World Day Against Trafficking in Persons

Tuesday, 30 July is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. Special Advisor to SI Advocacy, Linda Witong, blogs about the need for the international community to accelerate efforts to end Human Trafficking.

“UN Secretary General António Guterres has observed that: “Trafficking in persons is a vile crime that feeds on inequalities, instability and conflict. Human traffickers profit from peoples’ hopes and despair. They prey on the vulnerable and rob them of their fundamental rights”.

Children and young people, migrants and refugees are especially susceptible. Women and girls are targeted again and again. We see brutal sexual exploitation, including involuntary prostitution, forced marriage and sexual slavery. We see the appalling trade in human organs. Human trafficking takes many forms and knows no borders. Human traffickers too often operate with impunity, with their crimes receiving not nearly enough attention. This must change.

The United Nations is committed to advancing action to bring traffickers to justice while protecting and supporting their victims. The rights of victims must come first — be they the victims of traffickers, smugglers, or of modern forms of slavery or exploitation. In their proposed Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration to be adopted in December, Member States have also demonstrated resolve to prevent, combat and eradicate trafficking in persons in the context of international migration.

“On this World Day against Trafficking in Persons, let us come together around the key issues of prevention, protection and prosecution to build a future where this crime cannot exist.”[1]

And we have a lot of work to still do to address this vile crime. According to the latest according to the 2018 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, produced by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) More victims of trafficking in persons were reported to UNODC in 2016 than at any time over the past 13 years; this represented a increase of 40% more victims being detected compared to 2011. It was also observed that while this increase could be attributed to the result of broader geographical coverage of data collection, at the same time, the average number of detected victims per country had also increased over the last few years.[2] The victims of trafficking could be women, girls, men and boys. however, while the number of men among detected victims of trafficking had significantly increased over the past 10 years, most of the trafficking victims detected across the world were still females: mainly adult women, but also increasingly girls. In fact, the report determined that as a result of the analysis of the data on trafficking victims over the last 15 years, women and girls together continued to represent more than 70 per cent of detected trafficking victims. In addition. Moreover, almost 75% of the detected victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation were females, and 35 % of the victims trafficked for forced labour were also females, both women and girls. At the same time , more than half of the victims of trafficking for forced labour were men.[3]  Indeed, the number of girls and women being trafficked for sexual exploitation may have even been more as in a survey of 54 countries within this report, 83% of women and 72 % of girls were reported as being trafficked for sexual exploitation.[4] The UNODC 2018 report also found an increase in the number of internal trafficking cases, such as domestic servitude, which largely affects women and girls.[5] This view has been corroborated by recent estimates of the International Labour Organisation, which in its 2017 report observed that women and girls accounted for 99 per cent of victims in the commercial sex industry and 58 per cent of victims of forced labour in other sectors.[6] However, despite the inclusion of trafficking in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and its recognition as a form of gender-based violence as recently as December of 2018 by the UN General Assembly [7], understanding of trafficking in persons as a gendered phenomenon has only slowly gained acceptance.

The UNODC 2018 Global Report on Trafficking also reported that different patterns of trafficking emerge in different parts of the world along with different forms of exploitation. While forms other than sexual exploitation and forced labour are detected at much lower rates, they still displayed some geographical specificities. For example, trafficking for forced marriage, for example, was more commonly detected in parts of South-East Asia, while trafficking of children for illegal adoption was recorded in Central and South American countries. Trafficking for forced criminality was mainly reported in Western and Southern Europe, while trafficking for organ removal was primarily detected in North Africa, Central and South-Eastern Europe, and Eastern Europe. Many other forms, such as trafficking for exploitation in begging or for the production of pornographic material, were reported in different parts of the world. The detection of other forms of trafficking was observed to perhaps reflect the ways in which countries have chosen to criminalise different forms of exploitation.[8] Since 2010, there had also been a significant and steady increase in the share of victims detected within their own country’s borders as the share of identified domestic victims has more than doubled over the last few years, from 27 per cent to 58 per cent in 2016.[9]

