How common is human trafficking?

It is difficult to identify or estimate the number of victims of human trafficking because the crime is inherently underground. In addition, varying definitions of trafficking yield varying estimates. That said, according to the International Labour Organization 20.9 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking and forced labor. 22% of individuals are forcibly exploited for sex, 68% for private labor, and 10% for state-imposed work, state military, or rebel armed forces.

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Who are the victims?

Anyone can be a victim of human trafficking, though some populations of individuals, given their positions in society, are more vulnerable to trafficking. These populations include:

  • Women and children
  • Marginalized communities (such as Roma, Minority and Indigenous populations)
  • Immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, and refugees
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals
  • Individuals with a history of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence
  • Individuals from low socio-economic backgrounds
  • Individuals in foster care
  • Homeless and Run-away individuals
  • Environmental refugees and individuals subject to natural disasters
  • Individuals living in unstable political climates

Ultimately, trafficked persons span all demographic markers. However, the populations listed above are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. 

The International Labour Organization estimates some demographics of victims in their Global Estimate of Forced Labour. They find that female-identifying individuals constitute 55% of victims, compared to 45% men and boys. 74% of victims are 18+ years old, compared to 26% under 18.    

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Who are human traffickers?

Anyone can be a human trafficker. A trafficker can be working on their own, in a small criminal group, or in a large-scale organized crime network, and can be in control of any number of individuals. Frequently a trafficker is someone that the victim knows on a personal basis, such as a family member, friend, romantic partner, or community member. Most traffickers have the same nationality as their victim.

Contrary to the common conception that men are the primary traffickers, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has found that in some parts of the world women play a more prominent role in human trafficking. This may be because former victims become perpetrators as a means of escaping their own enslavement, or because women are more successful as recruiters and traffickers, as they are more likely to be trusted and less likely to be suspected of the crime.

Human Traffickers who have been prosecuted around the world have included:

  • Transnational, national, or local criminal organizations
  • Victims’ neighbors, friends, family members, village chiefs, returnees, or romantic partners
  • Agricultural operators
  • Owners of small or medium-sized businesses, or of large factories
  • Pimps and brothel owners
  • Independent operators
  • Diplomatic families
  • Police, government authorities, military
  • Individual members of peacekeeping missions

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How does human trafficking happen?

Each case of human trafficking is unique. Whether the human trafficker is an individual acting alone or part of a larger organization, they reap financial gain from their victim through force, fraud, or coercion.

While it is true that traffickers may forcibly kidnap their victims, this is not the most common case. More frequently, traffickers manipulate and take advantage of individual’s positions of vulnerability in order to establish coercive control. For example, they may fraudulently influence their victim with the false incentive of a job or better living conditions. In manipulating individuals’ vulnerabilities, traffickers will often also use physical force to establish dominance and control.

Traffickers use a variety of tactics to intimidate and control their victims, including:

  • Physical violence, torture, and starvation
  • Rape and other sexual abuse
  • Psychological abuse, coercion, and blackmail
  • Drug addiction
  • Threats of violence against their family or loved ones
  • Confiscation of passports or other important documentation
  • Prospects of opportunity
  • Romance
  • Debt bondage 

Each case of human trafficking is unique. Whether the human trafficker is an individual acting alone or part of a larger organization, they reap financial gain from their victim through force, fraud, or coercion. They may fraudulently influence their victim with the false incentive of a job or better living conditions. Or traffickers may forcibly kidnap their victims.

Practitioners use the A-M-P Model to illustrate how traffiking happens:

*Image created by Human Trafficking Search. Content Credit: NHTRC.


Where does human trafficking occur?

Human trafficking happens everywhere, both domestically and across international borders. Countries are commonly divided into origin, transit, harbor, and destination countries. For example, in the most recent Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) included destination countries such as (in no particular order) the United States, Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Colombia, and Oman. Meanwhile, common origins for victims include the regions of East Asia, the Balkans, and West Africa. These categories have significant overlap as well: any country can be an origin country and any country can be a destination country.

However, human trafficking does not always occur in extended international flows. It is also very common for trafficking to occur within the same region or country. For example, UNODC found 100% of human trafficking victims in South Asia were trafficked within their same region or country.

For more detailed country profiles, check out the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, published annually by the US Department of State. 

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What is the difference between human trafficking and human smuggling?

While they often overlap, there are several differences between human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Migrant smuggling involves aiding an individual to cross international borders illegally. Human trafficking is controlling and exploiting a human being for profit. Some important differences include:

*Image created by Human Trafficking Search.

What can I do to help fight against human trafficking?

There are a variety of things you can do in your community, as a consumer, and as a citizen. Visit our Take Action page to learn more.

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