Trafficking in Persons

The term "trafficking" is used by different international agencies to describe activities that range from voluntary to forced movement of persons under the threat of violence for certain exploitative purposes including prostitution. The subject of trafficking in women has received increased international attention since the 1980s. International developments regarding migration flows, the increase in child prostitution, sex-tourism, and AIDS have raised concerns among international NGOs, human rights groups, feminist organizations, as well as the general public.

Trafficking in human beings is probably the fastest-growing business of organized crime. Traffickers use threats, intimidation, and violence to force victims to engage in sex acts or to labor under conditions comparable to slavery. Women, children, and men are trafficked into the international sex trade for the purposes of prostitution, sex tourism, and other exploitative work. Obtaining reliable data on human trafficking is difficult owing to a lack of clear definition and to the clandestine nature of the activity. Although trafficking afflicts men and women equally, rough estimates by the UN suggest that between 700,000 to 2 million persons trafficked across international borders annually are women and girls.

According to the US Department of State, over 225,000 victims of trafficking each year are from Southeast Asia and over 150,000 are from South Asia. The former Soviet Union, believed to be the largest new source of trafficking for prostitution and the sex industry, sees an estimated 100,000 women trafficked each year. An additional 75,000 or more are trafficked from Eastern Europe. Over 100,000 come from Latin America and the Caribbean, and over 50,000 victims are from Africa. Not limited to global south–north movements, there are increasing instances of intra-regional traffic (Bangladeshi and Nepali girls being smuggled into India), and the numbers of destination countries are on the increase.

The issue of trafficking in women, especially in regard to sexual exploitation and prostitution, presents pressing moral challenges for the international human rights agenda. Categorizing sex-trafficking as contemporary slavery has led to a heated debate involving ideological and conceptual differences among those working to ensure that the human rights of trafficked persons are protected by international authorities and agencies. On one side of the debate are feminist organizations which argue that all forms of prostitution, in essence, exploit women and reduce them to sexual objects. On the other side are advocacy groups, some of them feminist, who defend sex work as a legitimate profession that some women choose freely; these groups emphasize the importance of the right to self-determination. At the core of the controversy lies the question of whether adult prostitution, when voluntary and not coerced, should be accepted as a legitimate form of work.

The first international legal instrument to deal with trafficking was the Convention of the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, approved by the UN General Assembly in 1949. For the first time in an international instrument, the Convention declared prostitution and the traffic in persons to be incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and to endanger the welfare of the individual, the family, and the community. In 2000, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime broadened the definition of “trafficking in persons” to include a range of cases where human beings are exploited by organized criminal groups, particularly where there is an element of duress involved and a transnational aspect, such as the movement of people across borders. The Protocol highlights the inhuman, degrading, and dangerous exploitation of trafficked person and is expected to standardize the terminology, laws, and practices of countries.


Related Site

U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons: Trafficking in Persons Reports. 

Content by Mini Singh
Research Analyst, FSE

Content in Arabic by Raja El Habti
Research Assistant, FSE