In some regions e.g Africa, South America, Asia and parts of Europe in 2016 child victims accounted for above the majority of victims in those regions boys and girls almost equally distributed. In a number of regions, such as Africa, Europe, South and Central America as well as Asia and the Pacific, child victims was accounted for between 30-50%.of the victims in those regions. For example, child victims accounted for the majority (55 per cent) of the victims detected in sub-Saharan Africa in 2016, with girls and boys almost equally distributed. However, in West and Central Europe, South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, South America, North America, Central America and the Caribbean, girls far outnumbered boys as child victims of trafficking.[10]

Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is the most detected form of trafficking globally. Victims trafficked for sexual exploitation comprised 59 per cent of the detected victims in 2016. One victim out of three detected was trafficked for forced labour, and seven per cent of detected victims were trafficked for other purposes.[11]

The detected forms of exploitation vary widely across the different sub-regions. In 2016, trafficking for the purpose of forced labour was the most frequently detected form in Southern, East and West Africa, and the countries of the Middle East. In South Asia as well as in Central Asia, trafficking for forced labour and for sexual exploitation were detected in near-equal proportions. Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation was the most detected form in all European sub-regions, in North and Central America and the Caribbean, and in East Asia and the Pacific. In North Africa, other forms of exploitation, such as exploitative child begging, were more frequently detected than other forms.[12]

As for other forms of exploitation, trafficking for the removal of organs remained very limited in terms of numbers of detected victims[13] however, unfortunately since 2004 this form of exploitation has increased. For example, in 2004 the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a bulletin in which it observed that :The illicit trade in human organs is believed to be on the rise worldwide, fuelled by a growing demand for organ transplants and unscrupulous traffickers. The rising trend has prompted a serious reappraisal of current legislation. There are no reliable data on organ trafficking or transplantation but brokers may charge as much as US$ 200 000 to arrange an operation for wealthy patients but pay poor people as little as US$ 1000 for a kidney. WHO has urged more protection of vulnerable people who could fall prey to traffickers and is developing a new set of basic normative standards to rein in the unethical trade.[14]

In 2013, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) 2013 report regarding the Trafficking in Human Being for the Purpose of Organ Removal in that region, it was observed that as patients in wealthier countries were languishing on waiting lists, they were increasingly travelling abroad to obtain the required organ. The victim-donors were generally suffering from acute poverty and were deceived or coerced by the trafficking networks into giving up an organ for a mere fraction of the money the recipient has paid the traffickers.[15] In 2016, the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice created Resolution 25/1 it observed that although differences existed between the crimes of trafficking in human organs and trafficking in persons for the purpose of organ removal, both crimes were “related to the shortage of human organs used in organ transplantation, which suggests the necessity of preventing and responding to both crimes in an effective and coordinated manner.”[16]

Finally, as recently as December of 2018, the UN General Assembly expressed its concern on the continuing rise of organ trafficking and its effects on women and girls. It began by “noting with concern that women and girls are also vulnerable to the risk of human trafficking for the purpose of organ removal.” It also acknowledge, with concern,

“that some of the demand fostering sexual exploitation, labour exploitation and the illegal removal of organs is met by human trafficking”, and recognize that human trafficking is fueled by high profits for traffickers and demand that fosters all forms of exploitation”[17] To combat this particular crime against women or girls, the UN General Assembly called upon Governments to take appropriate preventive measures to address the underlying causes in particular, the problem of trafficking in women and girls for exploitation, including in prostitution and other forms of commercialised sex, forced marriage, forced labour and organ removal.[18]

Among the factors that have been observed to contribute to the existence of human trafficking in women or girls in the past are “root causes” such as poverty, displacement, economic hardship and unemployment, especially among young people and global restrictive migratory policies, gender inequality, discrimination and stereotyping, coupled with strong traditional practices and beliefs.

