Human Trafficking FAQs

What is Human Trafficking?

How is human trafficking different from migrant smuggling?

What if a trafficked person consents?

How widespread is human trafficking?

Which countries are affected by human trafficking?

What is the most commonly identified form of trafficking?

Who are the victims and culprits of human trafficking?

What is the role of transnational organised crime groups in human trafficking?

What types of industries are involve with human trafficking?

Is there a legal instrument to tackle human trafficking?

What does UNODC do to assist victims of trafficking?

What is UNODC's stance on prostitution?

What are the major challenges faced in the battle against human trafficking?

Do many traffickers get caught and convicted?

What can I do to help fight human trafficking?


What is human trafficking?

Human Trafficking is defined in the Trafficking Protocol as "the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation."

The definition of trafficking consists of three core elements:

1) The action of trafficking which means the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons

2) The means of trafficking which includes threat of or use of force, deception, coercion, abuse of power or position of vulnerability

3) The purpose of trafficking which is always exploitation. In the words of the Trafficking Protocol, article 3 "exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs

To learn more about human trafficking, click here.


How is human trafficking different from migrant smuggling?

Simply put, there are four main differences between human trafficking and migrant smuggling.

  1. Consent - migrant smuggling, while often undertaken in dangerous or degrading conditions, involves consent. Trafficking victims, on the other hand, have either never consented or if they initially consented, that consent has been rendered meaningless by the coercive, deceptive or abusive action of the traffickers.
  2. Exploitation - migrant smuggling ends with the migrants' arrival at their destination, whereas trafficking involves the ongoing exploitation of the victim.
  3. Transnationality - smuggling is always transnational, whereas trafficking may not be. Trafficking can occur regardless of whether victims are taken to another state or moved within a state's borders.
  4. Source of profits - in smuggling cases profits are derived from the transportation of facilitation of the illegal entry or stay of a person in another country, while in trafficking cases profits are derived from exploitation.

The distinctions between smuggling and trafficking are often very subtle and sometimes they overlap. Identifying whether a case is one of human trafficking or migrant smuggling and related crimes can be very difficult for a number of reasons:

Some trafficked persons might start their journey by agreeing to be smuggled into a country illegally, but find themselves deceived, coerced or forced into an exploitative situation later in the process (by e.g. being forced to work for extraordinary low wages to pay for the transportation).

Traffickers may present an 'opportunity' that sounds more like smuggling to potential victims. They could be asked to pay a fee in common with other people who are smuggled. However, the intention of the trafficker from the outset is the exploitation of the victim. The 'fee' was part of the fraud and deception and a way to make a bit more money.

Smuggling may be the planned intention at the outset, but a 'too good to miss' opportunity to traffic people presents itself to the smugglers/traffickers at some point in the process.

Criminals may both smuggle and traffic people, employing the same routes and methods of transporting them. The relationship between these two crimes is often oversimplified and misunderstood; both are allowed to prosper and opportunities to combat both are missed. It is important to understand that the work of migrant smugglers often results in benefit for human traffickers. Smuggled migrants may be victimized by traffickers and have no guarantee that those who smuggle them are not in fact traffickers. In short, smuggled migrants are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked - combating trafficking in persons requires that migrant smuggling be addressed as a priority.

To learn more about human trafficking, click here.

To learn more about migrant smuggling, click here.


What if a trafficked person consents?

It is important to note that the consent of the trafficked person becomes irrelevant whenever any of the 'means' of trafficking are used. A child cannot consent even if the 'means' are not involved.

How widespread is human trafficking?

The question of the magnitude of the trafficking problem - that is, how many victims there are - is hotly debated as there is no methodologically sound available estimate. In December 2013, UNODC hosted a meeting with academics and researchers with experience in uncovering various 'hidden populations'*. The objective of the meeting was to obtain an overview of successful methodologies in enumerating hidden populations and to discuss research methods on trafficking in persons, with particular emphasis on the potential development of a global victim estimate.

Generating a methodologically sound estimate of the global number of trafficking victims is a commendable objective. Achieving it, however, would require significant resources and a long-term perspective.

*Further information on the research methodologies and approaches discussed at the expert meeting can be found in the next edition of the UNODC Journal Forum on Crime and Society (forthcoming 2015).


To learn more about human trafficking in different countries, download UNODC's Global Report on Trafficking in Persons


Which countries are affected by human trafficking?

Human trafficking affects every country of the world, as countries of origin, transit or destination - or even a combination of all. Trafficking often occurs from less developed countries to more developed countries, where people are rendered vulnerable to trafficking by virtue of poverty, conflict or other conditions. Most trafficking is national or regional, but there are also notable cases of logn-distance trafficking. Europe is the destination for victims from the widest range of destinations, while victims from Asia are trafficked to the widest range of destinations. The Americas are prominent both as the origin and destination of victims of human trafficking.

To learn more about human trafficking in different countries and regions of the world, download UNODC's Global Report on Trafficking in Persons


What is the most commonly identified form of human trafficking?

In UNODC's Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, sexual exploitation was noted as by far the most commonly identified form of human trafficking (79%) followed by forced labour (18%). This may be the result of statistical bias. By and large, the exploitation of women tends to be visible, in city centres or along highways. Because it is more frequently reported, sexual exploitation has become the most documented type of trafficking, in aggregate statistics. In comparison, other forms of exploitation are under-reported: forced or bonded labour; domestic servitude and forced marriage; organ removal; and the exploitation of children in begging, the sex trade and warfare.


Who are the victims and culprits of human trafficking?

Victims of trafficking can be any age and any gender. However, a disproportionate number of women are involved in human trafficking both as victims and as culprits. Female offenders have a prominent role in human trafficking, particularly where former victims become perpetrators as a means of escaping their victimisation. Most trafficking is carried out by people whose nationality is the same as that of their victim.


What is the role of transnational organised crime groups in human trafficking?

Trafficking is almost always a form of organized crime and should be dealt with using criminal powers to investigate and prosecute offenders for trafficking and any other criminal activities in which they engage. Trafficked persons should also be seen as victims of crime. Support and protection of victims is a humanitarian objective and an important means of ensuring that victims are willing and able to assist in criminal cases.

As with other forms of organized crime, trafficking has globalized. Groups formerly active in specific routes or regions have expanded the geographical scope of their activities to explore new markets. Some have merged or formed cooperative relationships, expanding their geographical reach and range of criminal activities. Trafficking victims have become another commodity in a larger realm of criminal commerce involving other commodities, such as narcotic drugs and firearms or weapons and money laundering, that generate illicit revenues or seek to reduce risks for traffickers.

The relatively low risks of trafficking and substantial potential profits have, in some cases, induced criminals to become involved as an alternative to other, riskier criminal pursuits. With the adoption of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in November 2000, countries have begun to develop the necessary criminal offences and enforcement powers to investigate, prosecute and punish traffickers and to confiscate their profits, but expertise and resources will be needed to make the new measures fully effective.

Risks are further reduced by the extent to which victims are intimidated by traffickers, both in destination countries, where they fear deportation or prosecution for offences such as prostitution or illegal immigration, and in their countries of origin, where they are often vulnerable to retaliation or re-victimization if they cooperate with criminal justice authorities. The support and protection of victims is a critical element in the fight against trafficking to increase their willingness to cooperate with authorities and as a necessary means of rehabilitation.


What types of industries are involved with human trafficking?

Most trafficked forced labour affects people working at the margins of the formal economy, with irregular employment or migration status. The sectors most frequently documented are agriculture or horticulture, construction, garments and textiles under sweatshop conditions, catering and restaurants, domestic work, entertainment and the sex industry.

Human trafficking also affects other quite mainstream economic sectors, including food processing, healthcare, and contract cleaning, mainly in private but also in public sector employment, such as the provision of healthcare services.


Is there a legal instrument to tackle human trafficking?

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 and entered into force on 25 December 2003.

The Trafficking Protocol, which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, is the only international legal instrument addressing human trafficking as a crime and falls under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The purposes of the Trafficking Protocol are:

To prevent and combat trafficking in persons

To protect and assist victims of trafficking, and

To promote cooperation among States Parties to meet these objectives.

