What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking and modern-day slavery are umbrella terms – often used interchangeably – that refer to the exploitation of individuals through threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, and/or deception. As of 2021, 49.6 million people are impacted by one of these types of trafficking globally. They include the practices of forced labor, debt bondage, domestic servitude, forced marriage, sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, and the recruitment and use of child soldiers, among others.

The most common form of modern slavery is forced labor. According to the International Labour Organization, in 2021 an estimated 27.6 million people were in forced labor, including 23% in forced commercial sexual exploitation, 63% in other private sectors, and 14% in state-imposed forced labor, according to the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage (2022).

  • Almost four out of five of those in forced commercial sexual exploitation are women or girls.
  • Almost one in eight of all those in forced labor are children (12%). More than half of these children are in commercial sexual exploitation.
  • The Asia and the Pacific region has 29 million people in conditions of modern slavery, over half of the total population of those in conditions of modern slavery. The Arab States region has the highest prevalence of modern slavery, with 10.1 victims of modern slavery for every 1000 people.
  • Migrant workers are more than three times more likely to be in forced labor than non-migrant adult workers.

The ILO estimates that forced labor generates $150 billion in illegal profits each year. You can find the latest statistics and data on forced labor here.

Sexual exploitation/trafficking and forced labor are the terms most used when talking about human trafficking. Sex trafficking is separate from sex work and includes any instance in which an individual engages in a commercial sex act (such as prostitution) as the result of force, fraud, or coercion. Sex trafficking also includes the commercial sexual exploitation of children or minors (commonly abbreviated as CSEC). Forced labor can occur within any form of labor or services, and it is defined as the subjection of individuals to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. In all instances of forced labor, the individual works against his or her will, for little or no pay, and/or under the threat of some sort of punishment.

Trafficked persons may be forced or coerced to work in a variety of settings, both hidden and in plain sight. Some examples include factories, “sweatshops,” fields, brothels, “massage” parlors, brick kilns, online escort services, on street corners, as child soldiers, or in private homes. The most common industries associated with the trafficking in persons include: agriculture, construction, garment and textile manufacturing, catering and restaurants, domestic work, entertainment, and the sex industry. However, forced labor is always evolving and taking on new forms as seen by the recent uptick in the use forced labor in the online scamming industry, dubbed “cyber slavery”.

While human trafficking spans all demographics, trafficked persons most often come from positions of vulnerability. Those most vulnerable to trafficking include those who:

  • Are homeless or have run away from home
  • Come from a low socio-economic background
  • Are a political, cultural, or ethnic minority
  • Have a history of sexual abuse, rape, or domestic violence
  • Are an immigrant
  • Have been subject to natural disasters, conflict, or political turmoil
  • Are in foster care


Traffickers use these vulnerabilities to their advantage and use a number of tactics to establish control over victims. Violence, isolation, threats, deception, manipulation, debt bondage, prospects of education, and romance are just a few methods used. Traffickers may operate alone with one or many victims, or maybe a part of an extensive criminal network. Examples of trafficking rings include gang members, family members, pimps, business owners, or smugglers.


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