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What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons (TIP), is a modern-day form of slavery.  It is a crime under federal and international law.  It is also a crime in the majority of U.S. states.  Human Trafficking is defined in the Trafficking Protocol as "the recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation."

The definition on trafficking consists of three core elements:

1) The action of trafficking which means the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons

2) The means of trafficking which includes threat of or use of force, deception, coercion, abuse of power or position of vulnerability

3) The purpose of trafficking which is always exploitation. In the words of the Trafficking Protocol, article 3 "exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs


Who are the victims?

There is not one consistent face of trafficking victim.  Trafficked persons in the United States can be men or women, adults or children, foreign nationals or US citizens.  Some are well-educated, while others have no formal education.

While anyone can become a victim of trafficking, certain populations are especially vulnerable.  These may include: undocumented migrants; runaway and homeless youth; and oppressed, marginalized, and/or impoverished groups and individuals.  Traffickers specifically target individuals in these populations because they are vulnerable to recruitment tactics and methods of control.

Undocumented immigrants in the US are highly vulnerable due to a combination of factors, including: lack of legal status and protections, language barriers, limited employment options, poverty and immigration-related debts, and social isolation.  They are often victimized by traffickers from a similar ethnic or national background, on whom they may be dependent for employment or a means of support.


Who is at risk of becoming a victim of human trafficking?

Since human trafficking victims can be men or women, adults or children, and foreign nationals or U.S. citizens, trafficking is a crime that cuts across race, nationality, gender, age, and socio-economic background. However, human traffickers typically prey on individuals who are vulnerable in some way. Some examples of high risk populations include undocumented migrants, runaways and at-risk youth, and oppressed or marginalized groups.


Do victims of human trafficking self-identify as a victim of a crime and ask for help immediately?

Often no. Victims of human trafficking often do not seek help immediately, due to lack of trust, self-blame, or being directly trained by traffickers to distrust authorities.


What types of human trafficking can be found in the United States?

Forced Labor, Bonded Labor, Debt Bondage Among Migrant Laborers, Involuntary Domestic Servitude, Forced Child Labor, Sex Trafficking, and Child Commercial Sex Trade.


Does human trafficking only occur in illegal underground industries?

While human trafficking does occur in illegal and underground markets, it can also occur in legal and legitimate settings. For example, common locations of human trafficking include private homes, hotels, nail salons, restaurants, bars, strip clubs, and fake massage businesses.


Is human trafficking a crime that must involve some form of travel, transportation, or movement across state or national borders?

No. Although the word ‘trafficking’ sounds like movement, the federal definition of human trafficking in the U.S. does not require transportation. In other words, transportation may or may not be involved in the crime of human trafficking, and it is not a required component. 


Does physical violence have to be involved in human trafficking cases?

No. Under federal law, an individual who uses physical or psychological violence to force someone into labor or services or into commercial sex acts is considered a human trafficker. Therefore, while some victims experience beatings, rape, and other forms of physical violence, many victims are controlled by traffickers through psychological means, such as threats of violence, manipulation, and lies. In many cases, traffickers use a combination of direct violence and mental abuse.  The federal definition of the crime, as defined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, was created to address the wider spectrum of methods of control used by traffickers beyond "bodily harm."


Under the federal definition, are human trafficking victims only foreign nationals or immigrants?

No. The federal definition of human trafficking includes both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals – both are protected under the federal trafficking law and have been since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Human trafficking encompasses both transnational trafficking that crosses borders and domestic or internal trafficking that occurs within a country.


Do victims always come from a low-income or poor background?

No. Human trafficking victims can come from a range of backgrounds and some may come from middle and upper class families. Poverty is one of many factors that make individuals vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.


How many human trafficking victims are there in the United States?

Due to the covert nature of the crime and high levels of under-reporting, the total number of victims of human trafficking within the United States is still being researched by the government and academic researchers.  However, a range of estimates have been released by some government agencies and non-governmental organizations. 


How is pimping a form of sex trafficking?

If certain behaviors and elements of control are present, yes, it can be.  In the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, a severe form of sex trafficking is a crime 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. Pimps, who are motivated by the opportunity to make money, sell women and girls in the commercial sex industry by using numerous methods to gain control over their bodies and minds.  Many of these behaviors directly meet the definitions of force, fraud, or coercion that are the central elements of the crime of human trafficking.  It is often difficult to identify a pimp who is not using some form of deceit, lies, manipulation, threats, or violence towards the women or girls they are attempting to control.  An elaborated list of these controlling behaviors of pimps is provided below:


  • Beating and slapping
  • Beating with objects (bat, tools, chains, belts, hangers, canes, cords)
  • Burning
  • Sexual assault
  • Rape and gang rape
  • Confinement and physical restraint


  • False promises
  • Deceitful enticing and affectionate behavior
  • Lying about working conditions
  • Lying about the promise of a better life, “selling a dream”


  • Threats of serious harm or restraint
  • Intimidation and humiliation
  • Creating a climate of fear
  • Enforcement of trivial demands
  • Occasional Indulgences
  • Intense manipulation
  • Emotional abuse
  • Isolation
  • Creating dependency and fear of independence


Are pimps managers who offer protection to women and girls in the sex industry and split the money earned through commercial sex acts?

No. Contrary to common perceptions, pimps often do not offer protection, and they are not benevolent managers. These images of a pimp are often romanticized and glamorized and are far from the actual reality of how pimps behave.  Instead, pimps usually take all of the money and typically establish nightly monetary quotas that women and children are forced to earn in order to avoid violent repercussions. Pimps even “brand” those under their control with tattoos of their name to demonstrate ownership.


What if a trafficked person consents?

It is important to note that the consent of the trafficked person becomes irrelevant whenever any of the 'means' of trafficking are used. A child cannot consent even if the 'means' are not involved.


How widespread is human trafficking?

It is very difficult to assess the real size of human trafficking because the crime takes place underground, and is often not identified or misidentified.

However, a conservative estimate of the crime puts the number of victims at any one time at 2.5 million. We also know that it affects every region of the world and generates tens of billions of dollars in profits for criminals each year. 


Which countries are affected by human trafficking?

Human trafficking affects every country of the world, as countries of origin, transit or destination - or even a combination of all. Trafficking often occurs from less developed countries to more developed countries, where people are rendered vulnerable to trafficking by virtue of poverty, conflict or other conditions. Most trafficking is national or regional, but there are also notable cases of long-distance trafficking. Europe is the destination for victims from the widest range of destinations, while victims from Asia are trafficked to the widest range of destinations. The Americas are prominent both as the origin and destination of victims of human trafficking.  


Who are the victims and culprits of human trafficking?

Victims of trafficking can be any age, and any gender. However, a disproportionate number of women are involved in human trafficking both as victims and as culprits. Female offenders have a prominent role in human trafficking, particularly where former victims become perpetrators as a means of escaping their own victimization. Most trafficking is carried out by people whose nationality is the same as that of their victim.


What types of industries are involved with human trafficking?

Most trafficked forced labor affects people working at the margins of the formal economy, with irregular employment or migration status. The sectors most frequently documented are agriculture or horticulture, construction, garments and textiles under sweatshop conditions, catering and restaurants, domestic work, entertainment and the sex industry.

Human trafficking also affects other quite mainstream economic sectors, including food processing, health care and contract cleaning, mainly in private but also in public sector employment, such as the provision of healthcare services.




Adapted from The Polaris Project and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: