Human Trafficking in International Law

The most commonly accepted definition of human trafficking is found in The Protocol Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. As an addition to the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, it is commonly referred to as the Palermo Protocol. 

The definition can be broken into three parts: 

  • the actions of: recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons 
  • by means of: the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person 
  • for the purpose of: exploitation.


Forced Labor

Not all human trafficking is sex trafficking. In fact, most of the world’s trafficking victims are held in some form of manual bondage. Labor trafficking includes forced labor, debt bondage for migrant workers, involuntary domestic servitude, child labor, and the use of child soldiers. Examples include child labor in the fisheries of Ghana, involuntary domestic servitude in the Qatar, and bonded labor at brick kilns in India. Everyday items we use could have been processed by slaves around the world. 

Sexual Exploitation

Though labor trafficking accounts for most of the world's slaves, sex trafficking accounts for most of the profits. Sex trafficking victims suffer long-lasting physical and psychological trauma, prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases, drug addiction, unwanted pregnancy, malnutrition, and sometimes death. An adult may initially consent to prostitution and thereafter be a trafficking victim if he or she was kept in prostitution through psychological manipulation or physical force. Any prostituting minor is always considered a trafficked victim, regardless of proof of coercion, deception, or force. 

The Facts

  • Because human trafficking is a hidden crime, determining the number victims worldwide is extremely difficult. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 21 million victims of human trafficking around the world. 
  • Of these, about 4.5 million are victims of sex trafficking and 14.2 million are victims of labor trafficking. 
  • Children represent 26% of all human trafficking victims. 
  • The UN Nations Office of Drugs and Crime has detected at least 510 trafficking flows between countries.
  • The ILO also found that forced labor generates $150 billion in profits every year, two-thirds of which come from sexual exploitation.