What is Human Trafficking? 

The official definition, taken from the United Nation's Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, is "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." 


Activist Kevin Bales' definition is less of a mouthful: 
"being forced to work without pay, under the threat of violence, and being unable to walk away."

"Modern Day Slavery"?

Human trafficking is often conflated with slavery or called "modern-day slavery". Internationally, slavery and enslavement were illegalized long before the concept of "human trafficking" was proposed. This conflation can help people understand what human trafficking is, but it can also confuse people about what it looks like. While the U.S. government continues to describe "human trafficking" and "modern-day slavery" as the same thing, activists and scholars from around the world debate the accuracy of these descriptions.

Doesn't human trafficking have to do with transporting people?

The term 'trafficking' intuitively implies movement, but the legal definition of trafficking does not include this. Human trafficking is being forced to work under threat of violence; sometimes that involves being moved around, sometimes it does not.

Types of Human Trafficking
Labor Trafficking

Labor trafficking describes forced labor within any industry (most commonly seen in agriculture, construction, production, restaurants, hospitality, etc.) Most labor trafficking cases are unpaid or barely paid, but any labor that is acquired under threat of violence or coerced by any other means constitutes labor trafficking. Manifestations of labor trafficking include debt bondage (also called bonded labor), domestic servitude, and prison labor.

While most human trafficking awareness focuses on sex trafficking, most trafficking worldwide is thought to be labor trafficking.

Tropical Leaves

debt bondage

Debt bondage, or bonded labor, is a form of trafficking in which the victim is coerced to work under the guise of a debt that must be worked off. The "debt" may be a cost the victim was aware of before exploitation began or a creation of the trafficker only shared after supposed legal, paid work begins. Whether the person voluntarily agrees to the debt or not, forced labor and debt bondage is illegal. All work must be voluntary and paid at the country's minimum standards to be legal.

Traffickers often use money owed for rent, food, or travel expenses to create the debt narrative. Many cases of debt bondage have included migrant workers who agreed to pay for travel expenses upon arrival, but were exploited by traffickers who add "interest" to the debt and demand weeks or months of unpaid work as compensation.

 Refugees or migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to this form of trafficking, since the seizure of passports and documents alone can leave them at the mercy of whomever holds them. In the United States, the H-2 visa (an employer sponsored visa that gives expanded control over documentation status to the employer) has been used to control victims of labor trafficking with the threat of deportation.

Sex Trafficking


Commercial sexual exploitation is not the most common, but is the most widely known, form of human trafficking. In the United States, traffickers' methods of exploitation must (legally) fall under one of three categories: force, fraud, or coercion. While force (threats of violence, sexual assault, abduction) is often emphasized in the media as the beginning of sex trafficking, coercion is the most common form of sex trafficking recruitment and is much more difficult for victims to identify or protect themselves from.

Even though there are more labor trafficking victims than sex trafficking victims globally, sex trafficking makes more money worldwide. Of the $150 billion that the International Labor Organization estimates traffickers made in 2016, $99 billion of that was made by sex traffickers.

Above the Clouds

sex trafficking - PSYCHOLOGY

While kidnapping can occur before sex trafficking (in which case, two crimes have been committed against a victim), many traffickers prefer to use psychological coercion as a more effective means of control. While a victim of abduction automatically knows that a crime has been committed against them, a victim of successful psychological manipulation may not identify as a victim. Traffickers often use trauma bonds and identity disruption to condition their victims to believe that commercial sex is their choice, their job, and their best option. This coercion can be so strong that victims will defend their traffickers to police and in courtrooms and can take years of recovery to dismantle.

Because traffickers can make so much money off one victim, at times, they invest much more time in psychological coercion than many are prepared to protect from. Most traffickers know their victims before exploitation in some way. "Familial sex trafficking" refers to commercial sexual exploitation that is perpetrated by a family member. Trauma bonds can form most strongly with family ties or romantic attachments, and traffickers may first seek to exploit their family members, or to become family (legally or through procreation) with their victims.

Other Forms of Human Trafficking

While most cases of human trafficking fall under labor or sex trafficking, trafficking can manifest itself in many different ways across the world. Some other forms of trafficking include child soldiers, forced or child marriage, and organ harvesting.


Forced soldiering can fall into ethical grey areas, as combat zones can interfere with a person's available options for survival and consent to engage in violence may not always fall into clean categories of "voluntary" or "forced", at least by a specific individual or group. However, there are many circumstances in which individuals/groups do clearly force individuals, at times children, to engage in violence as soldiers. These victims are disproportionately male.

It is not uncommon traffickers to force their victims to kill members of their family or community. This has an extremely traumatic psychological effect that is intended to normalize killing others, and to sever community ties that may give the victim options to leave. Some are told that they will be unable to return to their villages or families because they will be exiled as murderers. Some of the most infamous instances of child soldiering have been committed by the Lord's Resistance