Causes of human trafficking

Causes of human trafficking

Through understanding the root causes of human trafficking, human rights workers and other development professionals can begin to address the causes at the base level. Enforcing human rights, helping people access education, and helping to increase economic opportunities for people are just a few ways to address causes and help prevent human trafficking for future generations.

The causes of trafficking are various and often differ from one country to another. Trafficking is a complex phenomenon that is often driven or influenced by social, economic, cultural and other factors. Many of these factors are specific to individual trafficking patterns and to the States in which they occur. There are, however, many factors that tend to be common to trafficking in general or found in a wide range of different regions, patterns or cases. One such factor is that the desire of potential victims to migrate is exploited by offenders to recruit and gain initial control or cooperation, only to be replaced by more coercive measures once the victims have been moved to another State or region of the country, which may not always be the one to which they had intended to migrate.

Some of the common factors are local conditions that make populations want to migrate in search of better conditions: poverty, oppression, lack of human rights, lack of social or economic opportunity, dangers from conflict or instability and similar conditions. Political instability, militarism, civil unrest, internal armed conflict and natural disasters may result in an increase in trafficking. The destabilisation and displacement of populations increase their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse through trafficking and forced labour. War and civil strife may lead to massive displacements of populations, leaving orphans and street children extremely vulnerable to trafficking.

These factors tend to exert pressures on victims that “push” them into migration and hence into the control of traffickers, but other factors that tend to “pull” potential victims can also be significant. Poverty and wealth are relative concepts which lead to both migration and trafficking patterns in which victims move from conditions of extreme poverty to conditions of less-extreme poverty. In that context, the rapid expansion of broadcast and telecommunication media, including the Internet, across the developing world may have increased the desire to migrate to developed countries and, with it, the vulnerability of would-be migrants to traffickers.

The practice of entrusting poor children to more affluent friends or relatives may create vulnerability. Some parents sell their children, not just for the money, but also in the hope that their children will escape a situation of chronic poverty and move to a place where they will have a better life and more opportunities.

In some countries, social or cultural practices also contribute to trafficking. For example, the devaluation of women and girls in a society makes them disproportionately vulnerable to trafficking.

Added to these factors are the issues of porous borders, corrupt officials, the involvement of international organised criminal groups or networks and limited capacity of or commitment by immigration and law enforcement officers to control borders.

People in vulnerable and precarious situations are looking for a way out and, in their desperation, can fall prey to human traffickers. We see these in multiple different circumstances. Traffickers look for people who are susceptible to coercion into the human trafficking industry. Those people tend to be migrants, fleeing their homes either because of economic hardship, natural disasters, conflict or political instability. The displacement of populations increases individuals’ emotional vulnerability, and frequently they do not have the financial support to protect themselves. This makes them subject to abuse through trafficking.

The following scenarios are examples of the conditions and / or realities people may be fleeing: 


Poverty is one of the largest contributors to human trafficking. It can drive people to become traffickers; it can drive parents to sell children or other family members into slavery. The practice of entrusting poor children to more affluent friends or relatives may create vulnerability. Some parents sell their children, not just for money, but in hope that their children may escape poverty and have a better life with more opportunities.

People in poverty are targeted by traffickers, who offer them a way to earn money when, in fact, they will actually earn nothing and be treated as a slave. Poverty also plays a large piece in many of the other root causes of trafficking, driving people to migrate, making education and legitimate work difficult to obtain, making recovery and safety from war and disaster impossible, and more.

Many victims want to get out of their situation so they risk everything to leave the place that sees them mired in poverty. This gives the human traffickers bait to lure victims to move to a different country. Traffickers lie, promising jobs and stability in order to recruit their victims. Upon their arrival to another state or region, captors take control. More often than not, they are held in places where victims did not to want to make their home.

Political conditions

Political instability, militarism, generalised violence or civil unrest can result in an increase in trafficking as well. The destabilisation and scattering of populations increase their vulnerability to unfair treatment and abuse via trafficking and forced labour.


Conflict can lead to economic instability and lack of human rights, giving traffickers an advantage and making people more vulnerable to human trafficking situations. Armed conflicts can lead to massive forced displacements of people. War creates large numbers of orphans and street children who are especially vulnerable to trafficking. Their families have either passed away or are fighting a war, complicating child-rearing. In conflict zones and wars, some rebel or military groups will use child soldiers and keep sex slaves. 

Natural disasters

Natural disaster can lead people to migrate out of their hometowns and home countries, making them more vulnerable to traffickers, especially if they are looking for work or paying smugglers to get where they want to go. And with increased economic instability, traffickers have opportunities to offer false job offers to people, leading them into trafficking situations.

Social and Cultural practices

Many societies and cultures devalue, abuse and exploit women and girls, creating perilous living conditions for these women.  With little opportunities of upward mobility and with little value placed on women and girls, they are more vulnerable to human trafficking.

In many countries, cultural practices and social factors are a major cause of human trafficking. In some places, bonded labor is seen as an acceptable way to pay off debt. In other places, selling children to traffickers is the norm, especially for poorer families in rural areas. Some countries, such as Mauritania, still practice antiquated slavery, where families are held for generations by slave-masters. There are also instances, like in Uzbekistan, where forced labor is institutionalised. During the cotton harvest, all adults and children are expected to work in the cotton fields until the crops are harvested. Cultural and social factors can also lead victims not to speak up about being trafficked or who their traffickers are, especially if they come from groups who lack human rights protections.

