Human trafficking - key trends

Human trafficking - key trends

Globally countries are detecting and reporting more victims, and are convicting more traffickers

Countries have reported increased numbers of detected trafficking victims over the last few years. While the number of reporting countries did not significantly increase, the total number of victims per country did. The trend for the average number of detected and reported victims per country had previously fluctuated during the earlier years for which UNODC has collected this data, but it has been increasing steadily over the last few years.

From a regional perspective, the increases in the numbers of detected victims have been more pronounced in the Americas and in Asia. These increases can be the result of enhanced national capacities to detect, record and report data on trafficking victims, or to a growth in the incidence of trafficking, that is, that more victims have been trafficked. Enhanced national capacity to detect victims could be achieved through strengthened institutional efforts to combat trafficking including legislative reforms, coordination among national actors, special law enforcement capacities and improved victim protection efforts, to mention some. In countries with a long-standing anti-trafficking framework, with no major recent legislative or programmatic initiatives, more detections may be more likely to reflect an increased number of trafficked victims. 

Trends in the total number of detected trafficking victims, average number of detected victims per country and number of reporting countries, by year, 2003-2016

Trends in total number of detected trafficking victims average number detected victims 2003 2016Trends in the number of people convicted of trafficking in persons since 2007, globally and by region, 2007-2016

Trends in number of people convicted of trafficking in persons 2007 2016

Over the last ten years, the capacity of national authorities to track and assess patterns and flows of trafficking in persons has improved in many parts of the world. This is also due to a specific focus of the international community in developing standards for data collection. Capacity building in data collection has become one of the aspects of counter trafficking activities that the international community considers for evidence-based responses. More countries are now also able to collect and record data and report on trafficking in persons, the capacity to collect official statistics on trafficking in persons at the national level has improved. In 2009, only 26 countries had an institution which systematically collected and disseminated data on trafficking cases, while by 2018, the number had risen to 65.

While most countries have had comprehensive trafficking in persons legislation in place for some years, the number of convictions has only recently started to grow. Pronounced increasing trends in the numbers of convictions were recorded in Asia, the Americas, and Africa and the Middle East. The increased number of convictions broadly follows the increases in the number of detected and reported victims, which shows that the criminal justice response is reflecting the detection trend. However, many countries in Africa and Asia continue to have very low numbers of convictions for trafficking, and at the same time detect fewer victims.

Number of trafficking victims detected outside their region of origin, by area of citizenship, 2016 (or most recent)

Number of trafficking victims detected outside region of origin area of citizenship 2016 

Reporting limited numbers of detected victims and few convictions does not necessarily mean that traffickers are not active in these countries. In fact, victims trafficked from subregions with low detection and conviction rates are found in large numbers in other subregions. This suggests that trafficking networks operate with a high degree of impunity in these countries. This impunity could serve as an incentive to carry out more trafficking.

More trafficking of domestic victims, while the richest countries are destinations for long-distance flows

Most trafficking victims are detected in their countries of citizenship. Detections of domestic victims have increased over the last 15 years. In addition to domestic and subregional trafficking, wealthy countries are more likely to be destinations for detected victims trafficked from more distant origins. Western and Southern Europe and countries in the Middle East, for example, record sizable shares of victims trafficked from other regions; whereas such detections are relatively rare in most other parts of the world.

Furthermore, detected trafficking flows towards richer countries are also more geographically diverse. Affluent countries in Western and Southern Europe as well as in North America detect victims originating from a large number of countries around the world. 

Number of citizenships among victims detected in destination countries, by subregion of detection, 2014-2017

Number of citizenships among victims detected in destination countries of detection 2014 2017

Shares of detected victims by area of origin and of detection, by subregion, 2016 (or most recent)

Shares of detected victims by area of origin and of detection subregion 2016

Traffickers are mainly targeting women and girls

Most of the victims detected across the world are females; mainly adult women, but also increasingly girls. The vast majority of the detected victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation are females, and 35 per cent of the victims trafficked for forced labour are also females, both women and girls. At the same time, more than half of the victims of trafficking for forced labour are men.

Shares of detected victims of trafficking in persons globally, by age group and sex, 2016 (or most recent)

Shares of detected victims globally by age group and sex 2016 

There are considerable regional differences in the sex and age profiles of detected trafficking victims, however. In West Africa, most of the detected victims are children, both boys and girls, while in South Asia, victims are equally reported to be men, women and children. In Central Asia, a larger share of adult men is detected compared to other regions, while in Central America and the Caribbean, more girls are recorded.

