As of 2012 (the latest available data on human trafficking), 40,177 cases of trafficking were reported in the 2010-2012 period—and these are only the known cases. Broken down, it is a total of 13,392 persons trafficked a year; 36 trafficked every day; an average of one person trafficked an hour. 152 nationalities have been trafficked to 124 nations. 49% of the trafficking victims are women, and 33% are children. 21% of total trafficking victims, or 8,437 victims, are young girls.
What Is Human Trafficking?
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), human trafficking is the act of gathering, moving, receiving, or keeping human beings by threat, force, coercion, or deception, for exploitative purposes. This includes “the exploitation of prostitution of other or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.” This definition has only been in place since 2000.
If any person—whatever the gender, whatever the age—is brought somewhere against his or her will, or without full information about what he or she is getting into, it is already human trafficking. In addition, if a person is coerced by a superior or someone in power over them to become a victim, it is also considered human trafficking. Also, while the sex trade is the most-known form of human trafficking, the current protocol extends even to illegal labor migration. This definition developed over the history of human trafficking.
The History of Human Trafficking
The African Slave Trade
Following the above definition, the earliest form of global human trafficking began with the African slave trade. Since the American and European continents were involved as buyers, and the different African groups were both items of trade and middlemen, it is the first known international flow of human trafficking.
However, prior to the first law against slavery by the British in 1807, this trade was both legal and government-tolerated. The United States followed suit in 1820, banning slavery over 40 years before the American Civil War. At the time, there were no international organizations that could make such decisions binding on many nations at once.
After the cessation of the African slave trade, “white slavery” came into light. A general definition of white slavery would be the “procurement—by use of force, deceit, or drugs—of a white woman or girl against her will for prostitution.” The African slave trade was a fitting starting point for the case against white slavery.
As white slavery gained attention, governments began to cooperate to fight it. In 1899 and then in 1902, international conferences against white slavery were organized in Paris. In 1904, the International Agreement for the Suppression of “White Slave Traffic,” the first international agreement on human trafficking, was signed. The main purpose was to ensure the repatriation of the victims. The criminalization of white slavery did not occur until the signing of the International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Trade in 1910.
World War I and Trafficking in Women and Children
The crisis of the First World War drew attention from the efforts against white slavery, as the war and the rebuilding of Europe played out. However, out of the First World War arose the first international organization of nations: the League of Nations. This was the first time that agreements could be made within a set organization, with more pressure to comply.
The mandates given to the various Allied Powers over nations in Africa and the Middle East brought attention to the international trafficking in all women, not simply white women; and additionally in children, both male and female. In 1921, 33 countries at a League of Nations international conference signed the International Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Women and Children. At this time, human trafficking only covered trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation and prostitution.
The United Nations
After the Second World War, the member-nations of the United Nations adopted the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others in 1949, the same year as the document on human rights. It is the first legally binding international agreement on human trafficking. However, only 66 nations have ratified it so far.
In the next 51 years, other forms of exploitation, such as organ harvesting and labor trafficking, grew in scope. Eventually, in 2000, the United Nations adopted the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. It was the first agreement that acknowledged modern-day slavery, as well as the possibility of men being victims of human trafficking. The definition was also expanded to organ harvesting, slavery, and forced labor migration.
Modern Human Trafficking
Trafficking has become such a problem, in terms of geographic spread and volume, that the United Nations criminalized it under the protocols of Transnational Organized Crime in 2000. However, the history of human trafficking shows how long it took for its various forms to be recognized. At the moment, there are at the very least 510 known trafficking flows all over the world.
Even worse, it is difficult enough to break up human trafficking rings that despite the range of nations involved, 15% had no convictions from 2010 to 2012, 26% had less than 10 convictions per year, while the same percentage—less than a third—had 10 to 50 convictions per year.
In recent years, forced labor migration has been increasing, decreasing the share of trafficking for sexual exploitation. In 2007, 32% of trafficked persons were forced labor migrants. Four years later, the share was at 40%. At the same time, trafficking in women is decreasing steadily, from a 74% share in female victims in 2004 to 49% in 2011. Unfortunately, it is matched by an increase in trafficked girls, from 10% up to 21% in 2011.
This form of organized crime, no matter how widespread, is both extremely profitable, and rather low-risk. There is usually not enough time or personnel for governments to investigate each illegally transported group. Some governments have yet to criminalize any form of human trafficking, leaving 2 billion citizens virtually unprotected.
Organizations Against Human Trafficking
A great help to governments all over the world are local an international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) who actively assist governments in combating human trafficking. A number of them were created exclusively to fight human trafficking, such as Called to Rescue, Polaris, and Anti-Slavery International. Other NGOs participate and cooperate against human trafficking, such as Save the Children, ChildHope, Women’s Rights Worldwide, and Amnesty International.
The fight against human trafficking may be joined by donating to NGOs, volunteering to work with local NGOs, and reporting suspicions of human trafficking rings. Furthermore, achievable for all citizens is awareness of and self-protection against human trafficking schemes through responsible travel, self-defense, and caution in any time of recruitment or deal-making.
Other resources on the history of human trafficking:
- “U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline Statistics” by The Polaris Project
- Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery by Siddarth Kara
- “Human Trafficking” by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime