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What is Human Trafficking?

Last updated on 24th April 2023

The recent trial in New York of Ghislaine Maxwell for recruiting and trafficking young girls to be sexually abused by the late American financier and paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, has brought the issue of trafficking to news headlines across the globe.

Maxwell was found guilty on five of the six counts she faced, including the most serious charge, that of sex trafficking a minor.

The other offences are:

  • Transporting a minor with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity.
  • Conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity.
  • Conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors.
  • Conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts.

She was found not guilty of one count, that is enticement of a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts. Currently 60-year-old Maxwell is awaiting sentencing but faces up to 65 years in jail; a term which goes someway to reflect the seriousness of the offences and the negative impact on victims of these crimes.

What is human trafficking?

“Human Trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit. Men, women and children of all ages and from all backgrounds can become victims of this crime, which occurs in every region of the world.” (Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Human trafficking victims can be trafficked within their home country or internationally. In fact, contrary to popular belief, people don’t have to be transported across borders for trafficking to take place. Transporting or moving the victim doesn’t define trafficking, it can take place within a single country, or even within a single community.

More accurately, human trafficking is the activity of trapping people through the use of violence, deception or coercion and exploiting them for financial or personal gain.

UK law defines the offence of human trafficking under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which effectively consolidated all previous existing offences of human trafficking and modern slavery.

Section 2 of the Act – Human Trafficking – details the offences:

  • A person commits an offence if the person arranges or facilitates the travel of another person (V) with a view to V being exploited.
  • It is irrelevant whether the victim consents to the travel (whether V is an adult or child).
  • A person may in particular arrange or facilitate V’s travel by recruiting V, transporting or transferring V, harbouring or receiving V, or transferring or exchanging control over V.
  • A person arranges or a person arranges or facilitates V’s travel with a view to V being exploited only if:
    – The person intends to exploit V in any part of the world during or after travel; or
    – The person knows or ought to know that another person is likely to exploit V in any part of the world during or after travel.
  • Travel is defined as:
    – Arriving in, or entering, any country,
    – Departing from any country, or
    – Travelling within any country.
  • A person who is a United Kingdom (UK) national commits an offence regardless of where the arranging or facilitating takes place, or where the travel takes place. In other words, this offence may be committed by a UK national anywhere in the world and no matter where V is travelling.
  • A person who is not a UK national commits an offence if any part of the arranging or facilitating takes place in the UK, or the travel consists of arrival or entry into, departure from, or travel within the UK.

Section 3 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 defines the meaning of exploitation for the purposes of Section 2, and Section 4 creates an offence of committing any offence with the intention to commit an offence of human trafficking under Section 2 of the Act.

The offence will also capture activity such as supplying false documents to be used to facilitate trafficking. The offence is drawn widely enough to encompass any offence committed by aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring an offence of trafficking.

There is no definitive definition of a trafficked victim. Trafficked victims are identified as those persons who are exploited at the hands of their traffickers and are victims of the criminality as defined by the Palermo Protocol.

The Palermo protocols are three protocols, including the protocol “to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons”, that were adopted by the United Nations to supplement the 2000 Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (the Palermo Convention). Forty countries have ratified the Palermo Protocol, including the UK, the USA and the European Union member countries.

Loss of freedom is a defining feature of trafficking, which does not necessarily involve obvious physical constraint. For example, trafficked victims are often not allowed to leave the premises where they are held or, if they do, they are accompanied by a trafficker. Victims suffer frequent and severe abuse, both physical and psychological. Violence and physical harm are the hallmarks of trafficked women, in particular.

The UK Government estimates that there are around 13,000 people who are victims of human trafficking and modern-day slavery in the UK, a significant number of which are under 18 years.

Teenage girl experienced human trafficking

What are the causes of human trafficking?

Human trafficking takes many different forms and happens in every country in the world. The causes of human trafficking are complex, and there are numerous contributing factors. However, the root causes behind all types of human trafficking remain essentially the same, traffickers target people who are marginalised or in difficult circumstances in order to make huge sums of money for themselves.

A root cause is the basis or reason that results in some action or behaviour occurring; it triggers something to happen.

