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Human Trafficking: An Overview

Trafficking in human beings is a $10-billion growth industry. Conservative estimates of the number of people trafficked into forced labor and prostitution range from 700,000 to 2 million people — primarily women and children — annually.

As a result of increasing public attention on this crisis, in 2000 the international community agreed on and expanded the definition of trafficking. This definition was developed as part of the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, and more specifically, the convention's Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

Trafficking Defined

According to this Protocol, "Trafficking in persons" is "the 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. Exploitation includes, 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."

Men, women and children are all being trafficked. However, the most vulnerable groups, those with limited rights or protections, have been the hardest hit. Disproportionately, trafficking affects poor women, children and members of disadvantaged minority groups.

It's impossible to deny the suffering of the victims of trafficking. What may be harder to understand are the forces that create and sustain this global problem. These forces — and the array of initiatives necessary to combat them — are far more complex. Trafficking does not exist in isolation. It is connected to economic, political and social forces that increase the vulnerability and desperation of the poor, refugees and migrants, and women and children. Trafficking is one of the most horrific end results of economic and social disparities that increase the vulnerability of millions of people. Such vast inequality allows many within our societies to be considered little more than disposable commodities.

Understanding Root Causes

Early on, CRS identified and responded to human trafficking as a profound human-rights concern that was disproportionately impacting the poor and marginalized — the people who are traditionally CRS' first priority. However, over the course of the last several years, we have also increasingly recognized that human trafficking is intricately linked to CRS core priority areas: economic development; emergency response, HIV and AIDS; and the protection of refugees and migrants.

CRS is well-positioned to respond to this problem because many of the underlying and sustaining factors of human trafficking are closely related to CRS' areas of traditional focus. In order to effectively combat trafficking in the long-term, we must understand and respond to the factors that first create an environment for trafficking, and then contribute to sustaining and expanding the problem.


Trafficking has been described as "the dark underbelly of globalization." It is one of the end results of rapid economic, technological and social changes worldwide. Such rapid changes have created or exacerbated people's vulnerability and, at the same time, expanded the opportunities for predators to exploit that vulnerability. CRS recognized the need to reduce economic vulnerability while enhancing the capacity of communities to implement protection mechanisms for people at-risk.

Economic factors driving the increase and expansion of human trafficking include not only poverty itself but also:

  • Lack of employment options, which may have existed in the past
  • Increased economic disparity
  • Rapid and severe economic decline in some countries

Additionally, greater vulnerability has been created by:

  • Elimination of social safety nets — many countries have been mandated to restructure their economies and minimize social spending in order to qualify for multilateral loans and international economic support
  • Fluidity of capital — recent advances in information systems have made the profits from criminal activity, such as trafficking, easier to transfer and launder rapidly across the globe.
  • Race to the bottom on labor standards/cost of production — increased international competition to produce consumer goods at the lowest cost possible can, and has, exacerbated abusive labor practices, the most severe, that of forced labor and slavery-like practices.
  • Corruption — state corruption is a serious concern in many societies and is closely tied to the spread of trafficking. Corruption of state representatives responsible for public order and social welfare can be exacerbated by economic decline.
  • Economic migration — As economies are increasingly integrated and investment and employment quickly move from one part of the globe to another, workers generally do not have the legal freedom of movement to go where employment exists. Even as wealthier nations with aging populations and declining fertility rates increasingly rely on migrant labor, prohibitive immigration laws have been created, which make the act of migrating both difficult and dangerous. In the absence of safe and legal options for migration, large numbers of migrants can be left with little choice but to place themselves at the mercy of migrant smugglers and in the worst cases, unknowingly in the hands of traffickers.

What CRS is Doing

CRS programs are increasingly recognizing the importance of local alternative economic options as a key form of counter-trafficking prevention:

  • CRS in Brazil is responding to labor slavery as part of the agricultural economy.
  • CRS in India and Moldova are supporting programs that offer economic alternatives and skills training as ways of preventing trafficking as well as reintegrating trafficking survivors into society.
  • The trafficking-migration connection has been recognized throughout the CRS world. Current migration programs and advocacy for policy change are particular areas of priority for CRS' United States partners and programs in our Latin America and Caribbean region.
  • CRS partners in Eastern Europe are helping to monitor budgets to ensure public funds are designated for counter-trafficking initiatives.

Emergency and Conflict

After the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, media attention raised public awareness of the link between emergencies (natural disasters and complex humanitarian emergencies) and an increased risk of human trafficking. Both prior and subsequent emergencies have also demonstrated the relationship between emergencies and trafficking, both during emergency and reconstruction periods.

