Human Trafficking

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Author: Tish Davidson
Editor: Laurie J. Fundukian
Date: 2013
The Gale Encyclopedia of Public Health
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Human Trafficking


Human trafficking is the illegal recruitment, transportation, and trading of humans for sexual exploitation, forced labor, or the removal of organs. Human trafficking is also commonly known as modern-day slavery.

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Human trafficking is considered one of the fastest growing crime industries. It is the second largest crime industry in the world, directly behind the drug trade. Although similar in name, human smuggling is different from human trafficking. In human trafficking, victims are forced or coerced with deception to be taken to a new city or country. They are then held against their will and exploited. In human smuggling, a person voluntarily hires people, without deception, to get them into a new country. They are then free to go their own way once they reach the destination. Although victims of human trafficking are often taken to a new country, many victims remain in their country of origin. Human smuggling, on the other hand, always takes place across borders.

Each year, an estimated 700,000 to 4 million women and children are trafficked. Most trafficked women and children are sexually exploited, forced to work as prostitutes, strippers, or participate in pornography. Women and children may also be exploited for labor, forced to work for no or very little pay, used for their organs, or forced to be soldiers in armed conflicts. Men can also be victims of human trafficking, and are most often forced into labor, used for their organs, or forced to become soldiers.

Human trafficking is a large industry generating an estimated $32 billion each year. On average, each forced labor victim generates $13,000 each year, some generating up to $67,200 a year.

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Human trafficking takes place around the world. Victims of human trafficking come from over 127 countries and are sent to more than 137 countries. In total, as many as 161 countries are believed to be affected by human trafficking through being a source, transit, or destination country. Although the majority of victims are between the ages of 18 and 24, over 1.2 million children are also trafficked each year. Estimates for the number of victims trafficked vary. The United Nations (UN) estimates that between 700,000 to 4 million women and children alone are trafficked each year. Another UN statement estimated that 2.4 million people are suffering from human trafficking at any one time, with two out of every three victims being a woman or child.

Victims of human trafficking come from all racial and ethnic groups. The largest number of victims come from Asia and the Pacific. A majority of victims have vulnerable backgrounds and come from war-torn or economically poor areas. Often, human traffickers deceive people looking for work, promising a good job and better life in another country. These people are then held against their will once they arrive in the new country. Other victims may be runaway teens, kidnap victims, drug addicts, tourists, refugees, or the homeless. As unemployment around the world rises, more people are in danger of becoming victims of human trafficking.


There is no one time or event agreed upon as to when human trafficking began. Although slavery has been around for thousands of years, many feel that human trafficking did not get its start until the time of white slavery. White slavery is the name given for the use of deceit, force, or drugs to entrap women or children into prostitution. White slavery first got attention during the same time black slavery was beginning to be abolished in countries such as the United Kingdom. Although now it is believed that the actual number of white slavery cases was small, during this same period, there was an increase in women migrants from Europe travelling abroad to search for work making them more vulnerable.

What to do about white slavery was first discussed at a conference in Paris in 1895, and was again a topic at conferences in London and Budapest in 1899. In 1899, and again in 1902, an international conference against white slavery was held in Paris. An agreement was signed in Paris in 1904, known as the International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic. This agreement focused not only on the safety of women and children, but also the repatriation of migration workers.

Policy against white slavery continued to develop. In 1910, 13 countries signed the International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Trade. However, no real changes were made because the start of World War I put an end to the work this convention set out to do. Over time, the name white slavery began to be replaced by traffic in women. This name change officially took place at a 1921 conference of the League of Nations. This also began a change in focus from just women and girls to children of both sexes. Thirty-three countries signed the International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children at this conference.

A study done by the League of Nations in 1927 focused on trafficking in the West and found that the most common source countries included Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain, and Turkey. The most common destination countries included Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, Panama, Tunis, and Uruguay. This is the reverse Page 464  |  Top of Articleof the pattern seen in the twenty-first century. A second study that focused on trafficking in the East was released in 1932. This study found similar countries of origin and that the most popular destinations included Beirut, Bombay, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Saigon, and Shanghai. This study also discovered that many Asian women were trafficked within Asia.

Adopted in 1949 and effective starting in 1951, the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, was the first legally binding agreement dealing with the trafficking of women and children internationally. As of 2010, only 66 countries had ratified this agreement. Other non-binding instruments have been passed since 1949. In 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted with the goal of effectively suppressing human trafficking of women and children. The Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography was at first a non-binding agreement, but was later ratified in 2002 to become binding. As of 2012, more than 100 countries had signed and ratified this law-binding agreement.

The largest law-binding step took place in 2000, when the UN adopted the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. This included multiple protocols, two with a specific focus on human trafficking. The first dealt with the prevention of trafficking of persons, especially women and children. The second was against the smuggling of migrants by land, sea, and air. These protocols went into effect in 2003 and 2004, respectively. As of 2012, this convention has been signed by 147 countries and 171 parties.

