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Anthropology: Exploration of the ‘Invisible’ Epidemic of Human Trafficking Around the World

Human trafficking is a problem that is ‘unseen’, complex, and dynamic, with various social implications. Every year, thousands of men, women, and children become victims of human trafficking, for the purposes of being forced for labor or sexual exploitation. Human trafficking is the third most profitable illegal criminal industry in the world. It is an enormous business that earns profits of roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers. Despite this, the crime is denied, and difficult to detect. This article will explore the problem of human trafficking around the world, why it is more prominent in certain countries, and how we can prevent it.

Smuggling or trafficking?

It is essential to distinguish between human trafficking and human smuggling. Human trafficking is the exploitation of a person or persons for sex or labor using “force, fraud, or coercion” (Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) 2000).

Smuggling involves the illegal crossing of international borders and the person who is being smuggled chooses to take the journey (Stop The Traffik, 2017). Newburn (2007) defines people smuggling as “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefits, of the illegal entry of a person into a state party of which the person is not a national to permanent resident”.

Modern slavery

Human trafficking is considered modern-day slavery. And there are more slaves today than at any time in history. Modern slavery exists independently of trafficking, but many people who are trafficked end up victims of modern slavery. Modern-day slavery is all around us. Victims of human trafficking work in nail salons, restaurants, music festivals, and farms.

Globalization makes it easier for modern slavery to exist. Nowadays, many traffickers use the internet as a digital hunting field. This enables them to advertise, recruit and exploit victims using digital platforms. They advertise deceptive job offers and market exploitative services to potential paying customers. Global consumption worsens the problem as there is a soaring demand for goods to be produced. Migration and long-distance movement are easier than ever, and it is the key to smuggling and trafficking. Therefore, some view human trafficking as an immigration issue.

Colored image of a person working in the kitchem of a restauranr

Who are the victims of human trafficking?

People who are trafficked are trapped through the use of violence, deception, or coercion and exploited for the financial or personal gain of the perpetrators. The victims are usually trying to escape poverty or discrimination, improve their lives and support their families. They are forced to take risks to escape poverty or prosecution and accept job offers promised by the traffickers. They often borrow money from their traffickers in advance. Once they arrive in a completely different country or region, they find that the work that they have been promised does not exist, and the working conditions are completely different. Their documents are taken away and they are forced to work until they pay off their debts (Anti-Slavery, 2021).

Causes of human trafficking

People fall victim to human trafficking for various reasons. There is a complex set of factors that contributes to the growth of human trafficking around the globe. There are various supply-side factors and demand-led factors that make human trafficking easy. These factors are known as the push and pull factors.

Supply-side factors (push) are, for example, poverty, religious and ethnic conflicts, natural disasters, economic instability, political instability, discrimination (sexual, religious, racial/ethnic, political, ideological).

The demand-led factors (push) are, for example, shortage of labor, democratic governments, positive economic situation, political stability, common languages, or historical links between countries.

Poverty, unemployment, and globalization

For many victims of human trafficking, the biggest risk factors are living in poverty and lack of educational and economic opportunities. People voluntarily migrate in search of better opportunities, but some of them end up being trafficked into forced labor or sex work. Globalization enables the exchange of goods, capital, and labor migration. Traffickers promise jobs and stability in order to recruit their victims. Victims travel voluntarily, but once they arrive in a different region or country, captors take control. Traffickers often look for migrants who flee their homes because of economic hardship, natural disasters, conflicts, or political instability (Punam and Sharma, 2018).

Demand for cheap labor (push factors)

The common exploiters of human trafficking are in the service industry, particularly in restaurants, kitchens, and nail salons. The high demand for cheap domestic and agricultural labor means that victims are often promised a safe, highly-paid job with a steady salary, and later find that they are paid less than minimum wage and work overtime. Victims of trafficking can not protect themselves, and this allows business owners to continue practicing these illegal norms (Punam and Sharma, 2018).