Lack of education

A lack of education can lead to decreased opportunities for work at a living wage, and it can also lead to a decreased knowledge in rights. Both outcomes can cause people to be at a greater vulnerability for human trafficking. In prevention of trafficking, education can also empower children to make changes in their community as they grow older that will prevent situations and vulnerabilities of which traffickers take advantage.

Lack of human rights for vulnerable groups

In many countries, groups that are marginalised in society lack institutionalised human rights, which can lead to them be potential victims of trafficking. Traffickers can prey on these marginalised groups because they lack protection of the law enforcement, their families, and even the society they live in. Also, when countries lack fundamental laws regarding human rights, traffickers feel as though they can get away with what they are doing more easily. A lack of human rights laws can also end in punishment for victims, if the laws and government don’t recognise that human trafficking is exploitation of other people.

Women and children are targets

In some societies, the devaluation of women and children make them far more vulnerable to trafficking than men. Traditional attitudes and practices, early marriage and lack of birth registration further increase the susceptibility of women and children. They are also targeted because of the demand for women in sex trafficking. A report by Equality Now states that 20.9 million adults and children are bought and sold worldwide into commercial sexual servitude, forced labour and bonded labour. Women and girls make up 98 percent of the victims trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Lack of legitimate economic opportunities

When people lack legitimate economic opportunities, that can also lead to increased vulnerability to human trafficking. Groups that are especially vulnerable in this area are migrants without work permits, those who lack education, those who live in rural areas where there are less jobs available, as well as women and certain ethnic groups who may not be able to get jobs due to discrimination. Traffickers offer seemingly legitimate jobs to people who cannot get them otherwise, only to lure them into forced labour, sex trafficking, bonded labour, and more.

Demand for cheap labour

Basic economics tell us that for a market to form, supply and demand need to exist. The demands for cheap labour and for commercialised sex lead to opportunities for traffickers to exploit people. Traffickers can make a large profit by producing goods and services through cheap or free labor and selling the products or services at a higher price. Commercialised sex is a lucrative market that allows traffickers and pimps to become the only profiter from their victims through an endless cycle of buyers and high prices.

The service industry, particularly restaurants and kitchens, are common exploiters of human trafficking. There is also a demand for cheap domestic and agricultural labour. Employees are often initially promised a safe work space and a steady salary, only to later find that they are paid less than minimum wage and worked over time. Business owners guilty of this behaviour continue to practice these illegal norms because the victims of trafficking can rarely protect themselves and they have very few alternatives.

Human trafficking generates a huge profit

One major cause of human trafficking is the large profit that traffickers gain. This is an incentive for them to continue trafficking people in both forced labour and sex trafficking. For traffickers using forced labourers and bonded labourers, they get cheap labour and can sell their product or service at a much higher cost. For those using sex trafficking, they can easily take all of the profit, forcing women to make a certain amount each night, and keeping them in the situation through drugs, violent force, threats, and more.

According to the ILO, the human trafficking industry generates a profit of $150 billion per year. Two-thirds is made from commercial sexual exploitation, while the remainder comes from forced economic exploitation such as domestic work and agriculture. Human trafficking is the fastest-growing and second-largest criminal industry in the world, after drug trafficking.

Cases of human trafficking are difficult to identify

Some challenges in identifying victims of human trafficking arise because victims are well-hidden or highly traumatised. Those that are traumatised are unlikely to divulge information to investigators, either because they are scared to confront law enforcement, or because they are too troubled to respond. Consumers of human trafficking also contribute to the crime’s hidden nature, according to a report by the Urban Institute. Both traffickers and consumers are aware of the huge risk they take by participating in this illegal behaviour and will do their best to cover up any illicit activity.

Lack of safe migration options

For those looking to migrate out of their home countries due to safety concerns or economic opportunities, they are especially vulnerable to traffickers. Traffickers can use illegal smuggling as a way to trick people into forced labor or sex trafficking. And for migrants looking for jobs in other countries, traffickers typically offer them job opportunities that seem legitimate, only to force them into a trafficking situation. For instance, when Russia was preparing for the Sochi Olympics, several men from Serbia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other nearby countries were promised construction jobs, only to be paid very little and be treated poorly. And many women from countries like Nigeria, Ukraine, and other Eastern European and African countries are offered nannying or restaurant jobs in Western Europe, only to trapped in sex trafficking.


Above many other factors that cause human trafficking are the traffickers themselves. Beyond cultural practices, the profit, vulnerabilities of certain people groups, lack of human rights, economic instability, and more, traffickers are the ones who choose to exploit people for their own gain. While many of these factors may play into the reasons why traffickers get into the business, they still make a wilful decision to enslave people against their will—either because of the profit or because of a belief that certain people are worth less or because of a system of abuse and crime that they were raised in. Trafficking ultimately exists because people are willing to exploit others into trafficking situations.

Initiatives to diminish these causes of human trafficking include international cooperation agreements, national policies against trafficking, improved immigration policies that can detect the exit or entry of humans being illegally trafficked, and increased infrastructure to protect those that are being exploited for labour or sex.

Human trafficking happens in every country in the world, in many different forms; however, the causes behind human trafficking are essentially the same for labour trafficking, sex trafficking, child trafficking, and all other types of modern day slavery. Although different countries face different causes, the root causes remain similar throughout the world. What are the causes of human trafficking? When we know where the root of the issue is, we can start to address trafficking at a deeper level and promote sustainable change. Here are the 10 causes of human trafficking around the world.

IMAGE CREDITS: Fair Observer / Tinnakorn Jorruang

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