How Human Trafficking Works

Prostitutes in the Czech Republic in 2002
Prostitutes in the Czech Republic in 2002, a year before the U.N. would denounce the area as a haven for human trafficking.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As schoolchildren, we learned that Abraham Lincoln freed slaves in the United States. And we learned that the elimination of slavery, in combination with the Civil Rights Movement that would come a century later, was a fulfillment of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which states that all men are created equal.

In the U.S., we tell ourselves that we've learned this lesson, that we don't value one human life over another. Yet, in the world today, there are more slaves than at any other time in human history [source: Wallace]. Modern slavery isn't just something that happens in backwards countries; it continues in the most developed countries in the world, including the U.S.


These present-day slaves are the victims of human trafficking. Traffickers use force and fraud to compel their victims into forced labor or sexual exploitation. Here's how that might work: A woman in a poor, Eastern European country sees a billboard advertising glamorous waitressing jobs in Paris or New York City. Eager for a chance to work in an affluent country, where people make their own destinies, she calls the number on the billboard. She's told that for $3,000, a company will take her to Paris or New York, where she can claim the waitressing job. She ponies up the money, or agrees to pay the company out of her waitressing earnings, and boards a plane.

When the plane lands, however, that woman isn't taken to a café or a restaurant. Instead, she's taken to a brothel, where she's sold to the owner and forced to become a prostitute. She must pay off that $3,000, she is told, in addition to her daily room and board. She's in a country where she knows no one, where she has no official paperwork and where she's been threatened with violence or death if she runs away from the brothel. If she's not taken to a brothel, she might be taken to a sweatshop, where she works alongside small children for 15 hours a day. She might work in a private home, tending to a family's needs; unlike a nanny or a housekeeper, however, she'll never receive a paycheck or a chance to talk to her family again.

Human trafficking claims many victims -- men, women and children from all over the world. It's a crime that many people want to put an end to, but it will be no easy task. In this article, we'll take a closer look at human trafficking and the struggle to stop it.


Sex Trafficking and Labor Trafficking

Discussions of human trafficking are generally divided into two components: sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Sex trafficking tends to garner more headlines in the media due to its sensational nature, but labor trafficking is more common. Victims of labor trafficking might work in sweatshops, agriculture, mines, construction, service industries and restaurants. Younger victims may be exploited for their innocent looks and forced to beg on the street all day, with all the funds going to their captors, or they may be enlisted in armies as child soldiers. Working conditions, as you might imagine, are usually primitive and exploitative, and the workers are at great risk of physical injury.

Sex trafficking victims are forced into prostitution, pornography and other commercial sex acts, such as performing in sex shows -- and they might have to perform sexual acts for dozens of men a night. They may live in what looks from the outside like a private home, but is known locally to be an operating brothel; they may also be transported from city to city as local men tire of them. These girls and women bring in tens of thousands of dollars for their captors each year; for example, the average annual salary in Bulgaria is $2,600, but a prostitute in that area can earn $23,500 for her trafficker [source: Madslien]. In industrialized countries, a woman could earn even more.


As sex slaves, these women are in danger of physical injury from violent johns or pimps, and they're also at risk for a host of sexual health issues, including sexually transmitted diseases (everything from syphilis and gonorrhea to HIV and AIDS), unintended pregnancy, forced abortion and sterilization.

While trafficking victims may be forced into different types of work during the day, they're linked by the psychological damage done to them as well as the ways in which they're forced to perform this work. On the next page, we'll examine how traffickers capture their victims.


Force, Fraud and Coercion

playing cards showing pictures of children kidnapped in China by traffickers.
These playing cards show pictures of children kidnapped in China by traffickers.
China Photos/Getty Images

These three words, used in legal definitions of trafficking, get to the heart of how traffickers do their dirty deeds.

