human trafficking — an overview

Of all the areas the modern social justice movement focuses on, I am most convicted on the subject of human trafficking. Modern day slavery is a sad feature of the modern world. In this article, I’ll cover a little bit about what human trafficking is, definitions, and the problem in the United States. Much of the content is from a paper I wrote for an undergraduate class, which you can read here.

What Is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking, at its core, is the enslavement of human beings. Though definitions vary, the common elements of force, coercion, deception, and the exploitation of a human being for profit are indicators of human trafficking. Many terms are often used to describe this phenomenon, ‘human trafficking’, ‘trafficking in persons’, ‘human smuggling’, and many rightly call it modern day slavery. For the purpose of this paper, ‘human trafficking’ includes the forced and coercive enslavement of human beings for profit, regardless of geographic movement.

Because of the underground nature of the problem, statistical data on human trafficking is difficult to find, and little empirical research has been done.[1. D. R Hodge, “Sexual Trafficking in the United States: A Domestic Problem with Transnational Dimensions,” Social Work 53, no. 2 (2008): 143–152; Elżbieta M. Gozdziak and Micah N. Bump, Data and Research on Human Trafficking: Bibliography of Research-Based Literature (Washington DC: Georgetown University, September 2008),] It is known to be the third largest criminal industry in the world, passed only by drugs and arms trafficking, and generates an estimated $9.5 billion dollars in profit annually.[2. Stephanie Mariconda, “Breaking the Chains: Combating Human Trafficking at the State Level,” Boston College Third World Law Journal (Winter 2009): 2] It is also one of the fastest growing areas of organized crime.[3. Hodge, “Sexual Trafficking in the United States.”] Victims are often lured from third-world countries with the promise of education, better income, or to provide a better life for their families.[4. Mariconda, “Breaking the Chains: Combating Human Trafficking at the State Level.”] Conservative estimates are that at least 12.3 million people are enslaved throughout the world today, and that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked each year.[5. Kara C. Ryf, “The First Modern Anti-Slavery Law: The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000,” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 34, no. 1 (Winter2002 2002): 45; U.S. Department of State, “Trafficking in Persons Report,” 2009,]

Definitions of human trafficking are inconsistent. Multiple definitions exist depending on jurisdiction and country. For example, the United Nations defines human trafficking:

“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the 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. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.[6. United Nations, “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, November 15, 2000,]

The United States, in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, provides a generally accepted standard definition used within the United States:

a. sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or

b. the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.[7. U.S. Department of State, “Trafficking in Persons Report,” 5-6.]

As noted, human smuggling is considered different from human trafficking. The primary difference is that human smuggling “involves a commercial transaction between two willing parties” whereas human traffickers seek to profit by exploiting the trafficked person.[8. Jeremy Wilson and Erin Dalton, “Human Trafficking in the Heartland: Variation in Law Enforcement Awareness and Response,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 21, no. 1 (August 2008): 296-313.]

Forms of Human Trafficking

Human trafficking can take a variety of forms and industries. “The most notorious industry that benefits from human trafficking is the sexual slavery industry,” reports Mariconda.[9. Mariconda, “Breaking the Chains: Combating Human Trafficking at the State Level,” 3.]The State Department’s 2009 ‘Trafficking in Persons’ annual report defines sex trafficking as any situation where a person is “forced, coerced or deceived into prostitution” or kept in prostitution using those means.[10. U.S. Department of State, “Trafficking in Persons Report.”]

Globally, though sex trafficking is most well-known among trafficking crimes, most trafficking in the world takes the form of forced hard labor. This often results from gaps in law enforcement, and victims are made more vulnerable through poverty, unemployment, crime, corruption, political conflict and cultural acceptance.[11. Ibid.] A similar form of trafficking, bonded labor, is also very common and may be a tool to keep victims in bondage.

The Problem of Human Trafficking in the United States

“Victims of human trafficking are living amongst us, without our knowledge, yet are very much in need of our help,” writes one author on the subject of human trafficking in the United States.[1. Ryf, “The First Modern Anti-Slavery Law,” 3.] The issue of human trafficking is not confined to third world nations, however. It is present even in communities throughout America. Unfortunately, few Americans are aware of the problem. Ryf writes, “[few] Americans are aware of the scope and severity of the human trafficking industry and the extent to which this phenomenon occurs within our own borders.”[2. Ibid., 45.]Mariconda makes a similar argument, “Domestic servitude can be found in any town in America.”[3. Mariconda, “Breaking the Chains: Combating Human Trafficking at the State Level,” 4.]Many incidents of human trafficking in the US may involve undocumented immigrants, however, it is important to remember that not all cases do.[5. David Batstone, Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade-and How We Can Fight It (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007)]

Learn More

Interested in learning more? There is much more written on the subject. I have links and resources you can check out for more information and feel free to contact me as well.