Human trafficking, also called trafficking in persons, has no place in our world. As both a grave crime and a human rights abuse, it compromises national and economic security, undermines the rule of law, and harms the well-being of individuals and communities everywhere. It is a crime of exploitation. Traffickers profit at the expense of their victims by compelling them to perform labor or to engage in commercial sex in every region of the United States and around the world. With an estimated 27.6 million victims worldwide at any given time, human traffickers prey on people of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities, exploiting them for their own profit.
- Human Trafficking in the United States
- Understanding Human Trafficking
- Prosecution, Protection, Prevention, and Partnership
- Victims of Human Trafficking
- Who are the Traffickers?
- Human Trafficking vs. Migrant Smuggling
- How Many Victims of Human Trafficking Are There?
Human Trafficking in the United States
In the United States, traffickers compel victims to engage in commercial sex and to work in both legal and illicit industries and sectors, including in hospitality, traveling sales crews, agriculture, janitorial services, construction, landscaping, restaurants, factories, care for persons with disabilities, salon services, massage parlors, retail services, fairs and carnivals, peddling and begging, drug smuggling and distribution, religious institutions, child care, and domestic work.
Understanding Human Trafficking
“Trafficking in persons,” “human trafficking,” and “modern slavery” are umbrella terms – often used interchangeably – to refer to a crime whereby traffickers exploit and profit at the expense of adults or children by compelling them to perform labor or engage in commercial sex. When a person younger than 18 is used to perform a commercial sex act, it is a crime regardless of whether there is any force, fraud, or coercion involved.
The United States recognizes two primary forms of trafficking in persons: forced labor and sex trafficking. The basic meaning of these forms of human trafficking and some unique characteristics of each are set forth below, followed by several key principles and concepts that relate to all forms of human trafficking.
More than 175 nations have ratified or acceded to the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (the UN TIP Protocol), which defines trafficking in persons and contains obligations to prevent and combat the crime.
The United States’ Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, as amended (TVPA), and the UN TIP Protocol contain similar definitions of human trafficking. The elements of both definitions can be described using a three-element framework focused on the trafficker’s 1) acts; 2) means; and 3) purpose. All three elements are essential to form a human trafficking violation.
Forced Labor, sometimes also referred to as labor trafficking, encompasses the range of activities involved when a person uses force, fraud, or coercion to exploit the labor or services of another person.
The “acts” element of forced labor is met when the trafficker recruits, harbors, transports, provides, or obtains a person for labor or services.
The “means” element of forced labor includes a trafficker’s use of force, fraud, or coercion. The coercive scheme can include threats of force, debt manipulation, withholding of pay, confiscation of identity documents, psychological coercion, reputational harm, manipulation of the use of addictive substances, threats to other people, or other forms of coercion.
The “purpose” element focuses on the perpetrator’s goal to exploit a person’s labor or services. There is no limit on the location or type of industry. Traffickers can commit this crime in any sector or setting, whether legal or illicit, including but not limited to agricultural fields, factories, restaurants, hotels, massage parlors, retail stores, fishing vessels, mines, private homes, or drug trafficking operations.
All three elements are essential to constitute the crime of forced labor.
There are certain types of forced labor that are frequently distinguished for emphasis or because they are widespread:
“Domestic servitude” is a form of forced labor in which the trafficker requires a victim to perform work in a private residence. Such circumstances create unique vulnerabilities. Domestic workers are often isolated and may work alone in a house. Their employer often controls their access to food, transportation, and housing. What happens in a private residence is hidden from the world – including from law enforcement and labor inspectors – resulting in barriers to victim identification. Foreign domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse due to language and cultural barriers, as well as a lack of community ties. Some perpetrators use these types of conditions as part of their coercive schemes to compel the labor of domestic workers with little risk of detection.
Forced Child Labor
The term “forced child labor” describes forced labor schemes in which traffickers compel children to work. Traffickers often target children because they are more vulnerable. Although some children may legally engage in certain forms of work, forcing or coercing children to work remains illegal. Forms of slavery or slavery-like practices – including the sale of children, forced or compulsory child labor, and debt bondage and serfdom of children – continue to exist, despite legal prohibitions and widespread condemnation. Some indicators of forced labor of a child include situations in which the child appears to be in the custody of a non-family member and the child’s work financially benefits someone outside the child’s family; or the denial of food, rest, or schooling to a child who is working.