Force refers to how traffickers gather their victims, as well as how they maintain control over them. For example, some human trafficking victims are kidnapped, and once enslaved, traffickers use tactics like rape, physical abuse, food and sleep deprivation, or drug administration to control and condition them. The traffickers usually keep their victims under lock and key, complete with guards who become violent if anyone tries to escape.


In the introduction, we talked a little bit about how fraud works in human trafficking. In addition to luring victims with the promise of a good job or a better life, traffickers may also approach poor families and offer to send their children to countries where they'll be able to get an education and live with a loving family, only to sell the children to a diamond mine. When fraud is used in this way, the victim's initial consent becomes invalid.

Traffickers often use fraud -- by setting a price for travel or shelter, and ordering the victim to pay it off through prostitution or forced labor -- to convince their victims to work. Such a practice is illegal; you can't dictate how a debt has to be paid off. However, victims don't know this, or they may lack the math skills to notice that no matter how much they work, the debt owed never seems to get any smaller. Practices such as these are often called debt bondage.

Lastly, coercion is a powerful tactic in keeping trafficking victims enslaved. Not only do traffickers threaten violence against their captives, they also threaten violence against beloved family members and friends should the slave get out of line. Traffickers may use blackmail: They may threaten to send compromising photographs to the victims' families. In some countries, a woman's loss of virtue would be a black mark on the family's name, or could even result in the victim's arrest or deportation back to a shamed family. Since the captors usually hold their prisoners' travel documents (if there were any), this is a frightening prospect for people in a country where they may not even speak the language.

Fear, fraud and coercion work together to control trafficking victims. These methods cause psychological damage, and victims grapple with shame, grief, fear, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and an inability to trust. Unfortunately, these emotions also make it harder for law enforcement officials to find and rescue human trafficking victims, which we'll talk about on the next page.


Finding Human Trafficking Victims

You only have to learn a little bit about the horrors of human trafficking to want to find its victims and help them. In 2000, the United States passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and in the same year, the United Nations passed the Palermo Protocols, which called on member countries to fight this crime. U.S. President George W. Bush allocated millions of dollars in the course of his term to rescuing trafficking victims.

Unfortunately, the victims are proving hard to find, although many believe they're hiding right out in the open. When you drive down the street and spot a young, teenage girl in revealing clothing, do you see her as a likely troublemaker? If you pass a field full of migrant laborers, do you grumble about immigration laws in this country, or think they're lucky to have a job? Though we might not know it, we may be looking at human trafficking victims, people who didn't choose this kind of life. Not only do they not receive financial compensation for their work, they may face hours of abuse upon returning to the place they're kept or even be treated like criminals by the very people who are supposed to protect them.


Even law enforcement officials often don't recognize victims of human trafficking. If the police raid a brothel, for example, the prostitutes will be brought in on criminal charges while the trafficker is allowed to go free. Also, police officers may not know the right questions to ask to determine if people are working against their will. Furthermore, the victims may fear reprisals against their families by traffickers if they cooperate with police, so they keep their mouths shut and the dangerous cycle just continues. Even worse, some victims may be coming from countries where traffickers pay law enforcement officials to look the other way.

Because of the force and coercion that dominates their lives, victims are too scared to come forward. That's why it's important that police and ordinary citizens learn more about the signs of trafficking and know the right questions to ask when they encounter a potential victim. Though it's likely that victims will be coached by their captors about ways to answer certain queries, questions about whether they've endured violence, where they sleep, who they live with and whether they can leave as they please might provide important clues to their situation.

U.S. law enforcement officials are still formulating the best ways to ask these questions and find victims, but the relatively few prosecutions for this crime in the past decade have led some to ask whether we're looking in the right places -- and even whether we should be looking at all.


How Big is This Problem, Anyway?