The crime of human trafficking is tricky to detect

There is a lack of comprehensive data and limited validity and quality of the existing data, especially in the case of forced sexual exploitation. Information is unavailable because of the nature of the work. This is one of the key challenges to preventing and reducing human trafficking, as it makes the crime ‘unseen’ and denied. In addition to this, it is risky for researchers, and victims of human trafficking are unlikely to divulge information to investigators because they are scared to confront law enforcement. It is, therefore, extremely complicated to gain any access to traffickers and victims (Punam and Sharma, 2018).

Social and cultural practices as one of the causes of human trafficking

In some societies and cultures, women and girls are devalued, abused, and exploited. For many of them, there are very few opportunities, therefore they are more vulnerable to human trafficking than men. Traditional attitudes, practices, early marriage, and lack of birth certificates mean that it is easier to target women and children. Women and girls make up 98% of the victims trafficked for sexual exploitation (Punam and Sharma, 2018).

War and political conditions

Armed conflicts, political instability, militarism, and generalized violence or political unrest are one of the biggest causes of human trafficking. Scattering of populations and massive forced displacements creates large numbers of orphans and street children, who are especially vulnerable to human trafficking (Punam and Sharma, 2018).

Huge profits for traffickers

Human trafficking is a crime that generates enormous profits for traffickers. The human trafficking industry generates a profit of $150 billion every year. Most of it is made from commercial sexual exploitation, and the rest comes from forced labor exploitation. It is also the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world (Punam and Sharma, 2018).

Popular destinations for human trafficking

According to the Borgen Project, a nonprofit organization that is addressing poverty and hunger and working towards ending them, the ten worst countries for human trafficking are:

  1. Belarus – trafficking victims inside Belarus or Russia and smuggling them to Poland. Belarusian women seeking foreign employment in the hotel industry are often victims of sex traffickers.
  2. Central African Republic – most human trafficking victims of the Central African Republic are exploited within the country. Traffickers coerce women and girls into marriages and force them into domestic servitude, sexual slavery, and international sex trafficking.
  3. China – Chinese men, women, and children who are victims of human trafficking are often forced into the labor and sex trade. Individuals with developmental disabilities as well as children are the most vulnerable to fall victims to traffickers.
  4. Eritrea – Eritrea is one of the worst countries for human trafficking as Eritrean military and police officers often abet trafficking crimes on the Sudanese border. Young women and girls from Eritrea travel to the Gulf States, Israel, Sudan, or South Sudan for domestic work but instead fall victims to sex trafficking rings.
  5. Iran – Iranian women and children are the most vulnerable group for Iranian criminal organizations that force them to sex trade inside Iran, the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), Afghanistan, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Europe.
  6. North Korea – it is estimated that there are between 800,000 and 120,000 prisoners in camps, often charged with no crime, with no medical care and food. North Koreans attempt to flee the country due to government oppression, and this makes them vulnerable to human trafficking in Chinese labor camps.
  7. Russia – it is estimated that between 5 and 12 million migrants are working in salver conditions in Russia. Russian officials facilitate the entry of immigrants for exploitation or are bribed not to investigate the crimes. The Russian government does not protect human trafficking victims.
  8. Sudan – Sudanese police and border patrols facilitate abductions of Eritrean trafficking victims and permit their transport across borders. Moreover, Sudanese law enforcement is involved in and profits from child sex trafficking, despite the fact that the Sudanese law prohibits the recruitment of children.
  9. Syria – ISIS soldiers subject women and girls from minority groups to forced marriage, domestic servitude, systematic rape, and sexual violence. Syrian girls who are victims of trafficking are sold in “slave bazaars” and transferred in Syria and to other countries for sexual slavery.
  10. Venezuela – victims of human trafficking in Venezuela are promised high-paying jobs, but instead are sent trafficked to the Caribbean countries and forced into the sex trade or domestic services (Borgen Project, 2017).
map depicting transregional trafficking flows
Transregional trafficking flows (

Human trafficking is everywhere

Human trafficking is all around us. On every continent of the world. It is both a domestic and global crime, in which victims are trafficked within their own country, to neighboring countries, and between continents. According to Dr. Steinitz, senior technical advisor for protection in Catholic Relief Services, modern-day slaves “…are hidden from view. You don’t recognize them in the back kitchens, shops, gas stations, and in hospitality. They are also tucked away in fields. They don’t come out and ask for help. It’s a different kind of slavery than long ago (…) They are not in shackles or on farms. People are coerced into harsh employment under horrible conditions, and then have no freedom to leave. They are beaten, violated, and told they are worthless—that no one else wants them anymore.” (Kates-Lemke, 2020).