In addition, the UNODC 2018 Global Report on Trafficking also listed Factors such as armed conflicts as being factors which increased the vulnerability to trafficking in persons.The Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2018 specifically focused on human trafficking in armed conflict. Trafficking in armed conflict was observed to have  taken on horrific dimensions such as child soldiers, forced labour, sexual slavery.[19] Armed conflicts can increase the vulnerability to trafficking in different ways. For example, it was observed that areas with weak rule of law and lack of resources to respond to crime provided traffickers with a fertile terrain to carry out their operations. This was exacerbated by more people in a desperate situation, lacking access to basic needs. Some armed groups involved in conflict could also exploit civilians. Armed groups and other criminals may take the opportunity to traffic victims – including children – for sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, forced marriage, armed combat and various forms of forced labour such as being a porter for armed groups or extracting minerals, diamond and gold.[20]

According to the 2018 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s thematic paper entitled Countering Trafficking in Persons in Conflict Situations it was also observed that terrorists could finance their activities through profits derived from trafficking in persons including trafficking in persons for the purposes of ransoming them, selling persons for the purposes of sexual exploitation, reaping the benefits of forced labour or exploiting children for begging. In addition, this report also observed that conflict-related trafficking in persons could also involve the the sexual enslavement of members of particular ethnic minority groups and could, in some extreme situations, also constitute genocide. In addition, the above report also determined that conflict-related sexual violence could also include kidnapping for forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, forced temporary marriage or any other form of sexual violence against women, men, girls or boys that was directly or indirectly linked to a conflict.[21]

The 2018 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s thematic paper entitled Countering Trafficking in Persons in Conflict Situations also listed what was described as six grave violations which had been identified in a number of Security Council resolutions which could involve children in armed conflict as well as trafficking.Their list included: [22]

  • Killing and maiming of children can occur as a result of children being trafficked into armed conflicts as combatants, human shields, suicide bombers or in supportive roles such as for begging.
  • Recruitment and use of children by armed forces and armed groups can constitute trafficking in persons, being an act (recruitment) carried out for the purpose of exploitation (use in armed conflict).
  • Rape and other forms of sexual violence against children can result when children are trafficked for the purpose of forced, temporary or child marriage, sexual slavery or other forms of sexual exploitation.
  • Attacks against schools or hospitals can occur in the context of trafficking when the objective is to abduct and exploit children.
  • Abduction of children can constitute trafficking where abduction is found to include exploitation, whether for sexual, combative, terrorist or other purposes.
  • Denial of humanitarian access for children may involve trafficking, for instance, where a child is denied humanitarian access because he or she is in a trafficking situation.


According to the UNODC 2018 Global Report on Trafficking, trafficking in persons for sexual exploitation occurs within all conflict areas it considered, including sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, South-East Asia and others. It was observed that, in some refugee camps in the Middle East, for example, it has been documented that girls and young women have been ‘married off ’ without their consent and subjected to sexual exploitation in neighbouring countries and that abduction of women and girls for sexual slavery had been reported in many conflicts in Central and West Africa, as well as in the conflicts in the Middle East. It had also been reported that women and girls are trafficked for forced marriage in the same areas.[23]

Recruitment of children for use as armed combatants was also widely documented in many of the conflict areas considered: from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Central African Republic, as well as in conflicts in the Middle East and other parts of Asia. In addition, the study found that armed groups also recruited children for exploitation in forced labour in various supportive roles, from logistics to catering. Recruitment and exploitation of children in extractive industries were also specifically reported to have occurred within conflicts in sub- Saharan Africa, in some cases for the purpose of financing the activities of armed groups. Within conflict zones, armed groups also could make use of trafficking as a strategy to assert territorial dominance. Their tactic would be to spread fear of being trafficked among groups in the territories where they operated to keep the local population under control. They could also use women and girls as ‘sex slaves’ or force them into marriages in an effort to appeal to new potential male recruits.[24]

