What is Human Trafficking?


Human Trafficking is a crime against humanity that has a devastating effect on victims, their families and communities; it effects the individual right to life, freedom, security, dignity, equality, and employment. It involves both physical and sexual abuse, threats against the lives of victims and their families. In simple terms it reduces people to nothing more than ‘commodities’ that are bought and sold. Human trafficking involves a variety of physical, financial and emotional processes that are used to control victims mind and bodies so as to ensure that they provide sexual gratification for others while providing profit for their traffickers.

The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children has provided a global definition of human trafficking. It defines human trafficking as; "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of 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" (United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, 2000).


Multiple Meanings

These Include:
Forced Labour – this occurs when employers exploit vulnerable workers
Bonded Labour – or debt bondage, occurs when a labourer works to pay off a debt while the employer exploits the debt and its circumstances. Debt bondage in Asia can actually be passed down from generation to generation
Involuntary Domestic Servitude – is a form of forced labour that occurs when domestic workers are exploited. The United States Trafficking in Persons Report 2011 highlights a trend of domestic servant guest workers being sexually abused by their bosses and third parties
Forced Child Labour – involves the sale and trafficking of children who are then trapped by debt and bonded into forced labour
Child Soldiers - In conflict situations, children are kidnapped and forced to serve as soldiers. It is common for them to also be used as sex slaves by rebel forces. Abducted women are raped and forced into sex slavery or are forced to become wives for soldiers. Some are forced to commit atrocities against their families and communities

The reporting on cases of human trafficking has resulted in the use of many different terms which has led to some confusion in trying to distinguish between their meanings.
Such confusion has been recognised by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as an obstruction to law enforcement investigations.


  • ‘Smuggling’ occurs when a smuggler illegally facilitates the entry of a person into a country of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident in return for financial or other material payment directly or indirectly. It is worth noting that the smuggler has no intention of exploiting a person further once they arrive in the destination country.

  • ‘Migration for work’ involves the movement of a person from one country to another for employment. It may be by legal or illegal means. It can be voluntary or involuntary, such as when people are forced to migrate as a result of conflict, war or famine.

  • ‘Human Trafficking’ on the other hand involves the recruitment, transportation and exploitation of an individual, incorporating deception at the recruitment stage with an overall intention on the part of the trafficker to exploit the person being smuggled and severely abuse their human rights. The exploitation is usually through enforced debt-bondage, a debt that was incurred as a result of the costs involved in the transportation and purchasing of the person by the traffickers. The debt will always be inflated and out of reach of the means of the trafficked person. It increases to ensure the continued debt-bondage. Victims of human trafficking are physically, sexually and psychologically abused. They are denied all legal or human rights.

Smuggling involves the crossing of borders, whereas, human trafficking can occur within a state. It should be noted that when consent is gained through any coercive, deceptive or abusive actions on behalf of the trafficker is deemed null and void by United Nations Trafficking in Persons Protocol, (2000). This protocol provides protection for people who migrate voluntarily and end up being trafficked. The protocol excludes any possibility of consent being given in respect of a victim under 18 years of age. This refers to any form of trafficking for the purpose of exploiting a child.

In summary it is the coercive nature of the means used to get the person to a location and their subsequent exploitation after having arrived at the destination that distinguishes human trafficking from smuggling or migration for work.

Process Involved in Human Trafficking

The definition of human trafficking may be broken down into three separate parts
The ‘Criminal Act’; an act of recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of person(s)
The ‘Means’ used to commit those acts must involve a threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim
‘Exploitation’; includes the prostitution of others, including sexual exploitation, force labour, service, slavery or similar practices and the removal of organs

Traffickers use various types of promises when trafficking vulnerable women, men and children; they include false promises, trickery and coercion in order to gain their confidence. Victims initially come in contact with a recruiter, who may be an acquaintance or a friend and in most cases is usually a person who offers assistance in finding work abroad. Many of the recruiters are actually women. The majority of the victims have no knowledge that they are going to work in the sex industry. Zimmerman et al., (2006) reported that almost one in five women trafficked, reported that a relative knew their trafficker. Others were recruited by a friend or an acquaintance, who subsequently betrayed them. Some were sold by a family member; others were abducted, deceived, seduced, romanced or recruited by former victims, while some were offered the promise of marriage to wealthy men.

