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Farmworkers harvesting plums (Photo Credit – Lance Cheung)

About Human Trafficking

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Human trafficking, also called modern slavery or trafficking in persons, has no place in our world. As both a grave crime and a human rights abuse, it compromises national and economic security, undermines the rule of law, and harms the well-being of individuals and communities everywhere. It is a crime of exploitation; traffickers profit at the expense of their victims by compelling them to perform labor or to engage in commercial sex in every region of the United States and around the world. With an estimated 24.9 million victims worldwide at any given time, human traffickers prey on adults and children of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities, exploiting them for their own profit.


Trafficking Profile in the United States

In the United States, traffickers compel victims to engage in commercial sex and to work in both legal and illicit industries and sectors, including in hospitality, traveling sales crews, agriculture, janitorial services, construction, landscaping, restaurants, factories, care for persons with disabilities, salon services, massage parlors, retail services, fairs and carnivals, peddling and begging, drug smuggling and distribution, religious institutions, child care, and domestic work.

Farmworker displays a harvested pea pod (Photo Credit – Preston Keres)

Forms of Human Trafficking*

Forced Labor: The term forced labor** is defined in two separate sections of the U.S. Code. In the criminal statutes of Title 18, it encompasses the range of activities – recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining – involved when a person uses force or physical threats; psychological coercion; abuse of the legal process; a scheme, plan, or pattern intended to hold a person in fear of serious harm; or other coercive means to compel someone to work. Once a person’s labor is obtained by such means, the person’s previous consent or effort to obtain employment with the trafficker does not preclude the person from being considered a victim, or the government from prosecuting the offender. In the customs-related statute of Title 19, it is also defined in connection with the prohibition on the importation of goods produced wholly or in part by forced labor, including forced child labor; convict labor; and indentured labor under penal sanctions.

Debt Bondage: U.S. law prohibits the use of a debt as a form of coercion to compel a person’s labor. Some workers fall victim to traffickers or recruiters who unlawfully exploit an initial debt assumed as a condition of employment, while in certain countries some workers “inherit” the debt. Although contract violations and hazardous working conditions for migrant laborers do not in themselves constitute human trafficking, the imposition of costs and debts on these laborers can contribute to a situation of debt bondage. In other cases, employment-based temporary work programs in which the workers’ legal status in the country is tied to a particular employer present challenges to workers who would like to flee from such an employer.

Domestic Servitude: Working in a private residence can create unique vulnerabilities, particularly because what happens in a private residence often is hidden from the world, and it is easy to isolate a worker in a private residence. Domestic workplaces are often informal, connected to off-duty living quarters, and not shared with other workers. Such an environment is conducive to exploitation because authorities cannot inspect private homes as easily as formal workplaces. The use of informal, or even verbal, employment contracts compounds vulnerability. Foreign domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse due to factors such as language and cultural barriers and lack of community ties.

Forced Child Labor: Although children may legally engage in certain forms of work, forms of slavery or slave-like practices – including the sale of children for exploitation, forced or compulsory child labor, and debt bondage and serfdom of children – continue to exist, despite legal prohibitions and widespread condemnation.

Sex Trafficking: When a person is required to engage in a commercial sex act as the result of force, threats of force, fraud, coercion or any combination of such means, that person is a victim of human trafficking. Under such circumstances, perpetrators involved in recruiting, enticing, harboring, transporting, providing, obtaining, advertising, maintaining, patronizing, or soliciting a person for that purpose are guilty of the federal crime of sex trafficking. This is true even if the victim previously consented to engage in commercial sex.

Child Sex Trafficking: Any child (under the age of 18) who has been recruited, enticed, harbored, transported, provided, obtained, advertised, maintained, patronized, or solicited to engage in a commercial sex act is a victim of human trafficking regardless of whether or not force, fraud, or coercion is used. The use of children in the commercial sex trade is prohibited both under U.S. law and by legislation in most countries around the world.

Prosecution, Protection, Prevention, and Partnership

The “3P” paradigm—prosecution, protection, and prevention—continues to serve as the fundamental framework used around the world to combat human trafficking. The United States also follows this approach, reflected in the United States’ Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 , as amended (TVPA), and in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Palermo Protocol) . In addition, a fourth “P”—for partnership—serves as a complementary means to achieve progress across the 3Ps and enlist all segments of society in the fight against modern slavery.