Sex trafficking encompasses the range of activities involved when a trafficker uses force, fraud, or coercion to compel another person to engage in a commercial sex act or causes a child to engage in a commercial sex act.
The crime of sex trafficking is also understood through the “acts,” “means,” and “purpose” framework. All three elements are required to establish a sex trafficking crime (except in the case of child sex trafficking where the means are irrelevant).
The “acts” element of sex trafficking is met when a trafficker recruits, harbors, transports, provides, obtains, patronizes, or solicits another person to engage in commercial sex.
The “means” element of sex trafficking occurs when a trafficker uses force, fraud, or coercion. Coercion in the case of sex trafficking includes the broad array of means included in the forced labor definition. These can include threats of serious harm, psychological harm, reputational harm, threats to others, and debt manipulation.
The “purpose” element is a commercial sex act. Sex trafficking can take place in private homes, massage parlors, hotels, or brothels, among other locations, as well as on the internet.
Child Sex Trafficking
In cases where an individual engages in any of the specified “acts” with a child (under the age of 18), the means element is irrelevant regardless of whether evidence of force, fraud, or coercion exists. The use of children in commercial sex is prohibited by law in the United States and most countries around the world.
Key Principles and Concepts
These key principles and concepts relate to all forms of trafficking in persons, including forced labor and sex trafficking.
Human trafficking can take place even if the victim initially consented to providing labor, services, or commercial sex acts. The analysis is primarily focused on the trafficker’s conduct and not that of the victim. A trafficker can target a victim after a victim applies for a job or migrates to earn a living. The trafficker’s exploitative scheme is what matters, not a victim’s prior consent or ability to meaningfully consent thereafter. Likewise, in a sex trafficking case, an adult victim’s initial willingness to engage in commercial sex acts is not relevant where a perpetrator subsequently uses force, fraud, or coercion to exploit the victim and cause them to continue engaging in the same acts. In the case of child sex trafficking, the consent of the victim is never relevant as a child cannot legally consent to commercial sex.
Neither U.S. law nor international law requires that a trafficker or victim move across a border for a human trafficking offense to take place. Trafficking in persons is a crime of exploitation and coercion, and not movement. Traffickers can use schemes that take victims hundreds of miles away from their homes or exploit them in the same neighborhoods where they were born.
“Debt bondage” is focused on human trafficking crimes in which the trafficker’s primary means of coercion is debt manipulation. U.S. law prohibits perpetrators from using debts as part of their scheme, plan, or pattern to compel a person to work or engage in commercial sex. Traffickers target some individuals with an initial debt assumed willingly as a condition of future employment, while in certain countries traffickers tell individuals they “inherited” the debt from relatives. Traffickers can also manipulate debts after the economic relationship begins by withholding earnings or forcing the victim to assume debts for expenses like food, housing, or transportation. They can also manipulate debts a victim owes to other people. When traffickers use debts as a means to compel labor or commercial sex, they have committed a crime.
Governments should not penalize or prosecute victims of trafficking in persons for the unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit. This principle aims to protect victims from being held legally responsible for conduct that was not their choice, but rather was driven by traffickers. If a government has penalized or punished a victim in such a way, the government should vacate the conviction and/or expunge the victim’s record.
State-Sponsored Human Trafficking
While the TVPA and UN TIP Protocol call on governments to proactively address trafficking crimes, some governments are part of the problem, directly compelling their citizens into sexual slavery or forced labor schemes. From forced labor in local or national public work projects, military operations, and economically important sectors, or as part of government-funded projects or missions abroad, officials use their power to exploit their nationals. To extract this work, governments coerce by threatening the withdrawal of public benefits, withholding salaries, failing to adhere to limits on national service, manipulating the lack of legal status of stateless individuals and members of minority groups, threatening to punish family members, or conditioning services or freedom of movement on labor or sex. In 2019, Congress amended the TVPA to acknowledge that governments can also act as traffickers, referring specifically to a “government policy or pattern” of human trafficking, trafficking in government-funded programs, forced labor in government-affiliated medical services or other sectors, sexual slavery in government camps, or the employment or recruitment of child soldiers.
Unlawful Recruitment or Use of Child Soldiers
Another manifestation of human trafficking occurs when government forces or any non-state armed group unlawfully recruits or uses children – through force, fraud, or coercion – as soldiers or for labor or services in conflict situations. Children are also used as sex slaves. Sexual slavery, as referred to here, occurs when armed groups force or coerce children to “marry” or be raped by commanders or combatants. Both male and female children are often sexually abused or exploited by members of armed groups and suffer the same types of devastating physical and psychological consequences associated with sex trafficking.
