Women travel in the back of a truck in the town of Mararaba in Adamawa state, Nigeria, on May 10, 2015.

Human trafficking comes in many shapes and sizes, harming adults and children in countries rich and poor alike.

In total, this issue—also known as modern slavery—affects an estimated 40.3 million people globally and earns traffickers at least $150 billion annually, making it one of the world’s most profitable crimes. Although slavery has been banned in most countries, many countries are unable to effectively enforce these bans, and contemporary practices of modern slavery persist as a major global challenge today.

This lesson breaks down the various forms of human trafficking and examines the individuals and industries most commonly affected by this issue.

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is the trapping and exploitation of a person using deception, violence, or coercion. It generally takes three main forms: forced labor (which includes sex trafficking), forced marriage, and forced organ removal.

Forced labor—any work or service done involuntarily—is the most common form of human trafficking, affecting nearly twenty-five million people worldwide. This category includes sixteen million people working in private sector industries, such as domestic work, agriculture, and manufacturing, as well as individuals trapped in bonded labor, in which people are made to repay loans or inherited debts in exploitative situations.

Forced labor also includes sex trafficking (in which individuals are made to perform nonconsensual commercial sex acts) and state-imposed forced labor (in which governments compel individuals to work—often in the military, in prisons, and on national infrastructure projects).

Forced marriage occurs when someone is made to marry without their consent—a situation that affects more than fifteen million people. This category includes early marriage (defined internationally as when one or both parties are under the age of eighteen), given that children are too young to give their consent. Some countries, however, permit sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to consent to marriage.

Organ trafficking is the sale and purchase of organs for transplantation. Experts label all forms of organ sale as human trafficking, given that economic despair forces poor and vulnerable individuals to sell their organs to the rich. Up to 10 percent of all transplants are thought to be conducted using illicitly acquired organs. By some estimates, organ trafficking generates between $840 million and $1.7 billion annually.

Human trafficking is not the same as human smuggling, which is when a person enters into an agreement with a smuggler to gain unlawful entry into a country. Human smuggling, however, can lead to human trafficking, especially when bad actors take advantage of a migrant’s limited knowledge of the local language and laws. And while human trafficking can entail movement across borders, individuals can also experience human trafficking without ever leaving their hometowns.

Who are the victims of human trafficking?

Human trafficking often begins with traffickers targeting their victims’ vulnerabilities, such as poverty and a desire for better work.

This process takes many forms. It can look like traffickers offering women in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, waitressing jobs in the capital city Bishkek, only to seize their passports and force them into sex work overseas. Or it can look like traffickers offering Central American migrants good jobs in and visas to the United States, only to deliver work in which conditions are awful and pay is abysmal.

Women (49 percent) and girls (23 percent) make up the majority of all reported human trafficking cases, including 99 percent of victims of sex trafficking and 58 percent of victims in all other commercial industries.

The risk of human trafficking is heightened for women and girls in areas of extreme gender discrimination, gender-based violence, and conflict. Discriminatory labor laws limit professional options for many women and girls, making them more susceptible to traffickers who promise opportunities for a better life. High societal rates of gender-based violence can make it difficult for authorities to identify and stop traffickers who employ similar violence. And in societies without rule of law, armed or extremist groups can easily target women and girls for forced marriage, sexual exploitation, and domestic servitude. Indeed, various actors capitalize on conflict to exploit adults and children regardless of gender, such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Central Africa’s Lord’s Resistance Army, and even several governments involved in state-sponsored human trafficking.

Men (21 percent) and boys (7 percent) also constitute a significant share of human trafficking victims, including the majority of those trafficked in male-dominated industries such as agriculture, construction, and manufacturing. Men and boys also make up the majority of victims of organ removal.

Migrants are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, especially forced labor, in which they represent almost one in every four victims. This vulnerability stems from limited protections for migrant workers facing abusive work practices. Often, identifying as a victim of human trafficking in a foreign country can result in deportation, which can disincentivize trafficking victims from coming forward. And as global migration reaches record highs, traffickers also exploit popular migration routes in order to more easily move their victims.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely fueling a surge in human trafficking. As the global health crisis pushes as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty, desperate individuals are more likely to accept risky job offers, which can result in exploitative trafficking situations. Additionally, pandemic-related travel bans and stay-at-home lockdowns mean that people are spending more time indoors and on the internet, contributing to a rise in online sexual exploitation—particularly of children.

Where does human trafficking take place?

Few industries, if any, are entirely immune from human trafficking, and any individual is likely only a few degrees of separation from someone working in an exploitative system.

Approximately 40 percent of human trafficking victims work in the private sector, many linked to the supply chains of international businesses. Industries in which trafficking is common include agriculture, fishing, domestic work, sex work, construction, mining, manufacturing, and processing and packaging.

Human trafficking is most prevalent in industries that are under-regulated, that rely on low-skilled or unskilled labor, and in which competition drives companies to seek cheaper solutions. Globalization has increased those pressures and brought them to more corners of the world. As a result, the cotton clothes you wear, the coffee you drink, and the smartphone you use all could include forced labor in their production. And with oversight in global supply chains often limited, it can be difficult for consumers to tell which items are ethically produced.

Just as the world is an incredibly diverse place, human trafficking follows different patterns in different regions. Africa has the world’s highest detected rate of forced marriage. Meanwhile, forced criminality (cases in which traffickers force victims to commit crimes) is mainly reported in Western and Southern Europe. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for two-thirds of all forced labor, whereas the Americas account for just 5 percent.

In the United States, meanwhile, sex trafficking made up 72 percent of the 11,500 human trafficking cases reported to the national hotline in 2019. However, experts believe many more cases go unreported and that other forms of forced labor are in fact more prevalent than sex trafficking. 

What are the global ramifications of human trafficking?

Human trafficking most immediately affects 40.3 million people globally, but its consequences are far more widespread.

This issue undermines global peace and security by bankrolling criminal organizations and terrorist groups. It threatens human rights by funding abusive regimes worldwide. It undercuts global development by uprooting and destabilizing communities. And it weakens the global economy by functioning as a multibillion-dollar illicit industry.

Human trafficking may begin locally, but it affects the peace and prosperity of almost every country. Around the world, 1 in 184 people is a victim of human trafficking.

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