Some of the main root causes of human trafficking include:

  • Systemic poverty and socio-economic inequality – Poverty is probably the biggest root cause of human trafficking. It can tempt people to become traffickers, it can drive parents to sell children or other family members into slavery, and it can persuade people who have little or no means of financial support to be taken in by traffickers. Poverty also plays a huge part in many of the other root causes of trafficking.
  • Trafficking generates huge profits for the traffickers – One of the main root causes of human trafficking is the huge profits that traffickers gain. This is an incentive for them to continue trafficking people in forced or bonded labour and sex trafficking. For traffickers using forced and bonded labourers, they get cheap or virtually no-cost labour and can sell their products or services at a much higher margin than those who have to pay their workers legitimately. For those who engage in sex trafficking, they often take nearly all the profit, forcing their victims to make a certain amount each day and keeping them in the situation often through drugs, violent force and threats. Commercialised sex is a profitable market that allows traffickers to significantly benefit financially from their victims. According to the US State Department human trafficking has become the most lucrative crime business after drugs.
  • Demand for cheap labour – Basic economics tell us that for a market to form, supply and demand need to exist. The demands for cheap labour leads to opportunities for traffickers to exploit people.
  • Lack of legitimate economic opportunities – Traffickers are able to exploit situations in any country where there are few or limited legitimate economic opportunities for people to earn a living.
  • Conflict and war zones – In countries that are involved in conflict, the volatile situation can lead to economic instability and lack of human rights, where some rebel or military groups will use child soldiers and keep sex slaves. Additionally, both conflict and natural disaster can lead people to migrate out of their hometowns and homelands, making them more vulnerable to traffickers, especially if they are looking for work or getting into debt, paying smugglers to get them to where they want to go. Some of these countries are also a home to corruption and organised crime.

Trafficking ultimately exists because certain people are willing to exploit others into trafficking situations, either because of the profit or because of a belief that certain people are worth less or because of a system of abuse and crime that they were raised in.

What is sexual exploitation in human trafficking?

Sex trafficking is a lucrative criminal trade that predominantly affects women and girls. According to the UNODC, 94% of victims of sexual exploitation are women and girls. Sexual exploitation occurs when someone is deceived, coerced or forced to take part in sexual activity. The laws of 158 countries criminalise sex trafficking.

Young girls are particularly interesting to human traffickers because:

  • There is an increased interest in younger and younger girls for sex.
  • Children are easier for traffickers to coerce and control.
  • An exploited child grows into an easily exploited women who can be sold over and over again for profit.

The US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children directly correlated a five-year 846% increase in child sex trafficking reports to the growing use of the internet to sell children for sex.

Children and young people can be trafficked into or within the UK to be sexually exploited. They are moved around the country and abused by being forced to take part in sexual activities, often with more than one person. Young people in gangs can also be sexually exploited.

Children and young people are often tricked into believing that they are in a loving and consensual relationship; they may trust their exploiter and not understand that they are being abused.

Traffickers may lend victims large sums of money they know can’t be repaid and use this financial abuse to control them, or they may provide alcohol or drugs to feed an addiction, often using violence and intimidation to frighten or force a victim into sexual exploitation, making them feel as if they have no other choice.

The frequency of sexual exploitation varies from single events to prolonged periods of exploitation lasting several years. The exploitation takes place in many different locations including in cars / car parks, outdoors, at the homes or premises of traffickers or their clients, in hotels, established brothels, massage parlours or nail bars.

The most common means of control used by exploiting traffickers is physical and sexual violence, emotional control, offers of gifts and blackmail. Some victims are given half their earnings, but others are given much less – some are given nothing at all.

Human trafficking can be forced labour

The different types of human trafficking

As well as for sexual exploitation, victims of human trafficking can be “recruited” for forced labour, criminal activities or for the removal of organs.

No industry or economic sector is immune to human trafficking, including but not limited to:

  • Retail – For example, nail bars, hand car washes.
  • Factories – For example, food packing, clothes manufacturing.
  • Hospitality – For example, fast-food outlets, bars, hotels.
  • Agriculture – For example, fruit picking.
  • Domestic labour – For example, cooking, cleaning and child minding.
  • Criminal drugs industry – For example, cannabis cultivation, drugs trafficking, county lines.
  • Other criminal activities – For example, theft or begging, also dealing in or trafficking knives and firearms.
  • Organ harvesting – A lucrative global illicit trade, this is often a lesser discussed form of human trafficking. Traffickers orchestrate the recruitment of the donor often from a place of vulnerability, and once obtained, trafficked organs can be transplanted to recipients in some of the most reputable of hospitals in major cities throughout the world. This practice appears to be currently being orchestrated by the government in Afghanistan.

