What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is one of the most critical human rights issues of our time; one that has gained greater attention throughout the past few years.   Increased media attention and political discourse have offered the public more opportunities to gain awareness about the global concern.  Yet there is much misunderstanding surrounding the issue. What is human trafficking? The video on the right from www.rescueand restore.org provides an overview.

(Click here to watch en Español.)  

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services offers this definition:

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. Victims of human trafficking are subjected to force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of commercial sex or forced labor. They are young children, teenagers, men and women. Trafficking in persons occurs throughout the world, including in the United States. 

How Victims Are Trafficked

Many victims of trafficking, particularly women and children, are exploited for purposes of prostitution and pornography. However, trafficking also takes place in diverse labor contexts, such as domestic servitude, small businesses, factories, and agricultural work. Traffickers use force, fraud and coercion to compel women, men, and children to engage in these activities.


Force can involve the use of physical restraint or serious physical harm. Physical violence, including rape, beatings, and physical confinement, is often employed as a means to control victims, especially during the early stages of victimization, when the trafficker breaks down the victim’s resistance.

Fraud involves false promises regarding employment, wages, working conditions, or other matters. For example, individuals might travel to another country under the promise of well-paying work at a farm or factory only to find themselves manipulated into forced labor. Others might reply to advertisements promising modeling, nanny, or service industry jobs overseas, but be forced into prostitution once they arrive at their destination.

Coercion can involve threats of serious harm to or physical restraint against any person; any scheme, plan or pattern intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act would result in serious harm to or physical restraint against any person; or the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process.

Victims of trafficking are often subjected to debt bondage or peonage in which traffickers demand labor as a means repayment for a real or alleged debt, yet they do not reasonably apply a victim’s wages toward the payment of the debt, or limit or define the nature and length of the debtor’s services. Traffickers may charge victims fees for transportation, boarding, food, and other incidentals; interest, fines for missing daily work quotas, and charges for “bad behavior” may be added. Debt bondage traps a victim in a cycle of debt that he or she can never pay down, and it can be and it can be part of a larger scheme of psychological cruelty.




The Polaris Project

The Polaris Project is one of the largest NGO organizations working exclusively on the issue of human trafficking. Their website also offers comprehensive information about human trafficking on multiple platforms.  The Polaris Project website has information about latest developments in anti-trafficking efforts worldwide.  We provide this information taken from their website and encourage you to take a deeper look by exploring Polaris' site. 

Although slavery is commonly thought to be a thing of the past, human traffickers generate hundreds of billions of dollars in profits by trapping millions of people in horrific situations around the world, including here in the U.S. Traffickers use violence, threats, deception, debt bondage, and other manipulative tactics to force people to engage in commercial sex or to provide labor or services against their will. While more research is needed on the scope of human trafficking, below are a few key statistics:

  • The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally.
    • 68% of them are trapped in forced labor.
    • 26% of them are children.
    • 55% are women and girls.
  • The International Labor Organization estimates that forced labor and human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor has identified 136 goods from 74 countries made by forced and child labor.
  • In 2014, an estimated 1 out of 6 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims.
    • Of those, 68% were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran.
  • There is no official estimate of the total number of human trafficking victims in the U.S. Polaris estimates that the total number of victims nationally reaches into the hundreds of thousands when estimates of both adults and minors and sex trafficking and labor trafficking are aggregated.

Statistics from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline and Polaris Be Free Textline

The Call to Action

One of the most frequently asked questions in our public forums is this:  "Now that you have made us more aware, what would be the call to action?"  With a problem of such magnitude, what can any one individual possibly do?

As our forum participants have well articulated, awareness can lead to action.  Here, Bill Bernstein and Tasha McGhie (Mosaic Family Services Foundation,, Dallas TX) and Susan Narucki talk about some steps that ordinary citizens can take.