Somaly Mam with victims of trafficking in Cambodia
Somaly Mam (holding water bottle) has become known worldwide for her work with trafficking victims in Cambodia. Mam is a survivor of sex trafficking.
Getty Images

It will never be easy to estimate how many victims of human trafficking exist at any given time; after all, if officials could figure out where the slaves are kept in order to count them, then they could shut down the traffickers and free the prisoners. And while no one seems to be arguing about ending human trafficking, there's quite a lot of heated discussion over just how big the problem is. According to the U.S. State Department's 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, 12.3 million adults and children are in forced labor situations or experiencing sexual exploitation [source: U.S. Department of State]. In 2009, however, there were just 4,166 successful trafficking prosecutions. This disparity raises the question of whether enforcement officials are looking hard enough for trafficking victims -- or whether there aren't that many trafficking victims to find.

In 1999, officials told Congress that 50,000 slaves were brought into the United States each year; the number was based on an estimate by the Central Intelligence Agency [source: Markon]. Many aid groups joined the charge for fighting slavery in the U.S., especially Christian ones, and these groups urged President George W. Bush to make the fight against trafficking a policy priority. But even with vast resources, prosecutions against traffickers only amounted to a few hundred cases.


In 2004, the official estimate of slaves coming into the U.S. was changed from 50,000 to somewhere between 14,500 and 17,500, and even that number was deemed too high. The same year, when New York Times reporter Peter Landesman claimed that at least 10,000 slaves are brought to the U.S. each year, it caused a firestorm of controversy, as critics questioned this number as well [sources: Landesman; Shafer]. While stopping human trafficking is a no-brainer cause, some are starting to wonder if it's worth the money that the U.S. in particular is throwing at it.

But of course, there are others who say that it doesn't matter what the number is -- if there are any slaves at all, we must work to eradicate human trafficking, particularly if the U.S. wants to remain a signpost of human rights in the world. On the next page, we'll take one last look at how slavery in the world might be eliminated.


Putting an End to Human Trafficking

When talking about ending human trafficking, the U.S. State Department and the United Nations emphasize a "3P approach." The 3 P's are prevention, prosecution and protection. As we've discussed in this article, prosecutions of traffickers have remained low. The U.S. and the U.N. recognize that until traffickers realize that there are dangerous consequences for their actions, they will continue to engage in trafficking.

We've also discussed how protection for victims has been limited. In their latest report on human trafficking, the State Department explains how countries are more likely to offer victims the 3 D's: detention, deportation and disempowerment. Instead of seeing victims as people who need help and who engaged in illegal activity against their will, society sees them as criminals who are in the country illegally. Victims might be jailed or deported, but once they're released or back in their home countries, they usually end up in the hands of their traffickers once again. Aid groups urge a case-by-case analysis regarding whether a victim should be deported, and the U.S. offers T-visas for people who ended up in the country as a result of trafficking.


Prevention is perhaps the hardest "P" to conquer. Though aid groups and governments have engaged in many public-awareness campaigns so that people don't unwittingly become victims, more needs to be done. There's discussion about whether human trafficking can be eliminated without eliminating poverty around the world; there are reasons, after all, why someone leaves a small village in a developing country to come to an industrialized one. Eradication of poverty, however, is no easy feat, and some critics wonder if it would make any difference when it comes to human trafficking.

There are no easy answers, which can be frustrating. But, in his 2008 book on modern slavery, "A Crime So Monstrous," author Benjamin Skinner offered three solutions for what ordinary people can do to stop human trafficking. First, he said, people must educate themselves about trafficking. Second, they should put pressure on elected officials and candidates for office about what steps they'd take to solve the problem, as well as what new ideas they can bring to the table. Lastly, Skinner urged supporting advocacy groups such as Free the Slaves and Anti-Slavery International [source: Wallace].

You've taken the first step that Skinner suggests by reading this article, but if you'd like more information about the problem of human trafficking, take a look at the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

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  • Berger, Joseph. "Despite Law, Few Trafficking Arrests." The New York Times. Dec. 3, 2009. (April 26, 2011)
  • Feingold, David A. "Human Trafficking." Foreign Policy. September/October 2005.
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