The AMP model

The definition of trafficking consists of three core elements known as the AMP model (Source the Polaris Project):

  • The act of trafficking, which means the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons.
  • The means of trafficking which includes threat of or use of force, deception, coercion, abuse of power or position of vulnerability.
  • The purpose of trafficking which is always exploitation.

It states that “At a minimum, one element from each column must be present to establish a potential situation of human trafficking. The presence of force, fraud or coercion indicates that the victim has not consented of his or her own free will”.

The signs of human trafficking

Possible signs and indicators that someone is a victim of human trafficking or that human trafficking in taking place may include but are not limited to:

  • Behaviours – Victims may act as if instructed by another, as though they are forced or coerced to carry out specific activities, become withdrawn, and are distrustful of authorities. The person may have an English vocabulary that consists of only sexualised words.
  • Physical appearance – Poor physical condition, malnourishment and looking neglected, demonstrates signs of physical or psychological abuse, such as lacking self-esteem, seeming anxious, bruising, untreated injuries or medical conditions or signs of cigarette burns or tattoos indicating ownership.
  • Isolation – Victims may not be allowed out on their own and may appear to be under the control or influence of people accompanying them, with the absence of a parent or legal guardian. They may not interact and be unfamiliar in their local community.
  • Poor living conditions – Victims may be living in dirty, cramped or overcrowded accommodation, with multiple children living and working at the same address/premises. Workers are forced to stay in accommodation provided by the employer. The property of where a victim of human trafficking may be held could feature bars on the windows, reflective film or coating applied to the glass or permanently closed curtains. The entrance may have CCTV, multiple locks and have a sealed letterbox to prevent use.
  • Personal belongings – Victims may have few possessions, wearing the same clothes each day, and no identification documents. They may seem to be bonded by debt or have money deducted from their salary.
  • In the workplace – Workers lack the necessary protective equipment or suitable clothing and have not received basic training. A group of workers of a similar nationality / age / gender will have a representative who appears to be “coaching” them and they are always accompanied. They will appear to be working in excess of normal work hours and have unusual travel times; victims may be dropped off or collected from work on a regular basis either very early in the morning or late at night.
  • Restricted freedom – Victims have little opportunity to move freely and may be kept from having access to their passport. They have little or no contact with family or loved ones.
  • Criminality – A large group of adult or child beggars are moved daily to different locations but return to the same accommodation location every night. A large group of children are guarded by an adult. There may be frequent visits to the property by a variety of visitors at all times of the day and night. There are often pungent smells, usually drugs, coming from the property.
  • Reluctant to seek help – Victims may avoid eye contact, appear frightened or hesitant to approach people and have lack of trust or concern about making a report should they be deported, or they fear violence on their family.

Spotting these signs may not mean that someone is being exploited or trafficked, but seeing one or more should be a reason to be suspicious. The more signs you see, the more likely that this person is being controlled, exploited and trafficked.

Man working excess hours

The difference between human trafficking and people smuggling

Human trafficking and people smuggling are two distinct but interconnected crimes. Both are illegal activities that treat people as commodities. People smuggling always crosses national borders whereas human trafficking can happen in the victim’s own home country as well as across country borders.

Hundreds of thousands of people leave their home countries every year to escape conflict and poverty. Many are willing to take desperate measures in the hope of finding a better life. Organised crime groups know this and take advantage of people’s desperation. They facilitate the passage of migrants with little or no regard for their safety and wellbeing; what is important to them is the money they make.

People smuggling is closely tied to the use of fraudulent travel documents and is linked to other crimes such as illicit money flows, corruption, terrorism, trafficking in illicit goods and human trafficking.

People smuggling is carried out by land, air or sea. It all depends how much someone is willing to pay and the risks that they are willing to take. Clearly, both human trafficking and people smuggling are complex crimes, and it is important to recognise that there is potential for overlap.

In general, the individuals who pay a smuggler in order to gain illegal entry to a country do so voluntarily, and the relationship ends on arrival. People who have been smuggled and then trafficked, on the other hand, are exploited on arrival and there are often elements of fraud, force or other coercion present.

Who is vulnerable to being trafficked?