A colored picture of a nail salon
Nail salons or ‘nail bars’ are places where Vietnamese are often exploited (

Tackling human trafficking

Since 2000, 153 countries have criminalized sex and labor trafficking. However, the average number of convictions remains low (5,271 convictions worldwide in 2020) (Statista, 2021). Where prosecution occurs, the sentences for the crime are limited, and fines are small, making human trafficking a crime with low risk and high reward. To ultimately solve the problem of human trafficking, it is essential to address the demand-driven factors and alter the overall market of reasons of high-profit and low-risk that traffickers exploit (National Human Trafficking Hotline).

According to the United Nations, in order to prevent human trafficking, it is important to recognize the complexity of the crime. Thus, “anti-trafficking strategies have to be embedded in every policy area, from improving female education in source countries so that girls are less vulnerable to trafficking, to increasing police pay in destination countries so that officers are less susceptible to bribery” (Ruth Dearnley, CEO of Stop the Traffik). In addition to this, spreading the awareness of what trafficking actually is in order to encourage people to learn about the issues surrounding human trafficking, help identify human trafficking and understand how it affects local communities.

Challenges to countering human trafficking

Human trafficking is low risk with a high reward for traffickers. Forced labor reduces costs, and sexual exploitation generates profits. This encourages the trafficking and smuggling of humans and the organized crime business to flourish.

Furthermore, it is a hidden crime and victims rarely come forward to seek help because of many barriers, such as language, fear of traffickers (threats), and fear of law enforcement (repercussions). In addition to this, many of the victims of human trafficking and modern slavery are not aware that they are victims.

Public attitudes towards prostitution and immigration can hinder law enforcement from identifying and helping victims. Similarly, law enforcement perceptions of prostitutes and immigrants can be a challenge in countering crime. Law enforcement misses many cases because they do not know what to look for and whether a prostitute is a criminal or a victim. Similarly, there are concerns in law enforcement about deception. Illegal immigrants are considered criminals and not victims. Therefore, the lack of awareness is one of the biggest challenges in combating human trafficking. There is no shared understanding of what constitutes human trafficking. Finally, people’s attitudes may keep them from identifying victims of human trafficking.

Cultural Significance in anthropology

The crime of human trafficking affects the lives of the victims, their families, and the host country’s economy and culture. Many countries are known for human trafficking, just like they are known for their culture. In addition to this, culture is a significant challenge to many victims of human trafficking. Cultural oppression, such as racism, creates additional risks for human trafficking and challenges for prevention and intervention. Thus, in many ways, culture is what brings people together. However, in some circumstances, culture can act as an obstacle that keeps victims from accessing help, especially in sex trafficking.


Anti-Slavery (2021) What is Human Trafficking? Available:

Borgen Project (2017) 2017’s Worst Countries for Human Trafficking. Available: The Borgen Project

Dearnley, R. Prevention, Prosecution and Protection – Human Trafficking. Available: United Nations

Kates-Lemke, R. (2020) 7 Things You May Not Know About Human Trafficking, And 3 Ways To Help. Available: CRS

National Human Trafficking Hotline Human Trafficking. Available: National Human Trafficking Hotline

Punam, S. and Sharma, S. (2018) Human Trafficking: Causes and Implications. Available:

Statista (2021) Number of Convictions of Human Trafficking Worldwide 2007-2020. Available: Statista

Stop The Traffik (2017) Smuggling or Trafficking: Knowing the Difference. Available: STOP THE TRAFFIK


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