Accountability in Supply Chains
Forced labor is well documented in the private economy, particularly in agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, construction, and domestic work; but no sector is immune. Sex trafficking occurs in several industries as well. Most well-known is the hospitality industry, but the crime also occurs in connection with extractive industries where activities are often remote and lack meaningful government presence. Governments should hold all entities, including businesses, accountable for human trafficking. In some countries, the law provides for corporate accountability in both the civil and criminal justice systems. U.S. law provides such liability for any legal person, including a business that benefits financially from its involvement in a human trafficking scheme, provided that the business knew or should have known of the scheme.
Prosecution, Protection, Prevention, and Partnership
The “3P” paradigm—prosecution, protection, and prevention—continues to serve as the fundamental framework used around the world to combat human trafficking. The United States also follows this approach, reflected in the United States’ Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 , as amended (TVPA), and in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Palermo Protocol) . In addition, a fourth “P”—for partnership—serves as a complementary means to achieve progress across the 3Ps and enlist all segments of society in the fight against human trafficking.
Victims of Human Trafficking
Human trafficking victims can be of any age, race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, immigration status, cultural background, religion, socio-economic class, and education attainment level. In the United States, individuals vulnerable to human trafficking include children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, including foster care; runaway and homeless youth; unaccompanied foreign national children without lawful immigration status; individuals seeking asylum; American Indians and Alaska Natives, particularly women and girls; individuals with substance use issues; racial or ethnic minorities; migrant laborers, including undocumented workers and participants in visa programs for temporary workers; foreign national domestic workers in diplomatic households; persons with limited English proficiency; persons with disabilities; LGBTQI+ individuals; and victims of intimate partner violence or other forms of domestic violence.
Who are the Traffickers?
At the heart of this phenomenon is the traffickers’ aim to profit from the exploitation of their victims and the myriad coercive and deceptive practices they use to do so. Traffickers can be strangers, acquaintances, or even family members, and they prey on the vulnerable and on those seeking opportunities to build for themselves a brighter future.
Human Trafficking vs. Migrant Smuggling
Human trafficking can include, but does not require, movement. Human trafficking is distinct from the separate crime of migrant smuggling. Human trafficking occurs when a trafficker uses force, fraud, or coercion to compel another person to work or engage in a commercial sex act. It sometimes involves crossing a border but does not require it. By contrast, migrant smugglers engage in the crime of bringing people across international borders through deliberate evasion of immigration laws. While these are distinct crimes, individuals who are smuggled may become vulnerable to and victims of human trafficking.
How Many Victims of Human Trafficking Are There?
It is hard to find reliable statistics related to human trafficking. The quality and quantity of data available are often hampered by the hidden nature of the crime, challenges in identifying individual victims, gaps in data accuracy and completeness, and significant barriers regarding the sharing of victim information among various stakeholders. For these reasons, data and statistics may not reflect the full nature or scope of the problem.
International Labour Organization
The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation, in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), released Global Estimates of Modern Slavery in September 2022. This report estimates that, at any given time in 2021, approximately 27.6 million people were in forced labor. Of these, “17.3 million are exploited in the private sector, 6.3 million in forced commercial sexual exploitation, and 3.9 million in forced labour imposed by state.” The definition of forced labor used in this report is based on ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), which states in Article 2.1 that forced labor is “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”
This report also estimates that 49.6 million people were in “modern slavery” at any given time in 2021, but this figure includes both the estimate for forced labor and an estimate for forced marriage. Consistent with current implementation of U.S. law, it is recommended to use only the 27.6 million estimate when referring to human trafficking. While some instances of forced marriage may meet the international or U.S. legal definition of human trafficking, not all cases do. Note further that the term “modern slavery” is not defined in international or U.S. law.
In addition, the National Human Trafficking Hotline provides on its website data sets on the issue of human trafficking in the United States. These data sets are based on aggregated information learned through phone calls, emails, online tips, and texts the hotline receives and should not be confused with prevalence studies or closed-out confirmed cases. Note that the hotline receives several types of calls in addition to those about human trafficking cases. The hotline does not verify the accuracy of information reported, but it determines on a case-by-case basis whether the information should be passed on to an appropriate local, state, or federal investigative and/or service agency equipped to investigate the tip and/or respond to the needs of the potential victim.