Human trafficking is generally understood to be the transportation of persons, both within and between countries, through deception or coercion into exploitative or slavery-like conditions. As an illegal activity, human trafficking encompasses both labor and sexual exploitation where the victims include men and women, adults, and children. The illegal trafficking of human beings is not a new phenomenon.
What is new is the sophistication, complexity, and consolidation of trafficking networks, as well as the increasing numbers of women and children who are trafficked each year for the global sex industry. While there are conflicting definitions and inconsistent estimates of the scope of sex trafficking, a wide range of organizations acknowledge sex trafficking to be a significant global problem.
Because of the complex issues surrounding human trafficking generally and sex trafficking specifically, the United Nations developed two protocols. The first is titled The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, and the second is called The United Nations Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air. Adopted in 2000, these two protocols are jointly referred to as the “Palermo protocols” and represent the first international agreement to prevent trafficking of human beings in all forms.
It was not until the adoption of the protocols that a generally accepted definition of human trafficking was offered and reads as follows: “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.” This definition is similar to that used by the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which also describes several forms of human trafficking as (1) 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 (2) 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.
Even though international protocols exist, the definition of trafficking—including human trafficking and/or sex trafficking—is still widely contested. To date, there have been multiple (and sometimes oppositional) understandings of what human trafficking and sex trafficking are. Definitional contestations tend to be dominated by state officials and other powerful groups. Because of this, in addition to the United Nations and other international organizations, there is currently a range of state bodies, governmental and nongovernmental organizations, as well as counter trafficking agencies that have all offered research, agreements, international and/or regional conventions, and declarations against human trafficking as well as sex trafficking. Not only do these documents include enforcement and prosecutorial plans but also offer necessary victim assistance. How one understands human trafficking for labor and sexual exploitation has direct consequences for what type of information is measured and how.
Rates of Sex Trafficking
In general, sex trafficking is a term used to describe the international human trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation. As suggested, this phenomenon has been identified as a growing worldwide problem. Even though there is no accurate data on the annual number of humans trafficked, recent estimates suggest that millions of individuals are trafficked each year, while those trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation compose roughly 80 percent of all human trafficking estimates. The U.S. State Department breaks down these estimates even further and suggests that approximately 70 percent of the victims of sex trafficking are women and girls, of which 50 percent are under the age of 18. These preliminary estimates do not, however, include women who are trafficked within their own country or men who are trafficked for labor operations.
The problem with obtaining accurate data exists for a number of reasons. Sex trafficking is underreported, underdetected, and underprosecuted. Because of the massive hidden figure and the illegality of the activity, it is nearly impossible to estimate the true numbers of humans trafficked for sexual exploitation each year. Further, what research there is only focuses on the victims, mainly women and children. This research shows that the vast majority of victims are neither aware of how to report their abuse nor are they able to leave their exploitive situation to seek assistance. Many times, women and children trafficked for sexual exploitation are watched closely, confined, or never left alone. Even if they are able to leave, victims are scared to report because they are nervous or doubtful of law enforcement officials. In some instances, other problems with corrupt policing also serve to undermine accurate estimates of its scale and size as well.
In addition to understanding the actual extent of sex trafficking, there are also significant inconsistencies regarding the monetary value associated with the illegal phenomenon. Originally, the United Nations estimated that criminal organizations earn approximately $7 billion a year from human trafficking. Recent approximations suggest that profits generated from sex trafficking alone have increased from what used to be a $12 billion enterprise to a $36 billion venture. Regardless of the price associated with this criminal activity, human trafficking for labor and sexual exploitation is identified by the U.S. Congressional Research Service as the third-largest source of profit for organized crime, after drugs and arms.