Recruiters are the first point of contact for the victim in the trafficking process. They generally appear ordinary trustworthy people as a result of their position in society, their close relationship with the victims, being employees of bogus employment agencies, neighbours, acquaintances, friends, boyfriends or even family members. Many of the recruiters are women, who are considered trustworthy. Some are sold by a family member. Traffickers use various means for trafficking vulnerable women, men and children; these include false promises, trickery and coercion in order to gain their confidence. Recruiters often promise work or study opportunities and some even place false advertisements in the victim’s home country offering employment opportunities abroad. They may offer financial support and the provision of travel documents if required. Some victims are abducted, deceived, seduced and romanced. The majority of the victims have no knowledge that they are going to work in the sex industry.

My experience of victims trafficked in Bosnia was that they suffered greatly at the hands of their traffickers. Some were raped while being transported while other were held captive, forced to strip naked for potential buyer’s inspection of their bodies, manhandled, and they ended up in night clubs where they didn’t know the language or any person there. They were told by the owner or in some cases by another victim that they had to have sex and drinks with customers in the club in order to pay back the money that their trafficker paid for them. Zimmerman et al., (2006), found that women who were trafficked had very different experiences, some were held captive assaulted and horribly violated, while others were more psychologically tormented. This study found that the majority of trafficked victims were subjected to both physical and sexual violence; were threatened along with their children and family, and had their movement restricted.

A victim’s willpower may be broken by means of physical assaults, rape, torture, starvation, threats and by being forced into prostitution. They are forced to provide sexual services to many men every day and night. In Bosnia victims that we rescued reported that they had to provide sexual services to between thirteen and seventeen men per night over a two year period. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2008) reported the serious impact that human trafficking has on victims. They reported that the trafficking process consists of physical, sexual and psychological abuse; violence, deprivation, torture, manipulation, forced substance abuse, forced economic exploitation, abusive working and living conditions. My Bosnian experience indicated that once a victim arrived at their destination they were exploited for sexual services and forced into prostitution. They were informed by the trafficker or other victims of what was expected from them. They were told they owed the trafficker a very large sum of money in repayment for what was spent on their transportation and purchase. In return the trafficker demanded that they pay him back by means of providing sexual services to ‘X’ number of customers. They were told that they had to comply with the trafficker’s demands or they would be beaten, tortured or even worse, sold on to another premise, where the perception was given that they would be treated even more brutally. Victims either submitted to the demands of the traffickers or resisted. Any resistance was short lived as they became submissive as a result of rapes, beatings, starvation or other forms of torture, eventually giving into the trafficker’s demands by prostituting themselves.

Ekaterina (2004) highlighted that the combining isolation, unpredictable violence, and the giving of negative messages were very similar to the act of ‘brainwashing’. After becoming submissive, the women were given false hope of attaining their freedom once they had paid off their debt. This false hope or promise is a powerful tool used by traffickers in controlling and forcing victims into prostitution in brothels, clubs, massage parlours, apartments, hotels and on the streets.

Once they begin providing sexual services the victim’s initial response is to ask clients for help. Their traffickers overcame this problem by ensuring that the first few clients were employees, associates or friends of the trafficker’s in case the victims ask for help. Victims usually asked for help and the client would report this back to the trafficker. The victim would then be beaten and punished to ensure she would not ask for help in the future. Victims soon learned to be helpless and any hope of being rescued or saved soon fade away. In 1965 Martin Seligman and his colleagues discovered a phenomenon of ‘learned helplessness’. Their findings resulted in a scientific revolution in psychology where traditional behaviourist theories were displaced with cognitive psychology. Seligman argued that learned helplessness developed when people had no control over their lives and developed a sense of discouragement, hopelessness and despair. This lack of control over a period of time leads victims to believe that they can never be in control.

Victims encountered in Bosnia showed signs of learned helplessness. Their initial calls for help were usually met with beatings, torture, rapes, and punishments. They soon realised that their efforts were futile and they learned to be helpless. Zimmerman et al., (2006) reported that such victims were unable to feel emotions. They highlighted that a psychological defence of numbing occurs to protect the individual experiencing regular highly emotive abuse.

