Harbouring Explained: New Publication Analyses Act of Trafficking


Vienna (Austria) 04 October 2021 – Victims of human trafficking are accommodated or forced to stay in locations prior to and during their exploitation or between periods of abuse.

These settings can be in brothels, private homes, factories, farms, or fishing vessels. They are often dangerous, inhumane and unsanitary, and can be controlled by criminals involved in the trafficking network.  

This process known as ‘harbouring’ is the focus of a new UNODC publication which analyses the varying interpretations of the concept and its importance in securing convictions in trafficking cases.

“Harbouring is one of five actions that constitute an ‘act’ in the internationally recognised definition of human trafficking,” explains Morgane Nicot, Leader of UNODC’s Knowledge Development and Innovation Team, which produced the publication.

The definition of human trafficking is the cornerstone of the UN  Trafficking in Persons Protocol , which is the world’s primary legal instrument to combat this crime.

“Our study shows that harbouring is one of the most frequent acts when committing human trafficking. Therefore, it is important to fully understand the concept to get justice for victims of this crime,” says Ms. Nicot.  

The study concludes that on an international and often national level, there is no uniform understanding of the act of harbouring nor a consistent approach to this concept during court proceedings.

“For example, discrepancies arise with the question of whether the victim needs to be concealed by the perpetrator or whether movement needs to be restricted in order to constitute human trafficking in this context,” explains Morgane Nicot.  

The study also shows that there are different interpretations regarding the minimum period for which a person needs to be harboured in a trafficking case.  

A further finding highlights the different meanings of the word ‘harbouring’ in the various language versions of the UN Protocol, which is available in six languages.

In French and Arabic, the word used for harbouring has a positive connotation in the sense of hosting, while in English, Chinese and Russian it can be perceived as having a negative meaning in the sense of hiding or concealing.

“Due to these differences in the interpretation of the harbouring concept, the same conduct is considered human trafficking in one country but not necessarily in another,” Ms. Nicot.  

“This has wide consequences. For the perpetrator, it can have an effect on the sentence. For the victim an impact on rights and protection measures. For the courts, it can hamper requests for legal assistance and international cooperation.” 

It is these discrepancies that the study wants to highlight with the intent of promoting a global understanding of the harbouring concept, she adds.   

To compile the study, the Knowledge Development Team analysed court cases and legislation from over 100 countries and identified 10 countries to focus on.

National experts from these countries then worked closely with UNODC to develop the analysis.  

One contributor, Innocentia Nomthandazo Nyoni, is a Deputy Prosecutor General of Namibia.

“We are still learning about human trafficking here in Namibia and appreciate any new development and input that helps us enhance our knowledge of this crime. Publications from UNODC are really useful and carry weight when we refer to them in court,” she says.

With regards to the harbouring concept, Ms. Nyoni says “it is crucial” to have a universal understanding of what harbouring is in the context of trafficking in persons.  

She explains that in two separate proceedings for child exploitation committed in similar circumstances in Namibia, the judges involved came to different conclusions.

“In one case, the judge was satisfied that the perpetrator had harboured children, even though they returned to their homes after they were sexually exploited.”

“Whereas, in a similar case, a second judge ruled that the victims would have needed to stay in the place of exploitation for a longer period of time to constitute harbouring.”

The new UNODC publication contains examples from court decisions to illustrate different ways victims of human trafficking can be harboured.

Victims can be harboured before being transferred to the location where the exploitation will take place, or they can be held at a place, such as an apartment, when they are not at the place of exploitation, explains Morgane Nicot.

“For example, when children are forced to beg on the streets during the day, they are harboured by traffickers in the evenings,” she adds.  

Harbouring can also occur at the place of exploitation, such as a brothel, factory or construction site or in accommodation where the victim is forced into domestic servitude.

“Wherever and however it occurs, harbouring with the intent of exploitation is an act of human trafficking and a violation of the victim’s rights and dignity.”

“We hope that our new study will lead to a better understanding of this terrible crime and support measures to effectively protect victims and punish traffickers,” concludes Ms. Nicot.

UNODC thanks the US Department of State JTIP Office for making the development of this issue paper possible.

Further information:

The Issue Paper: The Concept of ‘Harbouring’ in the Trafficking in Persons Protocol can be viewed here. The study was made possible through funding received from the Government of the United States of America.