Two women weave baskets. (Photo Credit – USAID East Africa Trade and Investment Hub 5)

Victims of Human Trafficking

Human trafficking victims can be of any age, race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, immigration status, cultural background, religion, socio-economic class, and education attainment level. In the United States, individuals vulnerable to human trafficking include children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, including foster care; runaway and homeless youth; unaccompanied foreign national children without lawful immigration status; individuals seeking asylum; American Indians and Alaska Natives, particularly women and girls; individuals with substance use issues; racial or ethnic minorities; migrant laborers, including undocumented workers and participants in visa programs for temporary workers; foreign national domestic workers in diplomatic households; persons with limited English proficiency; persons with disabilities; LGBT+ individuals; and victims of intimate partner violence or other forms of domestic violence.

Who are the Traffickers?

At the heart of this phenomenon is the traffickers’ aim to profit from the exploitation of their victims and the myriad coercive and deceptive practices they use to do so. Traffickers can be strangers, acquaintances, or even family members, and they prey on the vulnerable and on those seeking opportunities to build for themselves a brighter future.

Human Trafficking vs. Migrant Smuggling

Human traffickers respect no boundaries. The crime can include, but does not require, movement. Human trafficking is distinct from the separate crime of migrant smuggling. Human trafficking occurs when a trafficker uses force, fraud, or coercion to compel another person to work or engage in a commercial sex act, and does not require crossing a border. By contrast, migrant smugglers engage in the crime of bringing people across international borders through deliberate evasion of immigration laws. While these are distinct crimes, individuals who are smuggled may become vulnerable to and victims of human trafficking.

How Many Victims of Human Trafficking Are There?

It is hard to find reliable statistics related to human trafficking. The quality and quantity of data available are often hampered by the hidden nature of the crime, challenges in identifying individual victims, gaps in data accuracy and completeness, and significant barriers regarding the sharing of victim information among various stakeholders. For these reasons, data and statistics may not reflect the full nature or scope of the problem.

In February 2020, the Senior Policy Operating Group (SPOG) Public Awareness & Outreach Committee created a Guide for Public Awareness Materials (non-binding) to serve as a public resource that reflects the common messaging, standard statistics, and shared guidelines on images that SPOG agencies use when creating public awareness and training materials. The following reflects standard statistics used by the U.S. government:

International Labour Organization

The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation, in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), released Global Estimates of Modern Slavery  in September 2017. This report estimates that, at any given time in 2016, approximately 24.9 million people were in forced labor. Of these, “16 million were in the private economy, another 4.8 million were in forced sexual exploitation, and 4.1 million were in forced labour imposed by state authorities.” The definition of forced labor used in this report is based on ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), which states in Article 2.1 that forced labor is “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

This report also estimates that 40 million people were in “modern slavery” at any given time in 2016, but this figure includes both the estimate for forced labor and an estimate for forced marriage. Consistent with current implementation of U.S. law, it is recommended to use only the 24.9 million estimate when referring to human trafficking. While some instances of forced marriage may meet the international or U.S. legal definition of human trafficking, not all cases do. Note further that the term “modern slavery” is not defined in international or U.S. law.

National Human Trafficking Hotline

The National Human Trafficking Hotline provides on its website data sets  on the issue of human trafficking in the United States. These data sets are based on aggregated information learned through phone calls, emails, online tips, and texts the hotline receives and should not be confused with prevalence studies or closed-out confirmed cases. Note that the hotline receives several types of calls in addition to those about human trafficking cases. The hotline does not verify the accuracy of information reported, but it determines on a case-by-case basis whether the information should be passed on to an appropriate local, state, or federal investigative and/or service agency equipped to investigate the tip and/or respond to the needs of the potential victim.

Annual Federal Reports

The U.S. narrative in the U.S. Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report and the Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress on U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons  include updated federal statistics.


* See President’s Interagency Task Force Report on U.S. Government Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons (Dec. 2017) available at [4 MB].

** While the term “labor trafficking” does not appear in the U.S. Code, it is another term that the United States government uses to refer to human trafficking involving compelled labor, as distinct from sex trafficking.

U.S. Department of State

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