Shares of detected victims of trafficking in persons in subregions recording diverse patterns, 2016 (or most recent)

Shares of detected victims of trafficking in persons in subregions diverse patterns 2016

Trafficking for sexual exploitation continues to be the most detected form

Most of the victims detected globally are trafficked for sexual exploitation, although this pattern is not consistent across all regions. Trafficking of females – both women and girls - for sexual exploitation prevails in the areas where most of the victims are detected: the Americas, Europe, and East Asia and the Pacific. In Central America and the Caribbean, more girls are detected as victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation, while women are more commonly detected as victims of this form of exploitation in the other subregions.

Trafficking for forced labour is the most commonly detected form in sub-Saharan Africa. In the Middle East, forced labour is also the main form of trafficking detected, mainly involving adults. In Central Asia and South Asia, trafficking for forced labour and sexual exploitation are near-equally detected, although with different victim profiles.

The few national studies that have been carried out in European countries to estimate the total number of trafficking victims and their profiles have revealed that trafficking for sexual exploitation is the most prevalent form of trafficking. At the same time, they show that trafficking for forced labour may be less readily detected there.

Main forms of exploitation and profiles of detected victims in subregions

Different patterns of trafficking emerge in different parts of the world along with different forms of exploitation. While forms other than sexual exploitation and forced labour are detected at much lower rates, they still display some geographical specificities. Trafficking for forced marriage, for example, is more commonly detected in parts of South-East Asia, while trafficking of children for illegal adoption is recorded in Central and South American countries. Trafficking for forced criminality is mainly reported in Western and Southern Europe, while trafficking for organ removal is primarily detected in North Africa, Central and South-Eastern Europe, and Eastern Europe. Many other forms, such as trafficking for exploitation in begging or for the production of pornographic material, are reported in different parts of the world. The detection of other forms of trafficking may partly reflect the ways in which countries have chosen to criminalise different forms of exploitation.

Main forms of exploitation and profiles of detected victims, by subregions, 2016 (or most recent)

Main forms of exploitation profiles of detected victims subregions 2016

Armed conflicts can drive vulnerabilities to trafficking in persons

Armed conflicts can increase the vulnerability to trafficking in different ways. Areas with weak rule of law and lack of resources to respond to crime provide traffickers with a fertile terrain to carry out their operations. This is exacerbated by more people in a desperate situation, lacking access to basic needs. Some armed groups involved in conflict may exploit civilians. Armed groups and other criminals may take the opportunity to traffic victims – including children – for sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, forced marriage, armed combat and various forms of forced labour.

Reported forms of trafficking in persons directly and indirectly related to armed conflict

Reported forms of trafficking in persons directly and indirectly related to armed conflict 

Trafficking in persons for sexual exploitation occurs within all conflict areas considered, including sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, South-East Asia and others. In some refugee camps in the Middle East, for example, it has been documented that girls and young women have been ‘married off ’ without their consent and subjected to sexual exploitation in neighbouring countries.

Abduction of women and girls for sexual slavery has been reported in many conflicts in Central and West Africa, as well as in the conflicts in the Middle East. It has also been reported that women and girls are trafficked for forced marriage in the same areas.

Recruitment of children for use as armed combatants is widely documented in many of the conflict areas considered: from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Central African Republic, as well as in conflicts in the Middle East and other parts of Asia. In addition, the study finds that armed groups recruit children for exploitation in forced labour in various supportive roles, from logistics to catering. Recruitment and exploitation of children in extractive industries have been reported conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, in some cases for the purpose of financing the activities of armed groups.

Within conflict zones, armed groups may make use of trafficking as a strategy to assert territorial dominance. They can spread fear of being trafficked among groups in the territories where they operate to keep the local population under control. They may also use women and girls as ‘sex slaves’ or force them into marriages to appeal to new potential male recruits. Armed groups, however, are not the only actors engaging in trafficking in persons in the context of armed conflicts. Criminal groups and individual traffickers target civilians, as well as refugees and internally displaced populations in some formal or informal camps.

In all the conflicts considered for this study, forcibly displaced populations have been targeted by traffickers: from settlements of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, to Afghans and Rohingya fleeing conflict and persecution. The study also discusses the risk faced by migrants and refugees travelling through conflict areas, such as Libya or parts of sub-Saharan Africa, along the routes. In Libya, for example, militias control some detention centres for migrants and refugees. It has been documented how militias and criminals are coercing detained migrants and refugees for different exploitative purposes.

In precarious socio-economic conditions or situations involving persecution, people escaping conflict can be more easily deceived into travel arrangements, accepting fraudulent job offers in neighbouring countries or fraudulent marriage proposals that are in fact exploitative situations.

Armed conflicts tend to have a negative impact on the livelihood of people living in the surrounding areas, even when they are not directly involved in the violence. Again, traffickers may target communities that are particularly vulnerable because of forced displacement, lack of access to opportunities for income generation, discrimination and family separation.

IMAGE CREDIT: Anti-Slavery / Pete Pattisson

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