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Society, Politics & Law
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Trafficking in human beings: myths and realities

Updated Friday, 20th April 2018

We explore some of the most common myths around human trafficking and also look closer at some of the harsh realities. 

Modern slavery

92 years ago, the Slavery Convention 1926 became the first international law treaty to ban slavery. It served as a foundation for the prevention and suppression of the slave trade. Over 200 years ago, in 1807, the slave trade became prohibited in the UK, with complete abolition of slavery following in 1833. However, slavery is not a thing of the past- as the chilling pictures of slave markets in Libya remind us, it continues to exist in the present day.

It is estimated that 40.3 million people live in modern slavery worldwide. This includes persons who are forced to work against their will, enslaved children, persons who are trapped in debt bondage, forced to marry (including child marriage) and, last but not least, victims of human trafficking. Trafficking in human beings (THB) too is a form of modern slavery and, having significantly increased since 1900s, is happening worldwide.

What is THB?

Trafficking is a criminal act which also has a strong human rights dimension. It involves the recruitment of the victim and their transportation to another state or within the same state for the purposes of exploitation. 

In international law, trafficking is defined in the Article 3 (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (also known as Palermo Protocol) which accompanies the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime 2000. So far, 173 states became parties to the Protocol, which means that they accept to be bound by the legal provisions outlined in the Protocol.

Legally, the crime of trafficking involves three elements:

  • THE ACT of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring or receiving a person,
  • By THE MEANS of, for example, coercion, deception, use of force or abuse of vulnerability or power,
  • For THE PURPOSE of exploitation. This may include forced labour, sexual exploitation, prostitution, removal of organs and slavery or practices similar to slavery.


Trafficking involves a number of actors, all of whom play a role in committing the crime. The process starts with recruitment which frequently involves deception, e.g. by pretending that jobs and visas will be arranged by a travel agency. Subsequently, transport of the victims to the destination – either within a country or across borders – takes place, involving further actors who provide accommodation and transportation. They may also falsify travel ID documents and visas which are highly likely to be confiscated and destroyed by the traffickers upon victims reaching their destination. Finally, in the final stage of the process there are those who exploit the victims of trafficking and benefit financially from their exploitation, for example, by forcing victims into prostitution, begging or harvesting their organs.  

The profile of perpetrators is also quite complex and may range from trafficking/criminal gangs to public officials, members of a police force, family and friends and even peacekeepers, as portrayed in Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower (based on Kathryn Bolkovac’s book of the same title).

Myths about trafficking

There are many misconceptions about THB, especially regarding the perception of victims. Very often, it is assumed that victims of trafficking are only women and that they are trafficked exclusively for sexual exploitation. Although the 2016 study of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime suggests that women and girls amounted to 71% of THB victims, men and boys are also trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation (4%), forced labour (63%), and organ removal (82%).

Another myth is that trafficking happens only in Eastern Europe or in poor and third world countries, and that Western countries are not facing this problem. Whilst a significant number of victims get trafficked from Eastern countries to the West, trafficking is prevalent within many Western countries, including the UK.

Finally, victims are often perceived to have consented to being trafficked. This is hugely incorrect and, legally, makes an important distinction between trafficking and smuggling: in case of the latter, individuals give their full consent to being illegally transported across borders for financial, or other, benefit.

In contrast, a trafficked person cannot give real consent to the be trafficked. At the time of giving consent, trafficking victims very often do not know the true and full extent of what they are consenting to. For instance, a victim of trafficking may have consented to working abroad in an agricultural job and believed that they will be able to keep their earnings. However, upon arrival in the country of destination, the person might have their documents confiscated by the traffickers and be forced to carry out agricultural labour (or subjected to other form of exploitation) for little or no money. 

THB today

Article 1 of the Slavery Convention defines slavery as ‘the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the rights of ownership are exercised’. Although trafficking victims are not technically (or legally) owned by their traffickers, in reality the traffickers exercise powers equivalent to ownership over their victims. The European Court of Human Rights confirmed the close link between trafficking and slavery in a landmark judgement in Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia in 2010:

 ‘trafficking in human beings, by its very nature and aim of exploitation, is based on the exercise of powers attaching to the right of ownership. It treats human beings as commodities to be bought and sold and put to forced labour, often for little or no payment (…). It involves the use of violence and threats against victims, who live and work under poor conditions’ .

Although much has changed in the past few years - both at European and domestic levels –  in terms of legal advances aimed at combatting trafficking, there is still long way to go in bringing justice to the victims as well as punishing perpetrators. Over 8 years on since the decision in Rantsev, the jurisprudence on trafficking is growing with many more cases being heard before domestic as well as human rights courts, serving as a reminder of the scale of trafficking as well as its severe impact on the victims. Finally, although news stories featuring sexual slavery of Yazidi women or trafficked brides may suggest that modern slavery happens far away from our everyday lives – it is in fact highly likely that victims of trafficking are closer to us, as well as much more vulnerable, than we think.  





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