What exactly is human trafficking?
Human trafficking, a prevalent form of modern-day slavery, is a lucrative industry today. It is the world's largest profit-making crime after drug trafficking and generates roughly US$ 150 billion in profits annually. The trafficking of persons is the process of trapping people and exploiting them for personal or financial gain. It is a reality for many today, with an estimated 40.3 million people trafficked as reported by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The victims are commodified, their human dignity and identities stripped from them.
Human trafficking involves three elements:
- The act: This usually constitutes recruitment, transportation, transfer or harbouring of persons.
- The means: This refers to how the human trafficking is carried out and may include threats or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim.
- The purpose: The purpose of human trafficking is exploitation and this includes forced labour, sexual exploitation or other practices of modern slavery.
Who are the victims?
According to the ILO, women and girls account for the majority of human trafficking victims. Men make up about 25%. Data collected by the IOM on human trafficking between 2005 and 2016 showed that at least 16% of trafficking victims were children. According to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODOC) global report on human trafficking in persons, sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking. The second most common one is forced labour.
What are the misconceptions of human trafficking?
- Men are the only human traffickers. This is false. Research shows that men make up the majority of human trafficking offenders but women also play a prominent role in the crime, especially in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, East Asia, the Pacific, Central America and the Caribbean.
- Victims are exploited in hidden industries. This is false. There is a common perception that victims are exploited in underground industries like illegal mines but they can also be exploited in legitimate places such as factories, construction sites and restaurants.
- Human trafficking only happens in developing countries. This is untrue as human trafficking does not discriminate. It is a global problem, in both developed and developing countries. Victims transported over long distance are likely to end up in richer countries.
- Human trafficking always involves crossing borders to other countries. False. Many individuals fall victim to trafficking within their own regions or countries. That's right. Human trafficking can also happen in one's home. According to UNODOC’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons (2018), 58% of victims in cases until 2016 were detected within their own borders. The perpetrators can vary from strangers and criminal groups to familiar people such as family members and friends.
- Only women are sexually exploited. False. Boys and men also fall victim to human trafficking for sexual exploitation.
How do human trafficking criminals prey on individuals?
Traffickers often prey on the poor and those marginalised from communities or society. Human trafficking is not always a violent crime. It can happen without physical coercion using methods such as defrauding, tricking or manipulation. In many cases, there is some sort of consent or cooperation by the victim. Even though individuals initially consent to the false proposals made by the traffickers, they are still considered victims of human trafficking. Prosecutors often look at the means pursued by the traffickers to obtain consent. This consent is rendered meaningless if the traffickers gained it through deceptive, coercive or abusive means.
Some victims, for example, may have been lured by false promises of a well-paying job. Once they arrive at the destination, they are stripped of their freedom of movement and autonomy and are compelled to work under unsuitable conditions. Many face physical or mental abuse. Some of the identified methods of controlling victims include confiscating documents such as passports, threatening to contact the authorities, isolation from family, limiting contact with outsiders, controlling their income and debt bondage.
UNODOC has reported that the use of digital technology is an emerging trend in human trafficking in the 21st century. The internet enhances the traffickers’ capabilities to operate on a global level, as well as hide their identities and activities. It is used to recruit more victims through social media. For example, in February this year, Interpol rescued 232 victims of human trafficking under Operation Sarraounia in Niger. Among these victims, 65 men had been recruited online from Ghana under the false premises of work with fair pay.
Why is the human trafficking industry still striving?
There are various factors at play that allow the human trafficking industry to thrive. Underlying issues such as poverty within the countries of origin of the victims create an endless supply of potential victims. Other factors such as conflict, poor education, lack of economic opportunities reduce are push factors that lead individuals to seek opportunities elsewhere for survival. These issues need a long-term strategy as they cannot be solved overnight.
Another very important factor is the demand for cheap labour. This is motivated by the global consumer demand for cheaper goods. Once organisations can have access to cheap labour, they can significantly lower their production costs, therefore reducing the final costs of their products. Some individuals are often trafficked to work in sweatshops and plantations for very little to no pay.
Other reasons for human trafficking include forcing the victims into domestic servitude, forced marriage, begging or even using their bodies for organ removal to sell vital organs on the black market and ritual killings. Some victims are forced into criminal activities such as cultivating drugs and selling counterfeit goods. In performing these acts, victims are often forced to meet certain requirements or quotas and may face punishment if they fail to do so.
Challenges in tackling human trafficking
UNODOC reported that there is a low conviction rate for human trafficking cases with 58% of countries recording between a mere 10 to 40 convictions per year. 40% of the countries reported no convictions at all. This figure is extremely low considering the number of victims of human trafficking.
Trafficking for forced labour is much more difficult to detect. This is because it is less visible to the general public as the victims often work in secluded areas such as mines, factories and rural land. Victims may even refuse to seek or may resist assistance offered due to fear or a lack of options due to conditions such as poverty and homelessness. Another reason is that sometimes forced labour is not prosecuted under human trafficking but under a different charge. In some cases, it is viewed as a crime less serious than sexual exploitation.
Furthermore, some victims are classified as illegal migrants and are removed from the country without the appropriate assistance. Reintegrating into their home countries or places of origin can often pose a challenge for survivors. Some of the challenges they face may include fear, self-blame, physical injuries, psychological trauma, depression, contracted illnesses. There may also be a stigma attached to their misfortune, making them feel alienated or ashamed. Sometimes the survivors' families might express resentment. Government authorities and civil society need to strengthen support systems and structures for human trafficking survivors, and more importantly, ensure awareness that human trafficking is prevalent and more common than we think.
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