What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking can best be understood as modern-day slavery. Wherever people are being controlled and exploited by others for financial gain, human trafficking is alive and well. This global crisis threatens the safety and integrity of as many as 21 million people – more than half of them women and girls.

Traffickers prey upon the defenseless and exploit those vulnerabilities for profit. The most vulnerable are youth. The average age of entry into prostitution for girls in the US is 12 years old, for boys – 11 years. In 2014, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimated that 1 in 6 endangered runaways reported to them were likely sex trafficking victims.

Worldwide, human trafficking is estimated to be a 150 billion dollar industry annually.

What Causes Human Trafficking?

There is not one clear-cut cause for trafficking, but its continued proliferation worldwide can be traced to demand for cheap labor and services, including paid sex. Because consumers are willing to purchase both commercial sex and cheap goods produced using forced labor, the profit margins for traffickers are high, while the risk of being caught and incarcerated is low.

Lack of community awareness about human trafficking, coupled with social stigma and a victim-blaming mentality, mean that incidences of trafficking are largely underreported.

Who is at Risk?

Victims come from a variety of racial, ethnic, educational, and socio-economic backgrounds. However, greater susceptibility is found among homeless and runaway youth; previous victims of domestic violence and/or sexual assault; and foreign nationals who may be particularly vulnerable due to lack of familiarity with language and customs, or challenges with work papers and other documentation.

Million People

Worldwide, more than half of all victims of trafficking are found in Asia. However, the greatest numbers of trafficking victims per capita are found in southeastern Europe (non-EU), where more than 4 out of every 1,000 people are exploited by trafficking.

Victims are Female

The majority of human trafficking victims are women and girls, who are particularly vulnerable to sexual trafficking. However, 45% of victims are male, so this is by no means a solely female-oriented crime.

New Cases Per Year

In the United States, over 5,000 new cases of human trafficking were reported in 2014. Given the low incidence of reporting in trafficking cases, the problem in this country is likely far more widespread than the statistics show.

Are There Different Kinds of Trafficking?

Human trafficking can take many forms. It is legally defined in the U.S. as any one of three circumstances:

  • Any child under the age of 18 induced into commercial sex
  • Any adult over age 18 induced into commercial sex by means of force, fraud or coercion
  • Any child or adult forced to perform labor or services by means of force, fraud or coercion

These broad legal definitions cover a variety of human trafficking scenarios, which fall under the umbrella of two main types:

Labor Trafficking

In labor trafficking, people are forced to work through coercion, threats, violence or fraud. Common examples of labor trafficking include involuntary child labor, forced domestic servitude, and farm workers forced through violence to perform field labor. Factory workers forced into labor with little to no pay and inhuman conditions are also victims of labor trafficking.

Sex Trafficking

Sex trafficking involves individuals performing commercial sexual acts due to force, fraud, or coercion. Trafficking activities take place in a number of settings, including pornography, brothels, massage parlors, escort services, strip clubs, and various other places. When a minor is involved in any commercial sexual activity, it is legally considered sex trafficking, regardless of the use of force, fraud or coercion.

Sex trafficking currently accounts for just over 20 percent of all estimated human trafficking worldwide. The vast majority of sex trafficking victims are women and girls.

What Can I Do?

The most effective way to stop human trafficking is to have a clear understanding of the signs, and to educate others so that reporting increases and victimization decreases. Learn the signs from the Polaris Project, and if you believe you or someone you know is in danger from human trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.