The Global Context - difficulties in quantifying the problem

The international Labour Organisation (ILO) of the United Nations estimates that there are at least 12.3 million people in forced labour, bonded labour or commercial sexual servitude at any given time in the world. They report that 1.39 million of these victims are involved in commercial sexual servitude. UNICEF reports that there are two million children in prostitution globally. However, it is worth noting that calculating the number of victims and the amounts of money generated by sex trafficking is very difficult due to the lack of information and the secretive nature of this illegal industry. The United Nations’ estimates that approximately 800,000 persons are trafficked worldwide each year, with estimated earnings of $32 billion. $10 billion being earned from the sale of people and a further $22 billion coming from the subsequent illegal activities. The United States Department of State estimates that in 2008 it generates $7 billion per year, while Interpol estimates it generates $19 billion annually. In 2005, ILO estimated it to be $217.8 billion a year or $23,000 per victim.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, (2008) report, highlighted that in the last ten years human trafficking has reached epidemic proportions. They found that human trafficking is taking place in 127 countries and that victims were being exploited in a total of 137 countries. The U.S. Trafficking in Person’s Report 2011 reported that 142 countries ratified the Palermo Protocol and 128 countries have enacted laws prohibiting human trafficking. These figures are mind blowing when one tries to get one’s heads around the number of people being exploited in such a horrendous manner.

Trafficking in Persons Global Patterns, (2006) reported that victims in Western Europe seem mainly to originate from Central Southern and Eastern Europe, while other origin countries include states in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. In Latin America, Asia; and Caribbean countries ‘minors’ (consisting of boys and girls) comprise the largest percentage of persons reported as victims of exploitation and forced labour, while adult women comprise the second largest reported group there. This pattern differs across Europe, where adult women are the largest trafficked group. It is further suggested that 80% of trafficked persons worldwide are women and children. The ILO estimates that 12.3 million persons per year are trafficked for labour exploitation.

The United Nations workshop on Fighting Human Trafficking held in Vienna in 2008 identified the difficulties of trying to quantify human trafficking, its impact and any responses to it. They highlighted the lack of quantitative information or understanding, regarding the scope and development of human trafficking around the world. They identified how an absence of reliable Global statistical information inhibits a proper understanding of this problem. The United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, forum in Vienna in 2008 found that the lack of legislation, differences in legal definitions, under reporting due to classification problems, lack of data collection and a common lack of databases on crime led to the major difficulty of compiling and interpreting statistics on human trafficking. Despite all this, they noted that raised awareness about human trafficking had increased the focus on efforts to combat it.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime have also highlighted that poverty, unemployment, violence, peer pressure and changes in the international and domestic sex industries are all factors that create opportunities for traffickers in acquiring victims for human trafficking. Traffickers play on victim’s hope of better prospects in other locations and use this to entice victims into captivity. The current world recessions has left people more vulnerable to human trafficking as increased unemployment creates extreme poverty. These factors cause women and men to seek employment away from home thus increasing the risk of being trafficked. The recession forces business underground, to avoid paying taxes and keep manufacturing expenses low while encouraging forced labour of both adults and children.

The United Nation’s protocol’s definition of human trafficking has been criticised by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, (2008), for its lack of clarity in the meaning of terms, definitions and the uncertainty as to what measures actually work or do not. They found that it caused confusion and problems with its implementation on a global basis. The United Nations workshop (2008), on quantifying human trafficking, its impact and the responses to it, found that the legal definition of terms varies greatly between countries anti-trafficking laws, and there was also a lack of cohesion in the description of criminal offences in some countries. It also noted that some offences associated with human trafficking were covered by existing legislation and that this resulted in inaccuracies in the statistical information being collected. This in turn causes difficulties for researchers trying to quantify human trafficking or its impact. In 2005, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees highlighted the difficulties in establishing an accurate measure that would indicate the level of human trafficking in the European area. The Commission found that there was no reliable or conclusive statistics on trafficking in the European region. Any of the data that is available does not take into account key indicators such as age, gender, number of victims, or country of origin. They reported that this lack of information makes it extremely difficult to raise awareness and effectively deal with the protection of, and assistance for victims. The United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, (2008), reported that the main problem in compiling comparable criminal justice data was the lack of any standardisation between countries. They found the different legal traditions and institutional settings in the various countries criminal justice systems made compiling comparable information very difficult.

The U.S. State Department Trafficking in Person Report (2009) recognises the necessity for proactive identification of victims and highlighted the fact that victims should not be expected to identify themselves. This book provides a solution to the U.S. State Department request for a proactive identification system as it provides frontline responders with the information, knowledge and means of identifying and assisting such victims.