  • People in poverty – These people are targeted by traffickers, who offer them a way to earn money when, in fact, they will actually earn little or nothing and probably will be treated as a slave. In some countries, selling children to traffickers is the norm, especially for poorer families in rural areas.
  • People in lower socio-economic groups – Socio-economic inequality relates to disparities that individuals might have in both their economic and social resources and contacts that are linked to their social class. These disparities include but aren’t limited to their earnings, education and/or income. These are often people who may not be in abject poverty, but traffickers exploit these disparities to target people who perhaps dream of experiencing a better lifestyle.
  • People who have received little or no education or may have special educational needs (SEN) – A lack of education and qualifications can lead to decreased opportunities for work at a living wage, and it can also lead to a little or no knowledge of their legal rights. Both outcomes can cause people to be at a greater vulnerability for human trafficking.
  • People who lack legitimate economic opportunities – These people are also vulnerable to human trafficking. Groups that are especially at risk in these categories are migrants without passports and/or work permits, those who lack education, those who live in rural areas where there are fewer jobs available, as well as women and certain ethnic groups who may not be able to get jobs due to discrimination. Traffickers offer seemingly legitimate jobs to people who cannot get them otherwise, only to lure them into areas such as forced labour, sex trafficking or debt bondage; this is when a person or even entire families are forced to work to pay off a debt. They are tricked into working for little or no pay, with no control over their debt. In some countries, the cultural practices and social factors view bonded labour as an acceptable way to pay off debt.
    In countries such as Mauritania, people still practise antiquated slavery, where families are held for generations by slave-masters. There are also instances, such as in Uzbekistan, where forced labour is institutionalised; during the cotton harvest, all adults and children are expected to work in the cotton fields until the crops are harvested. Cultural and social factors can also lead victims not to speak up about being trafficked or who their traffickers are, especially if they come from groups who lack human rights protections.
  • People who lack human rights – There are many countries where groups that are marginalised in society lack institutionalised human rights, which can lead to them being potential victims of trafficking. Traffickers can prey on these marginalised groups because they lack the protection of the law; they feel as though they can get away with trafficking more easily as governments and the law do not recognise that human trafficking is exploitation of other people.
  • Migration – Migrants leaving or being forced out of their home countries due to safety concerns or lack of economic opportunities, are especially vulnerable to traffickers. Traffickers can use offers of illegal smuggling as a way to trick people into forced labour or sex trafficking. Some trafficked people might start their journey by being smuggled into a country illegally, not knowing the intention of the trafficker who exploits them, or they find themselves deceived, coerced or forced into an exploitative situation later in the process, for example being forced to work for no or very little money to pay for their transportation.
  • More particular to sex trafficking – Runaways, those with drugs and/or alcohol addiction or poor self-image or with little or no access to social protection networks are at heightened vulnerability to being trafficked.
  • Child trafficking – Criminals trafficking children target victims from extremely poor households, dysfunctional families or those who are abandoned or who have little or no parental care.

According to the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, the consent of the victim to the exploitation is irrelevant when the threat of or use of force, deception, coercion, abuse of power or position of vulnerability is used. In the case of children, consent is irrelevant regardless of whether any means were used or not.

Amongst the most trusted sources for understanding the global situation is the research by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

They have estimated that 40.3 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking; of these, 24.9 million were exploited for labour:

  • 16 million (64%) forced labour victims work in domestic work, construction or agriculture.
  • 4.8 million (19%) persons are in forced sexual exploitation.
  • 4 million (16%) persons are in forced labour imposed by state authorities.
  • 71% of trafficking victims around the world are women and girls and 29% are men and boys.

Who are the perpetrators of human trafficking?

The perpetrators derive massive economic profit from the exploitation of victims and their vulnerabilities. The worldwide annual profits generated by these crimes are estimated at USD150bn. But who are the perpetrators behind human trafficking?

Traffickers are just as likely to be a couple of people from the same family working together exploiting their victim, as they are to be a highly sophisticated organised crime gang, although this is usually the picture we imagine when hearing about human trafficking.

Traffickers can be anyone – perpetrators are just as likely to be female, as they are to be male, and may be operating in a complex hierarchical organisation or on a much smaller scale. In many cases there is a strong likelihood that the traffickers know their victims on a personal basis, and may even be family members.

UNODC’s 2020 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons shows that almost two-thirds of people convicted of human trafficking offences in 2018 were male, although participation of women is higher compared with other crimes. About two per cent of the total convictions involved traffickers who were under the age of 18.

The report also reveals that whilst many traffickers have criminal backgrounds and use trafficking as a direct source of income, there are also business owners, intimate partners and other family members involved in human trafficking. Court cases reveal instances of parents facilitating the sexual exploitation of their children or forcing them into street begging.

Human trafficking can be selling drugs

How do traffickers control victims?