In the broadest of descriptions, human traffickers are individuals who recruit, sell, transport, and profit from other human beings who are forced to work for others. Human sex traffickers supply the global sex industry with women and children. Evidence suggests that the vast majority of human traffickers belong to criminal organizations and that they view themselves as businessmen making money. Their success at maximizing a profit is dependent upon whether or not there are accessible and exploitable markets to take advantage of. Traffickers decide to traffic in women and children for sexual exploitation because, for them, there is a profit to be made. Human traffickers typically charge their victims highly inflated prices for securing alleged jobs, travel documentation, transportation, food and lodging, and other travel incidentals. In order to increase their profits, research has shown that traffickers keep these women and children in densely crowded and unhealthy conditions where they are beaten and forced into submission so that they can begin earning money by working within the larger sex industry.
Those who traffic in individuals for sexual exploitation obtain their victims in several different ways. For example, in Russia and eastern Europe, victims are lured from their homes with the bogus promise of obtaining legitimate work abroad. Unemployment can be as high as 25 percent in many eastern European countries, and the promise of work in wealthier countries represents hope for good fortune and a better quality of life. Women believe that they are being taken to a new location to work as waitresses, dancers, domestic workers, or even caretakers. They believe this because they are told that high-paying respectable jobs are plentiful at their destination.
In other cases, such as in Sri Lanka and India, thousands of young women and girls are kidnapped. Taken by traffickers by force across borders, these women and girls are thus consequently abducted for sexual exploitation. Research has shown that captured children frequently end up in countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines, which have also been found to be some of the most sought after and traveled destinations for sex tourism (i.e., travel for the purposes of obtaining sexual services widely available to tourists). According to UNICEF, more than 1 million children are forced to work in the southeast Asian sex tourism industry.
Victims of Sex Trafficking
Sex trafficking victims are generally targeted by traffickers because of the precarious circumstances that they find themselves in. Runaways, refugees, job seekers, tourists, and kidnapped children are common characteristics associated with victims. Sex trafficking uses deception, physical and sexual coercion, abuse of power, and bondage incurred through forced debt. Women and children are abused, sometimes locked up, and promised their freedom only after earning enough money through sex acts to pay back their purchase price or the cost of transportation and travel documents.
Victims of sex trafficking may be forced into the global sex industry via dancing (usually in strip clubs), pornography, prostitution, prostitution for the military or militia, and even spousal prostitution. A large number of women and children are coerced into the international sex trade after having been sold by family members, recruiters, or traffickers. Some families sell their children with full knowledge of what will come of them; others offer their daughters to individuals who promise to find them well-paying jobs so that they may be able to work and help with their families’ economic situation. However, research has documented that once these women and children leave the protection of their families, they are trafficked for the international sex trade and required to “work off” debt owed.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) houses the largest survey that studied victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation. With over 5,000 women sampled, this international survey found that 89 percent were trafficked for sexual exploitation. The countries of origin of these women were mostly eastern Europe and former Soviet Union states. While many Asian countries continue to provide and document the most victims of sex trafficking overall, Russia and eastern Europe are now believed to be the largest source of sex trafficking in both Europe and North America.
The long-term consequences associated with the illegal trafficking of women and children for the global sex industry are dismal. Studies of victims trafficked indicate that they suffer serious physical and mental health problems. As a result of the trauma experienced, victims are exposed to life-threatening diseases including infectious diseases, sexually transmitted diseases, acute injuries received due to a range of violent acts and abuses committed against them, addictions to drugs and alcohol, depression, and other mental health complications. Sex trafficking is thus considered a serious crime and a gross violation of human rights, so much so that many countries have and continue to prioritize the reduction of such criminal activities.
- Farr, Kathryn. Sex Trafficking: The Global Market in Women and Children. Portland, OR: Worth, 2005.
- McCabe, Kimberly A. and Sabita Manian. Sex Trafficking: A Global Perspective. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2010.
- Segrave, Marie, Sanja Milivojevic, and Sharon Pickering. Sex Trafficking: International Context and Response. New York: Taylor & Francis,
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons” (2009) http://www.unodc.org/documents/Global_Report_ on_TIP.pdf (Accessed October 2013).
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns.” UNODC (2006) http://www.unodc.org/documents/human-trafficking/HT-globalpatterns-en.pdf (Accessed October 2013).
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