The Trafficking Protocol advances international law by providing, for the first time, a working definition of trafficking in persons and requires ratifying States to criminalize such practices.

To learn more about the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and its supplementary Protocols, click here.


What does UNODC do to assist victims of human trafficking?

A core element of UNODC's mandate under the U.N. Trafficking Protocol is to increase the level of protection and assistance provided to victims of human trafficking crimes (Articles 2(b), 6, 7 & 8).

The Protocol is the major international instrument combating human trafficking. As the custodian of this instrument, UNODC assists countries to fully implement a comprehensive response to trafficking, not only by ensuring the structures are in place to convict traffickers but also in addressing the realities experienced by victims of such crimes.

The relevant technical assistance provided to countries by UNODC includes:

  • Assisting the review and revision of domestic legislation concerning assistance and protection of victims;
  • Training criminal justice practitioners and service providers on protection of victims of trafficking in persons;
  • Supporting countries in the provision of physical, psychological and social assistance to the victims, including cooperation with NGOs and civil society;
  • Securing the safety of victims.

To learn more about UNODC's response to human trafficking, click here.


What is UNODC's stance on prostitution?

It is important to note that when the Trafficking In Persons Protocol was negotiated, Member States decided to keep the issue of prostitution within the domain of national competence - that is, as a question of national policy for the discretion of States.

A definition of exploitation is not given in the Protocol. Only a minimum list of offences that should be recognized by Member States is provided. The Protocol only mentions the "exploitation of the prostitution of others" as being a form of exploitation of the crime of human trafficking. Otherwise, there is no basis for stating an opinion on prostitution other than in the context of human trafficking.

While countries take very different approaches to prostitution (the range of national policies include complete prohibition and criminalization of both prostitutes and clients, through decriminalization combined with regulation and decriminalization combined with mere toleration, to legalization), there is no settled opinion yet regarding which approach has the most positive effect in countering human trafficking.

The strict policy line of UNODC is to remain neutral on the issue of prostitution.


What are the major challenges faced in the battle against human trafficking? 

A number of points can be made:

  • It is important that every effort is undertaken to establish the gravity of the problem and tackle the issue from the source to destination. What numbers are available to show the problem has not abated and is not likely to. One of the challenges relates to the gathering of accurate information in order that a true picture of the phenomenon can be gauged. In this respect, some progress has been made but more needs to be done.
  • From UNODC's work across the criminal justice sector, we are fully aware that human trafficking is often only one activity of extensive and highly sophisticated international crime networks.
  • We need to ensure that, despite the many conflicting priorities faced by member states that the issue of countering human trafficking is clearly given a high priority and focus by the international community.
  • We need to consider the type of action that can be taken to raise awareness of the problem and take steps to prevent trafficking at source (reference to UNODC public service announcements).
  • A major challenge is to ensure that action is taken to ratify and effectively implement the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.
  • Improving international cooperation and coordination, particularly in relation to developing information exchange and operational cooperation between law enforcement agencies needs to be strengthened.
  • There is a need to take a more holistic and partnership approach to tackling the problem. In this respect, UNODC fully recognizes the importance of mobilizing the support of NGOs, IGOs, governments and the community at large.


Do many traffickers get caught and convicted?

The number of convictions is increasing, but unfortunately not proportionately to the growing awareness and extent of the problem. There are several likely reasons for the low number of convictions of human traffickers. One of the reasons is the absence of anti-trafficking legislation in some countries. Alternatively, there may be legislation addressing human trafficking but law enforcement officials and prosecutors might not be properly trained to utilize it. Sometimes situations of human trafficking are mistaken for situations of migrant smuggling; this can result in inappropriate and inadequate sentences applied to crimes. Another potential obstacle to securing convictions may also be corruption. Further to this, sometimes prosecutions are not successful because of the unwillingness of victims to cooperate with the criminal justice system where they have been threatened and intimidated by traffickers.


What can I do to help fight human trafficking?

For some ideas on how you can get involved in the fight against human trafficking, click here


To learn more about human trafficking, read more here, visit our Tools and Publications page or Contact us for more information



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