Understanding Human Trafficking

Throughout the world, human traffickers rob children of their innocence, sexually exploit women and men, and subject enslaved migrants to deplorable working conditions through forced labor. They prey upon the weak, ignorant and desperate, infect communities, and harm societies and economies.

To combat this transnational problem and increase public awareness about human trafficking’s scope, we must clearly define what human trafficking is, identify its causes and address the needs of families who are vulnerable to modern-day slavery.

What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is the illegal transport of human beings whose services — such as manual labor in mines, domestic servitude or commercial sex acts within brothels — are sold for profit. Human trafficking victims engage in these acts through the use of force. They are recruited or sold into involuntary servitude.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), every country in the world is affected by human trafficking, with some forms occurring more in certain parts of the globe than others.

What Are the Different Types of Human Trafficking?

There are several types of human trafficking, but according to the Human Rights Commission of San Francisco, three are the most common:

  • Sex trafficking.
  • Forced labor.
  • Debt bondage.

Sex trafficking — which includes child sex trafficking — accounts for 79% of human trafficking cases1. And when it comes to sexual exploitation, the victims are mostly female. 98% of sex trafficking is women and girls2, and children are trafficked for sex four times more than adults2.

Women also have a more prominent role as offenders in present-day slavery than in most other forms of crime1. In addition to being victims of human trafficking, women survivors sometimes become perpetrators of this crime as well1.

Nearly 20% of human trafficking involves forced labor1, which is also called involuntary servitude. The people victimized are subjected to miserable working conditions and strenuous physical activity. They may also be limited in access or unable to access food and water.

Debt bondage is a form of human labor trafficking that isn’t as widely known about, but it is the most used method to initially enslave people. Often, people borrow money from traffickers, paying to secure a falsely promised job abroad. Once they reach their destination, their passports are taken away, and they cannot leave until they pay off the debt to the traffickers, which is manipulated to grow rather than shrink. They could be forced to do any task. As a result, debt bondage overlaps with other forms of trafficking.

Forced child labor, child sex tourism and drug trafficking are other types of human trafficking that occur in many regions, both low-income and high-income.

Human Trafficking Statistics

Human trafficking exists in every country, and the cases are not isolated incidents.

  • 199,0003 human trafficking-related crimes occur in the United States each year.
  • $150 billion4 are annually generated by forced labor worldwide.
  • .04%5 of human trafficking cases are reported to the proper authorities.
  • 24.9 million6 people are trapped in forced labor conditions worldwide at any given time.
  • 34%1 of human trafficking cases involve children.

The frequency of U.S.-based human trafficking gave rise to Human Trafficking Awareness Day, which is observed on January 11 and was signed into law by the United States government in 2007. Human Trafficking Awareness Day raises awareness that this crime occurs in the U.S. Ending it is a national priority for the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and Department of State.

Why Does Human Trafficking Exist?

After drug trafficking, human trafficking is the second-most profitable illegal industry7 in the world. It produces $150 billion annually7. Money fuels the human trafficking industry. Power is another motivator, just as it’s a major contributor to domestic violence.

Limited law enforcement also provides an opportunity for human trafficking to flourish. Without strong law enforcement agencies, anti-trafficking task forces or effective criminal justice systems to prosecute offenders and uphold human rights, criminals aren't held accountable for their actions. But human trafficking doesn’t always start with abduction or force. Financial desperation is often a factor.

With no way of supporting themselves or their families, parents, caregivers or other family members may unintentionally make themselves modern-day slaves when they fall prey to schemes that exploit their hopes and falsely promise jobs, training or better opportunities.

Other contributors to human trafficking include:

  • Political instability.
  • War or civil unrest.
  • Cultural norms.
  • Officials harboring criminals (i.e., corruption).

How Does Human Trafficking Affect Victims’ Health?

The emotional and psychological toll is devastating for victims of human trafficking, resulting in depression, suicidal thoughts and social anxiety disorders. But there are physical scars, too. These include increased risk for certain diseases, long-term health complications and diagnoses. They include:

  • Sexually transmitted diseases (e.g. HIV/AIDS, gonorrhea, chlamydia).
  • Other infectious diseases (e.g. tuberculosis).
  • Poor eyesight.
  • Infertility.
  • Cancer.
  • Heart disease.
  • Diabetes.

How Can Human Trafficking be Detected?

Victims of human trafficking, labor trafficking and sex trafficking often exhibit similar behaviors and physical signs. For example, women and children in forced labor may work unusually long hours or have no proof of identification. They may have bruises or scratches on their arms or face. They may express submissiveness or fear in social situations. They may live in cramped spaces with multiple other people. These are all indicators of human trafficking.

Businesses that bankroll human trafficking also share several characteristics or tell-tale signs, such as:

  • Frequent outbound wire transfers.
  • Unusual payroll expenditures.
  • Similar business fronts (e.g. travel agencies, international matchmaking services, modeling, babysitting services, etc.).
  • Leasing or driving of luxury vehicles.
  • Spending large amounts of cash or completing large transactions with only cash.

How Do We End Human Trafficking?

Every action matters when it comes to fighting modern-day slavery. Key ways to contribute include:

  • Knowing the signs and red flags of trafficking.
  • Calling the national human trafficking hotline if you have concerns about a potential trafficking situation.
  • Contacting lawmakers about strengthening enforcement measures and laws (like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act).
  • Volunteer with or donate to an anti-trafficking organization.
  • Stay informed and talk about the issue with friends, family and others.
  • Host an awareness event or community forum.
  • Don’t purchase goods or products produced by child or forced labor.
  • Use your skills to train or hire survivors and help them transition to life after trafficking.

But the best approach is to prevent human trafficking before it starts.

How Does Compassion International Work to Stop Human Trafficking?

We partner with thousands of local churches in low- and middle-income countries to identify impoverished children who are especially vulnerable to exploitation. Our Child Sponsorship Program helps combat violence against children, sexual exploitation, abuse, neglect and child trafficking by expanding the circle of caring adults actively participating in a child’s life. This fosters an environment where the child is known, loved and protected.

Our child development center workers and church leaders know each and every child they serve. They invest in the child personally and relationally, as friends and mentors. This support and attention makes children of all years of age less vulnerable to criminals who are soliciting, recruiting or abducting. Safe adults can identify dangerous situations or warning signs, protecting each child.

We also help previously exploited children heal and recover. In addition to helping with legal resources, we work to restore a child's overall well-being — physically, mentally and spiritually — through high-quality medical care, counseling and church-centered activities.

We believe that child protection is central to God’s heart. So we consider the love, care, and protection of children our top priorities.

Help prevent human trafficking before it begins. Sponsor a vulnerable child today. 

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1 UNODC, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2020(United Nations publication, Sales No. E.20.IV.3).

2 “Child Trafficking Statistics.” Child Liberation Foundation, 20 Apr. 2020, https://liberatechildren.org/child-trafficking-statistics.

3 Human Trafficking Statistics by State 2022, https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/human-trafficking-statistics-by-state.

4 Profits and poverty: the economics of forced labour / International Labour Office. - Geneva: ILO, 2014

5 “11 Facts about Human Trafficking.” DoSomething.org, https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-human-trafficking#fnref3.

6 “About Human Trafficking - United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 19 Jan. 2022, https://www.state.gov/humantrafficking-about-human-trafficking/.

7 “What Fuels Human Trafficking?” UNICEF USA, 13 Jan. 2017, https://www.unicefusa.org/stories/what-fuels-human-trafficking/31692.