In conflict and post-conflict areas, displaced and endangered people make desperate decisions, including relying upon smugglers (who may turn out to be traffickers) in an attempt to get out of harm's way. In recent years, we have examples of women fleeing the conflict in Kosovo, of children from the refugee camps in East and West Timor, and, increasingly, of Colombians victimized in the trafficking "market." There is also a problem of international military/peace keeping presence contributing to the growth of trafficking in some areas.

It is additionally of importance to consider the shortcomings of the international response and related policies towards refugees and asylum seekers. People who are compelled to seek refuge or asylum outside their home areas increasingly face severely restricted resettlement options. As mentioned earlier, desperate people faced with few safe and legal options for protection are often driven to make decisions that place them in further danger.

In conflict areas, as in other arenas, the manner in which men and women are impacted differently needs to be taken into consideration, as a factor in preventing trafficking. In post-conflict contexts male members of a society are often disproportionately recruited in armed conflicts or killed. Under these circumstances, women and children are disproportionately represented among internally displaced and refugee populations. As their socioeconomic support network is diminished, and there are significant delays in their reintegration or resettlement, women and children become even more vulnerable to criminal predation.

What CRS is Doing

  • A partner that CRS in India works with on trafficking assessed risks in tsunami-affected areas. On the basis of their assessment, the partner initiated counter-trafficking programming in the reconstruction phase that followed the tsunami.
  • Our partners on migration programs in Latin America quickly recognized the risk of trafficking in areas impacted by Hurricane Stan. They went on to institute migrant protection mechanisms, including awareness raising on the danger of trafficking, meeting basic emergency needs and recreating income generating alternatives in these areas.


CRS considers HIV and AIDS a priority programming area. Tragically, a significant relationship exists between human trafficking and vulnerability to HIV and AIDS. Sexual abuse and prostitution of trafficking victims is a core element of the trafficking-HIV and AIDS relationship, with younger and younger trafficking victims identified.

Not only is human trafficking creating greater risk of exposure to HIV and AIDS, the HIV and AIDS crisis itself is driving greater victimization. Without the support of a family structure, children who have lost their parents to AIDS are particularly vulnerable to traffickers. And young children are trafficked precisely because they are less likely to be HIV-positive.

What CRS is Doing

  • CRS in India works with a counter-trafficking partner that has established a residential school for child trafficking survivor's — all of whom are HIV-positive.
  • In Haiti, CRS' counter-trafficking efforts focus on children orphaned by AIDS, one of the groups identified as at greatest risk of being trafficked.

Children who are not in formal school settings are far more likely to become victims of human trafficking. Street kids easily disappear. Child laborers have few protections against the worst forms of abuse and servitude. Schools are also a key venue for teaching — both the child and family — about the dangers of human trafficking and for developing job skills that lead to economic options.

What CRS is Doing

Keeping children in school, and particularly expanding girls’ education, has long been an area of priority for many CRS/Programs. Emphasis on formal education as a way of preventing trafficking is a component of CRS' program efforts in many countries.

Other Social Factors:

Gender Discrimination: Although men and boys are also vulnerable to trafficking, a significant social factor underlying trafficking is the low status of women and girls in many parts of the world.

Low status can lead to discriminatory and abusive treatment. A significant percentage of trafficking victims experienced domestic violence or incest earlier in life. Many countries have limited legal protections for women in cases of domestic and sexual violence or harassment. Even in countries with laws against various forms of violence against women, including sex trafficking, the laws are often poorly enforced, with violators receiving minimal sentencing.

The feminization of poverty is a global reality. Women are particularly hard hit when employment options and social safety nets disappear, or where they never existed in the first place. Where girls are less valued than boys, families make less investment in the girls' futures. Girls can be considered a financial burden to the family if they are not providing an additional income. Current limitations on girls' access to education and information also increases their vulnerability.

What CRS is Doing

Gender-sensitive programming is a priority throughout CRS' work. It is of particular urgency given the expansion of human trafficking.

Demand: In actions that combat trafficking, there is comparatively little attention paid to consumer demand for products that are the end result of forced labor, and "services" of sex trafficking victims. As with trafficking in drugs or guns, it is essential to approach the problem in terms of supply (and the conditions creating supply), distribution by traffickers, criminal networks, corrupt authorities, and demand (clients and consumers).

What CRS is Doing

The issue of demand is one that will be particularly challenging in terms of appropriate and effective interventions. CRS and international partners are in the process of assessing what can be done to include this element in a comprehensive response to the pressing issue of human trafficking.

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