Human trafficking - global estimates

Human trafficking - global estimates

It is challenging to estimate the scale of human trafficking, largely due to the hidden nature of some types of the human trafficking crime and difficulties in identifying victims. There are, however, global estimates on various exploitation types of the internationally recognised definition of human trafficking, which, when aggregated, can provide an estimate of the scale and scope of human trafficking.

In September 2017, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Walk Free Foundation, in partnership with the International Organisation for Migration, published The Global Estimates of Modern Slavery. The report indicates that an estimated 24.9 million people were in forced labour and sexual exploitation at any moment in time in 2016. Out of the total estimate of 24.9 million:

  • 16 million people (64%) were estimated to be in forced labour exploitation in the private sector such as in domestic work, construction or agriculture (compared with 14.2 million in the 2012 ILO estimate)
  • 4.1 million people (17%) were estimated to be in forced labour imposed by state authorities(compared with 2.2 million in the 2012 ILO estimate)
  • 4.8 million people (19%) were estimated to be subject to sexual exploitation (compared with 4.5 million in the 2012 ILO estimate).

Number of people victim of forced labour or sexual exploitation (2012-2016)

Number of people victim of forced labour or sexual exploitation 2012 2016

There is no such estimate for human trafficking for the removal of organs. In 2007, the World Health Organisation estimated that between 5 and 10 percent of all organ transplants conducted worldwide were conducted ‘illegally’, which could comprise human trafficking for the purpose of removal of organs, as well as other crimes.5 Accordingly, there is no such estimate for the number of people affected by human trafficking for the purpose of the removal of organs.

Geographical routes and trafficking flows

The geographical human trafficking routes are complex. The previous FATF report considered these routes and found that it affects virtually all countries around the globe. The report considered countries of origin, transit countries and countries of destination.

However, the collective understanding of human trafficking has evolved since the time of the previous FATF report. The UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2016 identified more than 500 different trafficking flows, including both domestic and transnational human trafficking. Accordingly, this report takes a modernised approach and considers domestic, regional and trans-regional trafficking flows.

Domestic human trafficking flows

Domestic trafficking involves the movement of victims within a country between areas, or within their local area. Where there is movement of victims domestically, this commonly occurs from rural zones to cities or tourist centres, or from villages to industrial or economic hubs.

Studies show that the majority of forced labourers in economic activities, and almost all those in state-imposed forced labour, have not moved away from their home area. The UNODC found that 43% of victims in the period 2012-2014 were trafficked domestically. The 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery found that only one in four victims of forced labour were exploited outside their country of residence.

Trafficking within regions

Transnational trafficking flows are increasingly complex – victims are exploited within and between regions. While many countries are source and destination countries, most countries tend to be either predominantly a source or predominantly a destination of trafficking victims. The UNODC found most victims detected were trafficked within the same geographical region. For the majority of detected victims of transnational trafficking identified in the UNODC’s study, the origin country was in the same geographical region as the destination, which includes domestic trafficking. 

Common regional trafficking flows include victims trafficked from South-Eastern Europe to Western Europe, from the Andean countries to the Southern Cone in South America, from East Asia to the Pacific, or victims trafficked across a single international border into neighbouring countries.

Trans-regional trafficking

In trans-regional trafficking, countries with developed economies remain key destinations, while victims tend to originate from countries with less developed economies. The UNODC found that the Middle East, as well as most countries in Western and Southern Europe and North America, reported being destinations for trans-regional and long-distance trafficking. In particular, they found that the wealthier the country of destination, the greater the number of detected victims from outside the immediate region.

In Western and Southern Europe, detected victims held 137 different citizenships, particularly from Central and South-Eastern Europe (47%), Sub-Saharan Africa (16%) and East Asia (7%). Similarly, North American countries detected victims from more than 90 countries of origin. The most prominent trans-regional trafficking flow in the study was from East Asia, as 16% of the detected victims in North America are citizens of East-Asian countries. Trafficking victims from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia are trafficked to the widest range of destinations. The UNODC found that 69 countries reported to have detected victims from Sub-Saharan Africa between 2012 and 2014.


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