Traffickers are experts at finding those moments when people are vulnerable, of manipulating reality and exploiting fears. The process is called grooming. When a trafficker has identified their victim, they need to also gain that person’s trust. They may have several conversations where they form a bond over common interests with the victim or pretend to care about what they have experienced.

In situations where the trafficker may already be a part of their victim’s life, such as a family member, it may be easier to gain trust. The traffickers will gain trust and collect information that can be later used to manipulate their victims.

When traffickers have gained the trust of their victims and identified their needs, traffickers offer a solution to meet those needs.

These might be:

  • A safe place to live.
  • A job.
  • A better lifestyle.
  • Love and affection.
  • Appreciation and confidence.
  • A sense of belonging and being wanted.
  • Access to alcohol or drugs.

Traffickers often put themselves at the centre of their victims’ lives to create a near total dependency. By fulfilling these needs, traffickers gain power over their victim, the power to provide for their needs and the threat, usually implicit, to take away what the person thinks they have gained.

The traffickers then start to isolate their victim from anyone or anything that may weaken their influence. This may involve accompanying their victim everywhere, and commenting that anyone else in the victim’s life is bad for them. This isolation makes it almost impossible for victims to seek help.

When the traffickers begin exploiting their victims varies; some are ensnared through online job adverts, lured by the promise of well-paid work, often with the offer of appropriate accommodation linked to the job. Many have their identity documents confiscated and have most of their earnings withheld as payment for living costs or for their journey to the UK.

Others start with small acts, pushing their victim to do things they might be uncomfortable with, then conditioning them to believe that what they are being asked to do is normal or manipulating the victim into believing that they have to do it because they owe the trafficker.

Some traffickers make their victims believe that what they are asking them to do will be only temporary. The purpose of the grooming process is for a trafficker to be able to gain full control over their victim and manipulate them into cooperating in their own exploitation.

To maintain their control over their victims, traffickers may use a variety of tactics depending upon the situation.

These can include:

  • Feeding an addiction such as drugs or alcohol.
  • Emotional blackmail such as losing love.
  • Threats.
  • Force and violence.
  • Continuing to isolate.

Sometimes just the thought of losing something gained such as love, increased status, sense of belonging and being wanted is enough to keep a person in a trafficking situation.

What is anti-human trafficking?

The purpose of anti-human trafficking is the prevention of human trafficking, the protection of its victims, the prosecution of its culprits and the international cooperation needed to achieve these goals.

Part 4 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 created the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s Office and the role of the Anti-Slavery Commissioner, currently held by Dame Sara Thornton DBE QPM. The Commissioner has a UK-wide remit to encourage good practice in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of modern slavery and human trafficking offences.

The Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner includes staff members with a background in law enforcement, policy, victim support, research, human rights and those with years of general experience in the UK’s anti-slavery sector.

In January 2021 it launched Preventing Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking: an agenda for action across the financial sector, and published five recommendations in September 2021, including that modern slavery and human trafficking risk should be embedded throughout the investment lifecycle of a business.

Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires certain organisations to develop a slavery and human trafficking statement each year. The slavery and human trafficking statement should set out what steps organisations have taken to ensure modern slavery is not taking place in their business or supply chains. The UK Government has published guidance for organisations on how to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in their business or supply chains.

What is being done to stop human trafficking?

The Shiva Foundation and STOP THE TRAFFIK have launched a toolkit to help SMEs mitigate their risk of exploitation.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has stated that: “Eradicating modern slavery and human trafficking is one of our highest priorities. We’re working with partners in the UK and around the world to pursue offenders and safeguard victims”.

The National Referral Mechanism is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking or modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support. In 2020, according to a Home Office report, 10,613 potential victims were referred into the National Referral Mechanism to be identified as survivors of trafficking and to receive support. In reality, the extent of human trafficking in the UK is likely to be far greater than the NRM statistics would suggest.

Yung girl receiving threats

In conclusion

Human trafficking, or modern-day slavery, as it is often referred to, is a crime and a safeguarding issue affecting millions across the world and in the United Kingdom.

If you suspect human trafficking or modern slavery, report it to the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700 or the police on 101. In an emergency always call 999. Don’t leave it to someone else – your information could save a life.

Other organisations that can provide help and support for victims or for anyone suspecting human trafficking include:

Modern Slavery

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About the author

Evie Lee

Evie Lee

Evie has worked at CPD Online College since August 2021. She is currently doing an apprenticeship in Level 3 Business Administration. Evie's main roles are to upload blog articles and courses to the website. Outside of work, Evie loves horse riding and spending time with her family.

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