While for many people, slavery may seem like a non-issue that no longer affects the majority of the world’s populations in the 21st century, for an estimated 40 million people in the world who are currently in some form of forced servitude, modern slavery – known as human trafficking – is a relevant and dangerous issue, existing as a global criminal industry, and operating within a shadow economy that makes billions of dollars globally every year. The threat of human trafficking is very real and while attempts to stop it across the globe are in effect, more still needs to be done to ensure the safety of victims of trafficking.
Human trafficking is the forced exploitation of human beings for monetary or other forms of profit. Unlike the name suggests, human trafficking does not always entail the physical movement of human beings, who can often be trafficked without being moved across country borders. There are three primary forms of human trafficking (within which there are different subforms): forced labour, debt bondage, and sexual exploitation.
Forced labour is the exploitation of people for labour with no monetary profit for themselves. People forced into labour work in a variety of sectors including the service industry, hospitality, agriculture, factory work, construction, mining, janitorial cleaning, and various unskilled labour jobs. People trafficked under debt bondage can also work in similar industries, but are forced and threatened into doing so, in order to repay an owed debt by that individual or a family member. Victims of bonded labour are often kept enslaved past when their debt has been “paid back”, regardless of the value of their work. Those that are sexually exploited are forced to work as sex workers in extremely dangerous conditions, either as private sex workers or else in strip clubs or other similar establishments.
Human trafficking can also force many young girls into child marriage, where rape, sexual and physical violence, and infant and maternal mortality rates are all high. Trafficking for organ trade is also a large subset of human trafficking, due to long waiting lists for organ transplants in many countries. The trafficking of children into the armed forces is also prominent in high-conflict areas.
There are several factors that make it easier for human traffickers to exploit people. Abject poverty creates desperation in people that can force them to turn to dubious means of income, resulting in exploitation. Additionally, families may sell their own children to human traffickers, in the hopes of alleviating their poverty and providing their children with what they are led to believe is a “better life.” Globalization and new media have also increased the frequency and facilitation of human trafficking.
While difficult to determine exactly how many people are currently victims of human trafficking, 2012 estimates by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) put the number close to 21 million victims. According to both the ILO and the Global Slavery Index, that figure almost doubled by 2016, to 40.3 million modern slavery victims worldwide (5.4 for every 1000 people in the world). Of these people, around 24.9 million (61%) are in some form of forced labour (including 4.8 million of whom are sexually exploited) and another 15.4 million (38%) are in forced marriage. Also difficult to accurately discern is human trafficking’s global annual revenue. The ILO estimated that in 2014, forced labour alone created US$150 billion in profits for human traffickers, meaning that at a minimum, all forms of human trafficking globally could bring in at least several times this figure.
While anyone can be a victim of human trafficking, those enslaved most often are vulnerable peoples, including children, women, LGBT people, lower class/poorer families, lone travellers, refugees and migrants, stateless peoples, and runaway children. Women and young girls are also frequent victims of trafficking; of the estimated 40.3 million victims of human trafficking, approximately 71% are female while 29% are male. Women and girls are also more likely than men to become victims of sexual exploitation, amounting to approximately “99% of victims in the commercial sex industry,” according to the ILO. Children are trafficked into all forms of human trafficking, including various forced labour sectors and industries, sexual exploitation, forced marriage, and as child soldiers in armies, militias, and gangs. According to UNICEF, children makeup approximately one-third of all global trafficking victims, and are one of the most vulnerable victim groups of human trafficking.
Human trafficking is not confined to a single country or geographic area, and people can become victims of trafficking and be forced to work in any country, at any time. However, in some countries, human trafficking is more prevalent than in others and according to the Global Slavery Index, the top ten countries in which human trafficking is most prevalent are: North Korea, Eritrea, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Mauritania, South Sudan, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Iran. “Highly repressive regimes and conflict” are the two primary factors contributing to the high prevalence of human trafficking within these countries.
Through the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the UN works with global NGOs and governments to address the factors that enable high levels of human trafficking, provide support to victims, and punish the perpetrators, ending global human trafficking in the long term. This has primarily been executed through the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT). This initiative combines the efforts, knowledge, and resources of the UN, governments, NGOs, academics, researchers, civil society, and media across the world to together end human trafficking and suffering – based on the premise that the tragedy and magnitude of human trafficking is so large, that the combined efforts of these groups of people are necessary to end trafficking.
While this is a start, much more still needs to be done in the short term in order to end human trafficking. One of the largest inhibitors to ending human trafficking is the lack of available data relating to both victims and traffickers, and the difficulties in obtaining this data, particularly in countries that have not yet ratified anti-trafficking UN treaties and agreements, and do not actively work to end human trafficking. Until every government comes together and actively works to end human trafficking, the suffering of these 40 million people will continue.
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