However, the above report went on to observe that armed groups were not the only actors engaging in trafficking in persons in the context of armed conflicts. Criminal groups and individual traffickers target civilians, as well as refugees and internally displaced populations in some formal or informal camps. In all the conflicts considered for this study, forcibly displaced populations have been targeted by traffickers: from settlements of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, to Afghans and Rohingya fleeing conflict and persecution. Moreover, the report also addressed the risk faced by migrants and refugees travelling through conflict areas, such as Libya or parts of sub-Saharan Africa, along the routes. In Libya, for example, militias controlled some detention centres for migrants and refugees. It had been documented how militias and criminals were coercing detained migrants and refugees for different exploitative purposes.[25]

Trafficking in persons was often interlinked with mixed migration movements. People might not necessarily enter mixed migration movements as trafficked persons, but they might become trafficked during their journey or when they reached a transit or destination country. Conflict also exacerbated the smuggling of migrants, as people in situations of conflict are increasingly forced to turn to smugglers for safe, alternative channels by which to flee from conflict and seek safety or asylum. Those who sought to join armed or terrorist groups could also engage the services of smugglers to facilitate their movement into conflict areas.

The profile of the perpetrator or the victim and the climate of impunity precipitated by the collapse of rule of law or the State, cross-border consequences, and/or violations of provisions of a ceasefire agreement also created a opportunity for traffickers to prey on women or girls who were fleeing such conditions.[26]

Factors such natural disasters have also been recently observed to increase the vulnerability to trafficking in persons including women or girls. In 2018, the UN General Assembly also recognised the heightened vulnerability to trafficking of women and girls in humanitarian crisis situations, including natural disasters and other emergency environments, as well as the devastating consequences for women and girls in such circumstances. A such, they called upon Governments, the international community and all other organisations and entities that dealt with not only conflict and post-conflict situations but disaster and other emergency situations as well in order to address the heightened vulnerability of women and girls to human trafficking and exploitation and associated gender-based violence.It also called upon Governments to promote the empowerment of women and girls, including survivors of human trafficking, in all stages of humanitarian response and to consider providing adequate access to redress.[27]

As to the profile of offenders, in the UNODC 2018 Global Report on Trafficking an analysis of the sex of those persons reported to have been investigated or arrested, prosecuted, and/or convicted of trafficking in persons showed that, although women were represented in this group-mostly as recruiters- the majority of traffickers continued to be males. In line with previous years, in 2016 just over 35 per cent of those prosecuted for trafficking in persons were females. The share was similar for those coming into first contact with the police (usually by being investigated or arrested for trafficking) and larger for those who are convicted. The income which the trafficker could receive from exploiting a victim in one instance ranged in its amount depending on the region however, the case with by far the largest reported criminal income dealt with trafficking for organ removal which could result in a fee of as much as $200,000 if the trafficker was a qualified medical doctor.[28] Unfortunately according to the The UNODC 2018 Global Report on Trafficking, traffickers  still acting with impunity enabling  trafficking networks to continue to operate with a high degree of impunity in some of these countries. This impunity can also serve as an incentive to carry out more trafficking.[29]