Effects on public health

Human trafficking can have devastating consequences on the physical and mental health of its victims and the public. Victims of human trafficking often live in crowded and unsanitary conditions, leading to the possible spread of communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis and scabies. Victims forced to do labor may suffer from back problems or stress injuries due to repetitive motion. Hearing, vision, cardiovascular, and respiratory problems can also be linked to working in harsh conditions such as in sweatshops or agricultural labor.

Malnourishment can be a problem faced by victims, especially children, who do not have their basic needs taken care of such as health and dental care. Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and other mental disorders are common among trafficking victims who are forced to live and work in fear. Sexually exploited victims risk being infected by sexually transmitted and other communicable diseases such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), tuberculosis, and hepatitis B. These diseases can become a larger public health threat when they are transmitted across borders through the transportation of human trafficking victims. Victims may also be forced or willingly participate in drug use, adding to the spread of disease.

Costs to society

Human trafficking has a large cost to individual victims and society as a whole. Human trafficking is negative for public health, leading to the spread of disease throughout communities and between countries. Human trafficking also disrupts families and communities who lose their own to the trafficking trade and may discriminate against, or completely reject, those victims who are able to return home. Additionally, human trafficking deprives people of basic human rights , fuels organized crime, encourages corruption, and can damage a government's authority. Both local and national labor markets can also be negatively impacted by human trafficking. Communities can find themselves with depressed wages, an undereducated generation, and a shortage of people to care for the elderly. Around the world, billions of dollars are spent trying to stop human trafficking and to rehabilitate victims who have been able to escape, costing governments, private organizations, and public healthcare systems.

Efforts and solutions

Hundreds of organizations throughout the world are working to combat human trafficking. These groups include both governmental and non-governmental organizations. While some groups are quite small, others have branches throughout the world such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Governmental organizations at all levels have worked to pass legislation and develop action plans to fight human trafficking. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime participates in research and holds conferences and seminars to discuss human trafficking and the successes and failures of their action plans.

Individual countries and states also participate in the fight against human trafficking by passing legislation to increase the sentences given to people convicted of human trafficking and the funds available to help victims. Education also plays a large role in the fight against human trafficking. Potential victims are educated about the warning signs of job offers that may be a cover-up for a human trafficking operation and medical professionals, law enforcement agencies, and the public are educated about the signs of human trafficking operations or human trafficking victims. Unfortunately, due to the large and Page 465  |  Top of Articlecorrupt nature of human trafficking, organizations struggle to capture and convict all criminals involved. In 2006, only 3,160 people were convicted of human trafficking, averaging one person for every 800 trafficked. In 2012, it was estimated that only one out of every 100 victims is ever rescued.

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Worry or tension in response to real or imagined stress, danger, or dreaded situations. Physical reactions, such as fast pulse, sweating, trembling, fatigue, and weakness may accompany anxiety.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)—
A transmissible retrovirus that causes AIDS in humans. Two forms of HIV are now recognized: HIV-1, which causes most cases of AIDS in Europe, North and South America, and most parts of Africa; and HIV-2, which is chiefly found in West African patients. HIV-2, discovered in 1986, appears to be less virulent than HIV-1 and may also have a longer latency period.
Panic attack—
A time-limited period of intense fear accompanied by physical and cognitive symptoms. Panic attacks may be unexpected or triggered by specific internal or external cues.
An infectious disease that primarily infects the lungs. Tuberculosis can cause weight lost, chest pain, fever, and death. Tuberculosis is caused by various strains of bacteria and is passed from one person to another through the air.
White slavery—
A term first used in 19th century Britain to describe forced prostitution. White slavery is sometimes still used to describe sexual slavery today.



United Nations. Human Trafficking: An Overview. New York: UN, 2008.

United Nations Independent Evaluation Unit. In-Depth Evaluation of the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking. New York: UN, 2011.


Kangaspunta, Kristina. “A Short History of Trafficking in Persons.” (accessed September 21, 2012).

Polaris Project. “Increasing Awareness and Engagement: Strengthening the National Response to Human Trafficking in the U.S.” = (accessed September 21, 2012).

Polaris Project. “Human Trafficking Statistics.” (accessed September 21, 2012).

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “Human Trafficking.” (accessed September 21, 2012).


Amnesty International, 1 Easton Street, London, United Kingdom WC1X 0DW, 44 20 74135500, Fax: 44 20 79561157,

Human Rights Watch, 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor, New York, NY 10118, (212) 290 4700, Fax: (212) 736 1300,

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, PO Box 500, Vienna, Austria A 1400, 43 (1) 26060, Fax: 43 (1) 263 3389,, .

Tish Davidson

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2760500133

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.