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While it is difficult to quantify the number of victims of human trafficking because the crime is inherently underground, the International Labour Organization estimates that 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery in 2016. Of those 40.3 million, 24.9 million people are victims of forced labor (16 million in private sector exploitation, 4.8 million in sexual exploitation, and over 4 million in forced labor by state authorities) and 15.4 of forced marriage.

Who are the victims?

You are, anyone can be a victim of human trafficking, though some populations of individuals, given their positions in society, are more vulnerable to trafficking. These populations include:

  • Women and children
  • Marginalized communities (such as Roma, minority and indigenous populations)
  • Immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, and refugees
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals
  • Individuals with a history of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence
  • Individuals from low socio-economic backgrounds
  • Individuals in foster care
  • Homeless and run-away individuals
  • Environmental refugees and individuals subject to natural disasters
  • Individuals living in unstable political climates
  • Individuals with Disabilities

Ultimately, trafficked persons span all demographic markers. However, the populations listed above are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. The International Labour Organization estimates demographics of victims in their Global Estimate of Forced Labour. They find that female-identifying individuals constitute 71% of victims, compared to 29% male. It is estimated that children comprise 1 out of 4 victims of human trafficking.

For Additional Information on Vulnerable Populations, please see the following US Department of State Fact Sheets:

  • Sex Trafficking of LGBT Individuals: A Call for Service Provision, Research, and Action
  • Vulnerability of LGBT individuals to Human Trafficking Bold
  • Vulnerability of Indigenous Persons to Human Trafficking
  • Disability as a Risk Factor
  • The Intersection Between Environmental Degradation and Human Trafficking
  • Human Trafficking and Minorities: Vulnerability Compounded by Discrimination

Who are human traffickers?

Anyone can be a human trafficker. A trafficker can be working alone, in a small criminal group, or in a large-scale organized crime network, and can be in control of any number of individuals. Frequently a trafficker is someone that the victim knows on a personal basis, such as a family member, friend, romantic partner, or community member. Most traffickers have the same nationality as their victim.

Contrary to the common conception that men are the primary traffickers, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has found that in some parts of the world women play a more prominent role in human trafficking. This may be because former victims become perpetrators as a means of escaping their own enslavement, or because women are more successful as recruiters and traffickers, as they are more likely to be trusted and less likely to be suspected of the crime.

Human Traffickers who have been prosecuted around the world have included:

  • Transnational, national, or local criminal organizations
  • Victims’ neighbors, friends, family members, village chiefs, returnees, or romantic partners
  • Agricultural operators
  • Owners of small or medium-sized businesses, or large factories
  • Pimps and brothel owners
  • Independent operators
  • Diplomatic families
  • Police, government authorities, military Individual members of peacekeeping missions

How does human trafficking happen?

Each case of human trafficking is unique. Whether the human trafficker is an individual acting alone or part of a larger organization, they reap financial gain from their victim through force, fraud, or coercion.

While it is true that traffickers may forcibly kidnap their victims, this is not the most common case. More frequently, traffickers manipulate and take advantage of individual’s position of vulnerability in order to establish coercive control. For example, they may fraudulently influence their victim with the false incentive of a job or better living conditions. In manipulating individuals’ vulnerabilities, traffickers will often also use physical force to establish dominance and control.

Traffickers use a variety of tactics to intimidate and control their victims, including:

  • Physical violence, torture, and starvation
  • Rape and other sexual abuse
  • Psychological abuse, coercion, and blackmail
  • Drug addiction
  • Threats of violence against their family or loved ones
  • Confiscation of passports or other important documentation
  • Prospects of opportunity
  • Romance
  • Debt bondage 

Each case of human trafficking is unique. Whether the human trafficker is an individual acting alone or part of a larger organization, they reap financial gain from their victim through force, fraud, or coercion. They may fraudulently influence their victim with the false incentive of a job or better living conditions. Or traffickers may forcibly kidnap their victims. Practitioners use the A-M-P Model to illustrate how trafficking happens:

Where does human trafficking occur?

Human trafficking happens everywhere, both domestically and across international borders. Countries are commonly divided into origin, transit, harbor, and destination countries. For example, in the most recent Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) included destination countries such as (in no particular order) the United States, Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Colombia, and Oman. Meanwhile, common origins for victims include the regions of East Asia, the Balkans, and West Africa. These categories have significant overlap as well: any country can be an origin country and any country can be a destination country.

However, human trafficking does not always occur in extended international flows. It is also very common for trafficking to occur within the same region or country. For example, UNODC found 100% of human trafficking victims in South Asia were trafficked within their same region or country.

For more detailed country profiles, check out the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, published annually by the US Department of State. For estimates of the extent of forced labor around the world, see the ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour.

What is the difference between human trafficking and human smuggling?

While they often overlap, there are several differences between human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Migrant smuggling involves aiding an individual to cross international borders illegally. Human trafficking is controlling and exploiting a human being for profit. Some important differences include:

What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, in which human beings are controlled and exploited for profit. Perpetrators use force, fraud, or coercion to manipulate and establish control over individuals for profit.

Types of Trafficking

Various forms of trafficking exist around the world, including forced labor, sex trafficking, child labor, commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), and child soldiers.

What’s in Your Chocolate this Halloween?

The majority of candy to be handed out this year is chocolate. But did you know that despite generating over $110 billion a year, the chocolate industry has a century-long history of forced and child labor, thousands of African children are trafficked to farm cocoa.


Given the underground nature of trafficking, the consequences of trafficking are hidden and difficult to see. Trafficked persons often have limited access to basic necessities such as safety, food, sleep, hygiene, and medical care.

Recommendations to Protect Foster Children from Trafficking

More needs to be done to protect foster care youth from trafficking and exploitation. This blog presents several recommendations for states, as well as for national policy and child welfare agencies.

The National HUMAN TRAFFICKING Hotline

Know the signs and red flags of possible human trafficking. Save 1.888.373.7888 in your phone and be ready to call the hotline number if you suspect human trafficking is occurring.

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