The UNODC 2018 Global Report on Trafficking also discussed the flow of trafficking. The richest countries were destinations for long -distance trafficking flows According to this report, recently published data from The Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative (CTDC) also yielded new insights into the journey routes victims of trafficking take. This data indicated that, among victims assisted, nearly 80% of international trafficking journeys crossed through official border points, such as airports and land border control points. However, crossing at an official border point did not necessarily mean that victims were crossing the border regularly. In addition, in 9% of cases, victims travelled with forged documents . Those trafficked through official border points were almost as likely to be exploited during their journey as those who are trafficked through unofficial border points. Those who were not exploited during their journey could often be unaware that they would be exploited once they arrived at their destination. The profile of these victims could also differ significantly depending on whether they passed through official or non-official border points. For instance, children were less likely to be trafficked through official border points: out of all the children in the sample, non-official border points are used in 44% of cases, against 20% for adults. Victims of trafficking for labour exploitation were more likely to pass through official border points than victims of sexual exploitation E.g. trafficking for labour exploitation made up 83% of official border crossings while trafficking for sexual exploitation made up only 15% of official border crossings. There were also differences in the modes of transport used by victims, with about a third of official border points crossing by bus, another third by train, and 20% by plane. In comparison, unofficial borders were crossed mainly by car (28%), bus (26%) and train (15%).Finally, victims trafficked through non-official border points also tended to be trafficked for a longer period of time: 25% of them were trafficked for more than two years, while the same figure for victims trafficked through official border points was only 19%.[30]

Finally, the UNODC 2018 Global Report on Trafficking observed that, while the world were far from ending impunity, it had made headway in the 15 years since the Protocol against Trafficking in Persons entered into force. It was observed that nearly every country now has legislation in place criminalising human trafficking. However, the international community still needed to accelerate progress to build capacities and cooperation, to stop human trafficking in conflict situations and in all our societies.”

Feature image: 2018 UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons

[1] UN Secretary General António Guterres  Statement July 30, 2018, UN Secretary General Website.

[2] The 2018 UN Global Report on Trafficking in Persons pages 21-22. While it was observed that this increase could be attributed to the result of broader geographical coverage of data collection,  the report also added that, at the same time, the average number of detected victims per country had also increased over the last few year.

[3] UNODC 2018 Global Report On Trafficking e.g page 12 and page 25 E.g. Global Statistics show that 49% are women, 21% are men, 23% are girls and 7% are boys

[4] UNODC 2018 Global Report on Trafficking page 28 figures 15 and 17

[5] UNODC 2018 Global Report on Trafficking page 11

[6] Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: forced labour and forced marriage, page 39, ILO, Geneva, 2017.

[7] UN General Assembly Resolution 73/146 Trafficking in Women and Girls December 17,2018


[8] UNODC 2018 Global Report on Trafficking page 11

[9] Ibid page 41

[10] Ibid pages 25-26 Figures 11, 12 and Map 1 and 2

[11] Ibid pages 29-32

[12] Ibid pages 29-32

[13] Ibid pages 29-32

[14] Clare, Nullis-Kapp. (2004). Organ trafficking and transplantation pose new challenges.. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 82 (9), 715. World Health Organization.

[15] 2013 Office of the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings: OSCE’s Report regarding Trafficking in Human Beings for the Purpose of Organ Removal in OSCE occasion paper series No. 6; Analysis and Findings page 10

[16] Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Report on the twenty-fifth session  (11 December 2015 and 23-27 May 2016)  Economic and Social Council  Official Records, 2016  Supplement No. 10 Resolution 25/1 E/2016/30  E/CN.15/2016/13  pages 13-16

[17] UN General Assembly Resolution 73/146. Trafficking in women and girls  12-17-18

[18] UN General Assembly Resolution 73/146 Trafficking in women and girls paragraph 16 12/18

[19] Ibid page 3

[20] ibid pages 11-12

[21] 2018 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s thematic paper entitled Countering Trafficking in Persons in Conflict Situations Executive Summary page X

[22] 2018 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s thematic paper entitled Countering Trafficking in Persons in Conflict Situations Executive Summary pages X-X1

[23] Ibid pages 11-12

[24] Ibid pages 11- 12

[25] Ibid pages 11-12

[26] Ibid pages 11-12

[27] UN General Assembly Resolution 73/146 Trafficking in Women and Girls Preamble, Paragraphs 17 and 32 2018

[28] Ibid pages 35-40

[29] Ibid pages 8 and 23-24

[30] Ibid page 9 and page 47

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