Europe, the EU created Frontex, a “specialised and independent body tasked to coordinate the operational cooperation between Member States in the field of border security”. Through independent and joint naval operations with African countries, Frontex has attempted to block or repatriate Africans attempting to migrate to Europe. Its success thus far has been ambiguous at best. Similar to the U.S. illegal immigration into Europe has decreased overall due to the economic crisis, though as noted before illegal immigrants are still going into Greece.  The spokesperson for the European Union Agency Frontex commented that border management alone cannot solve the illegal immigration problem (Tsolakidoum, 2012) . Increased border enforcement has not only increased profit levels for human traffickers, but has also made the illegal migratory journey much more dangerous.

The most serious repercussions of human traffickers often fall upon those who are being trafficked. Increased border controls have driven traffickers to use more dangerous and ruthless means to smuggle immigrants into countries. In March 2009, an ill-equipped boat from Libya carrying over 350 passengers in almost unbearably cramped and harsh conditions capsized on its way to Europe, drowning all of those on board. In 2011, 2,000 people drown in the Mediterranean on their way from Africa to Europe (AlertNet, 2012).

Apart from the threat to the lives of immigrants, human trafficking can often lead to serious exploitation. As previously mentioned, those who are unable to pay for their passage are sometimes forced to work in sweat shops or to prostitute themselves in order to settle their debts with their traffickers. Often times, potential migrants may be promised employment opportunities in legal industries to help them repay their trafficking fees, only to find out once they’ve arrived in their destination country that they will be forced to work in prostitution.  

In some cases, traffickers may steal migrants’ personal documents, such as their passports, in order to bind them into positions of forced labor (  Additionally, estimates suggest that more than 50 percent of trafficked peoples are children, and more than 80 percent of human trafficking exists for sexual exploitation, meaning that many of those people who are trafficked internationally are children who are being forced to participate in the illegal sex trade.  Perhaps even more alarming, reports claim that children have been trafficked for purposes of war and/or terrorism.  The Taliban, specifically, has been charged with purchasing child slaves to train as suicide bombers (  Curbing human trafficking, while minimizing the suffering inflicted on illegal immigrants, presents a formidable challenge to governments as they devise new immigration policies. 

Map of Human Trafficking (2011)

The 2003 Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children was developed by the United Nations to address the need for stricter restrictions and harsher punishments against people and organizations that engage in human trafficking activities. The protocol formalized the definition of human trafficking (detailed above) to assist various nations in streamlining their policies to address this issue ( The 2005 Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings is a similar treaty implemented on a regional scale.

According to the 2012 State Department Report on Human Trafficking, the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008  requires annual reports of foreign governments that have governmental armed services or government-supported armed groups that recruit and use child soldiers.  In 2012, seven countries were named: Burma, Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. In April 2011, the EU passed a new comprehensive anti-trafficking directive that set standards for member states and requires member states to extend certain protections to trafficking victims, among other things.

2011 State Department Report: Human Trafficking Statistics

  • Adults and children victims of trafficking around the world: 27 million
  • Successful trafficking prosecutions: 4,239 (7,206 cases)
  • Successful prosecutions related to forced labor: 320 (508 cases)
  • Victims identified: 41,210
  • Prevalence of trafficking victims in Central and South Eastern Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States: 4.2 per 1,000 inhabitants
  • Victims of State Imposed Labor: 2.2 million
  • Victims of Sexual Exploitation; 4.5 million
  • Victims of Labor Exploitation: 14.2 million
  • Cost of trafficking worldwide: $20 billion (lost wages and benefits to migrant workers)

For more information on human trafficking, refer to the Human Rights Issue in Depth or read U.S. State Department Report on Trafficking Produces Changes.




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