What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry affecting individuals all around the world. While there are many definitions of human trafficking, The United States’ Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 expands on this to define “severe forms of trafficking” as:

a)     sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or

b)     the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime gives a much more detailed definition in their Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons. Here, trafficking is defined 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. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or deception to exploit people.

Figure 1. Much of the information presented here is from the United States State Department June 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report.1

Figure 1. Much of the information presented here is from the United States State Department June 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report.1

History of Slavery

Early records of slavery can be found dating back to at least 1760BC in records such as the Code of Hammurabi, indicating that slavery was well established by this point. Throughout history, slaves could be found anywhere from Europe to the Middle East to Asia to Oceania to Africa to the Americas. Mintz[1] claims that by the time of Christ, slaves made up 35-40% of the population in Italy and over 25% of the population of the Roman Empire, and that among some Indian tribes in Asia, slaves comprised nearly a quarter of the population at one point. The causes of slavery throughout history range from debt-slavery, punishment for crime, the enslavement of prisoners of war, child abandonment, and the birth of slave children to slaves.

Scope and Manifestations of slavery today

Estimates of the scope of modern day slavery vary widely. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are at least 12.3 million individuals in forced or bonded labor at any time. They estimate that at least 1.39 million are victims of commercial sexual exploitation and that 56 percent of all trafficking victims are female. Modern day slavery manifests itself through either labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, or both, with a common denominator of force, fraud, or coercion. Victims are used for a wide range of purposes, such as forced prostitution, pornography, selling brides, illegal international adoption, manual labor, sweatshops, for sports such as camel jockeys, or for use as child beggars or child soldiers.

Harm to Individuals and Communities

Human trafficking has a devastating effect on individuals which can extend to the community. Individuals suffer both physically and psychologically, as they are often abused, raped, threatened, have identification documents stolen, and can even die as a result of trafficking. Victims often receive no medical care or care from an unqualified doctor if health problems become severe. This puts communities at risk as contagious diseases remain untreated, and as sick people are transported, diseases are spread leading to global health risks. In addition, human trafficking deprives individuals of human rights and freedoms and fuels global crime organizations, undermining safety and security in all affected nations.


[1] Mintz, S. (2007). Slavery in Historical Perspective. Digital History. Retrieved 5 March 2010 from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=59.