How Human Trafficking Works

Force, Fraud and Coercion

These playing cards show 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.