Human trafficking is a widespread global human rights problem and refers to the recruiting, transporting, harboring, or receipt of human beings by use of force, coercion, or fraud. Trafficked persons are subjected to labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, or both. Exploitation may include forced labor, debt bondage, slavery, abuse within the commercial sex industry, private parties who demand work and sex, and removal of organs. For children, trafficking may also include trafficking for early marriage, illegal adoption, child prostitution, recruitment as child soldiers, or recruitment for religious cults.
This modern-day slavery is most prevalent in agriculture, mining, and forced prostitution, but it also exists in industries such as construction, domestic servitude, food services, and manufacturing. There are various routes to human trafficking, but the common theme is that the trafficker uses force or coercion to control the trafficked person. Some people are captured and exploited; others are forced to work without pay to erase an illegal “debt.” Some voluntarily migrate in search of better economic or political situations but subsequently find themselves in oppressive situations once they get to the destination country. Women and young girls are often tricked into migrating by traffickers who promise a better life through marriage, employment, or educational opportunities. As a means of control, traffickers sometimes keep them locked up away from the public or their families, take away passports or other necessary documents, and use violence or threats of deportation.
The International Labor Organization estimates that more than 12 million people worldwide are in forced labor, debt bondage, forced child labor, or sexual servitude. Depending on the methodology and definition used, other estimates of trafficked persons are as high as 27 million. The U.S. government estimates that the number of people trafficked annually across international borders is approximately 800,000, with millions more trafficked within their own country’s borders. Women and children are particularly vulnerable and comprise the majority of trafficked persons. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports that human trafficking occurs in at least 127 countries and trafficked persons are exploited in 137 countries.
Human Trafficking Supply and Demand
Human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing and most profitable illicit industries, second only to drug trafficking. Global profits from human trafficking are estimated at $44.3 billion per year. Globalization has allowed for greater movement across borders of people, money, goods, and services. The proliferation of human trafficking is due to several interconnected factors on both the supply side and the demand side.
On the supply side, the increase in the world population, rapid social and economic change in countries around the world, and government policies or inaction have all played a role in the conditions that allow human trafficking to prosper. Struggling economies of developing countries and enormous political changes have created economic circumstances that have perpetuated extreme poverty and desperate situations, leaving many people with no choice but to accept work under oppressive conditions. In particular, postcommunist societies have experienced much economic and political instability, and the weakening of law enforcement has allowed organized crime to proliferate and engage in widespread global human trafficking. Other factors such as war, civil unrest, and natural disasters may lead to population displacement and an increase in orphans and street children who are easy prey for traffickers. Further, lack of opportunities for education and lack of a living wage increase the number of individuals competing for low-skilled jobs.
At the same time, developed countries are experiencing a decrease in birth rates. Countries such as Japan and the nations of Western Europe are not able to replenish their labor force, leaving them with unskilled labor shortages. Nonetheless, restrictive immigration policies contribute to the reduction in the flow of labor to countries to fill this gap. As a result, the demand remains high in developed countries for low-skilled labor, and migrants who are desperate for jobs turn to smugglers to get them to these countries. As the risks and costs to smuggle people into developed countries increase, some smugglers become traffickers who sell the migrants or hold them in debt bondage or forced labor to recover the high costs of smuggling.
The situation for women and girls is particularly dire. They are especially vulnerable because the demand remains high for women and girls to work in the commercial sex industry, in sweatshops, and in domestic servitude. The continued subjugation of women economically, socially, and politically in many countries feeds this demand and accounts for some of the increase in human trafficking. For example, some families continue to see girls as a burden and may sell their female children or relatives to brothels or traffickers to support their sons or feed their families. Other families may sell their children believing that this will be the best opportunity for them to escape poverty. Research has shown that most trafficked women are under the age of 25, but traffickers are recruiting younger and younger girls in response to the fear of HIV/AIDS infection among customers. The majority of internationally trafficked women and girls come from Asia. Other source regions include the former Soviet Union and southeastern Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Trafficked women and girls are often sent to North America, Asia, Western Europe, and the Middle East.
International and Domestic Laws and Policies
The international community has used various mechanisms to address trafficking. In particular, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires countries to take steps to prevent the abduction, sale, or trafficking of children and to protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation. The United States still has not ratified this convention, although it has ratified the convention’s Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography and the Optional Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict. To protect women, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women requires countries to curb all forms of trafficking in women, prevent exploitative prostitution, and ensure healthy and safe working conditions. Although the United States has signed this convention, it is one of the few countries that has not ratified it. The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, was adopted by the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in 2000. The United States ratified the trafficking protocol in December 2005. Various international organizations have programs in place to combat human trafficking worldwide.
In the United States, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was passed in 2000 and reauthorized in 2003 and 2005. This legislation addresses human trafficking in the United States through prevention, prosecution, and protection. Since the enactment of this policy, however, it has actually helped very few trafficked persons in the United States. One criticism of the TVPA is that it focuses on a law enforcement approach rather than the needs of the trafficked person. Many of the provisions in the TVPA seek to protect the witness primarily so that law enforcement can successfully prosecute the case. Some trafficked persons who cannot provide evidence or refuse to cooperate out of fear are deported rather than helped. Further, this law requires that the trafficked person cooperate with law enforcement immediately and provide detailed accounts of the trafficking. Trafficked persons may be distrustful of law enforcement or traumatized, particularly when first released from trafficking. If law enforcement cannot determine that the person has been trafficked, the person is then deported. Although the TVPA sought to end deportation of trafficked persons, this practice continues to be common.
Despite estimates of up to 17,500 persons trafficked into the United States every year, since 2000 only 675 have been counted as such. This low number accounts only for the number of people who met the definition of a trafficked person within the TVPA and received a T visa, which is a temporary visa granted upon cooperation with law enforcement. Excluded from this count are those who do not report to or assist law enforcement, those who do not require immigration relief, those who are U.S. citizens, those who cannot meet the requirements for a T visa, and those denied a T visa because law enforcement refused to offer support for the application. Although prosecution of traffickers is a worthy goal, the needs of trafficked persons should also be addressed in a way that helps restore their humanity and reintegrates them into society.
A more balanced global approach is needed to address the imbalance of wealth and poverty and labor supply and demand. In particular, social scientists believe that governments in the developed world of destination countries such as the United States need to take a more proactive approach to address the confluence of unstable global economies, lack of labor laws protecting low-skilled workers’ rights, lack of availability of living wages, and restrictive immigration policies.
- Bales, Kevin. 2005. Understanding Global Slavery: A Reader. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Naim, Moises. 2005. Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats Are Hijacking the Global Economy. New York: Doubleday.
- UN Office on Drugs and Crime. 2006. “Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns.” Vienna, Austria: UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.unodc.org/pdf/traffickinginpersons_report_2006ver2.pdf).
- S. Department of State. 2007. “Trafficking in Persons Report.” Washington, DC: United States Department of State. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/82902.pdf).
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