How common is human trafficking and modern slavery?

While it is difficult to quantify the number of victims of human trafficking because the crime is inherently underground, the International Labor Organization estimates that 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery in 2016. Of those 40.3 million, almost 25 million were victims of forced labor and 15.4 million were in forced marriage. There are an average of 5.4 victims of trafficking for every 1,000 people in the world. 


Who are the victims?

Anyone can be a victim of human trafficking, though some populations of individuals, given their positions in society, are more vulnerable to trafficking. These populations include:

  • Women and children
  • Marginalized communities (such as Roma, minority and indigenous populations)
  • Immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, and refugees
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals
  • Individuals with a history of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence
  • Individuals from low socio-economic backgrounds
  • Individuals in foster care
  • Homeless and run-away individuals
  • Environmental refugees and individuals subject to natural disasters
  • Individuals living in unstable political climates
  • Individuals with Disabilities

Ultimately, trafficked persons span all demographic markers. However, the populations listed above are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. 

The International Labor Organization estimates demographics of victims in their Global Estimate of Forced Labor. They find that female-identifying individuals constitute 71% of victims. It is estimated that children comprise 1 out of 4 victims of human trafficking. 

For Additional Information on Vulnerable Populations, please see the following articles and fact sheets:

– Sex Trafficking of LGBT Individuals: A Call for Service Provision, Research, and Action
– Vulnerability of LGBT individuals to Human Trafficking
– Vulnerability of Indigenous Persons to Human Trafficking
Vulnerability of Persons with Disabilities to Human Trafficking
– The Intersection Between Environmental Degradation and Human Trafficking
– Human Trafficking and Minorities: Vulnerability Compounded by Discrimination

The Connection Between Foster Care and Human Trafficking

Who are human traffickers?

A trafficker may work alone, in a small criminal group, or in a large-scale organized crime network.   Their scale of operation can range from victimizing one individual to large groups. Frequently a trafficker is someone whom the victim knows on a personal basis, such as a family member, friend, romantic partner, or community member. Traffickers often have the same nationality as their victims.

Contrary to the common conception that men are the primary traffickers, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has found that in some parts of the world women play a more prominent role in human trafficking. This may be because former victims become perpetrators as a means of escaping their own enslavement, or because women are more successful as recruiters and traffickers, as they are more likely to be trusted and less likely to be suspected of the crime.

Human Traffickers who have been prosecuted around the world have included:

  • Transnational, national, or local criminal organizations
  • Victims’ neighbors, friends, family members, village chiefs, returnees, or romantic partners
  • Agricultural operators – construction, fishing, etc.
  • Owners of small or medium-sized businesses, or large factories
  • Pimps and brothel owners
  • Independent operators
  • Diplomatic families
  • Police, government authorities, military
  • Individual members of peacekeeping missions
How does human trafficking happen?

Each case of human trafficking is unique. Whether the human trafficker is an individual acting alone or part of a larger organization, they reap financial gain from their victim through force, fraud, or coercion.

While it is true that traffickers sometimes forcibly kidnap their victims, this is not the most common way in which an individual becomes a victim of human trafficking. More frequently, traffickers manipulate and take advantage of an individual’s position of vulnerability in order to establish coercive control. For example, they may influence their victim with the false incentive of a job or better living conditions. In manipulating individuals’ vulnerabilities, traffickers will often also use physical force to establish dominance and control.

Traffickers use a variety of tactics to intimidate and control their victims, including:

  • Physical violence, torture, and starvation
  • Rape and other sexual abuse
  • Psychological abuse, coercion, and blackmail
  • Drug addiction
  • Threats of violence against their family or loved ones
  • Confiscation of passports or other important documentation
  • Prospects of opportunity
  • Romance
  • Debt bondage

Practitioners use the Action-Means-Purpose (A-M-P) Model to illustrate how trafficking happens:


*Image created by Human Trafficking Search. Content Credit: NHTH.


Where does human trafficking occur?

Human trafficking can happen anywhere, both domestically and across international borders. Countries are commonly categorized as origin, transit, and destination countries, and a specific country can fall into one, two, or all three of these categories.  India, for example, is an origin, transit, and destination country.  For more detailed country profiles, check out the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report.      


What is the difference between human trafficking and human smuggling?

While they often overlap, there are several differences between human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Migrant smuggling involves aiding an individual to cross international borders illegally. Human trafficking is controlling and exploiting a human being for profit. Some important differences include:


For more information, check out the Department of State’s fact sheet: Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling – Understanding the Difference.

What can I do to help fight against human trafficking?

There are a variety of things you can do in your community, as a consumer, and as a citizen. Visit our Take Action page to learn more.