Understanding Trafficking Globally and Locally

What is trafficking?

"Trafficking" has been defined in various ways over the years and by different groups. Since 2000, a widely used definition is that of the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children (also known as the Palermo Protocol). According to this document, trafficking in persons involves the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or the use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

Trafficking vs. Smuggling

It is useful to distinguish between trafficking in persons and people smuggling. A person who is trafficked is kept under the control of the traffickers, whereas a migrant smuggler simply facilitates clandestine entry into a country.

Some key elements of a definition of trafficking

Consent: Trafficking is usually defined as requiring that those trafficked be unwilling, i.e. that they have been deceived or abducted by force. This is contrasted with smuggled persons, who are assumed to want entry into the other country. This distinction, however, is not a simple one, since many if not most migrants experience varying degrees of coercion and deception. Also individuals may knowingly accept a situation of exploitation, because it is the best option available to them, or may start by agreeing with a proposal and later become unwilling when they learn of the real situation. The issue of consent on its own therefore does not tell us whether a person has been trafficked or not.

Forced Labour: Most definitions of trafficking include reference to some kind of forced labour. The traffickers’ purpose is to exploit the labour or services of those who are trafficked. According to the Palermo Protocol, exploitation includes “the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.” Some groups consider any form of prostitution to be by definition exploitative, with the result that they consider large numbers of women to be trafficked. Others reject such an approach on the basis that it denies the limited agency available to migrant (and other) sex workers and assumes that other forms of labour exploitation are less abhorrent to women. There is often a lot of focus on sexual exploitation in discussions of trafficking, but trafficking might also include such things as sweatshop labour, domestic labour or selling drugs, work in restaurants, farms, or factories, etc.

Migration: While some definitions of trafficking include situations where the trafficked persons are still in their home community, the term "trafficking" is most often used to apply to persons who have moved or are forced from their homes. As The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has pointed out "[t]he movement or transport of women is such as to place the victim in unfamiliar milieu where she is culturally, linguistically or physically isolated and denied legal identity or access to justice. Such dislocation increases trafficked women's marginalization and therefore increases the risk of abuse, violence, exploitation, domination or discrimination by both traffickers, police officials, the courts, immigration officials, etc."

Migration and exploitation are clearly linked. This is most often due to the discrimination that migrants face because they have been classified as 'illegal' by 'receiving' countries and because employers seek ever-cheaper and less demanding supplies of labour.

Understanding the context of the problem

Clearly, there are serious human rights abuses occurring in any situation where women, children or men are forced or tricked into travelling to a place where they are coerced into an exploitative labour relationship. How we understand the situation affects the solutions proposed to address the human rights abuses.

Numbers of trafficked persons

One question that comes up repeatedly in discussions of trafficking concerns the extent of trafficking. Estimates of the number of trafficked persons vary widely. The variation can be explained partly by the fact that, since trafficking involves numerous illegal activities, there are no official statistics available. However, the variation is also the consequence of widely differing interpretations of what it means to be trafficked. For example, those who consider all women who are brought to another country to work as prostitutes to be trafficked clearly come up with much larger numbers of trafficked persons than those who accept that a woman can consent to work as a prostitute.

Global inequalities

Much international migration, including “trafficking,” occurs in a context of global economic inequalities and a systematic failure to respect the basic human rights of a large part of the world's population. Large numbers of people find themselves unable to protect and provide for themselves and their families in their own homes. At the same time, efforts by governments to restrict migration prevent most of the world (and especially women) from migrating legally. While migration controls are enforced, there remains in the countries of destination a demand for exploitable labour. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to being caught in the middle of these conflicting pressures, because of gendered social, economic, cultural and political systems.

This context leads to widespread human rights abuses of many of those people who seek to leave home or who live and work in situations of varying degrees of exploitation. This abuse and exploitation is, therefore, shaped not just by those people labelled as 'traffickers' but also by governments, employers and those within 'receiving' countries who accept discrimination against people on the basis of their nationality and immigration status.

Different interpretations of trafficking

Some groups use trafficking as a framework to view the situation of poor migrants very broadly. This approach emphasizes the widely shared experiences of deception, coercion and exploitation (although they may be experienced in different degrees).

Others use trafficking to cover the situation of the much smaller group of migrants who do not consent to the exploitative situation they are in but who are forced to remain in it, usually by violence or threat of violence. This approach recognizes that some migrants are experiencing extreme forms of coercion.

Still others question whether it is useful to use the trafficking framework at all, on the grounds that it does not correspond to migrants' own experiences and does not address the problems faced by the vast majority of undocumented migrants. They are concerned that by presenting migrants as victims of trafficking, the role of women as active agents is obscured and attention is not paid to the forces that make the migrants vulnerable to exploitation.

Responding to the problem

Measures chosen to respond to trafficking obviously depend on one's analysis of the problem.

Law enforcement approach and its shortcomings

Governments involved in negotiating the Palermo Protocol showed that they analyzed the problem as one of international crime and their solution was one of law enforcement. It is a Protocol to the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Although the Protocol does include measures to protect trafficked persons, these are at the bottom of governments' priority list and are not established as strict requirements and the focus is rather on criminalizing the traffickers.

People who traffic in human beings deserve to be brought to justice. However, an approach focusing on punitive measures against traffickers leaves aside the role other parties play in the violations of migrants' rights. This includes the role of the state and its officials in restricting women's movement across borders through restrictive and discriminatory immigration policies and the role of employers and those who accept the discrimination faced by migrants.

Another criticism of the law enforcement approach is that it functions as an extension of states' efforts to curb migration. This view seems to be supported by the emphasis laid on measures of repression, while the rights of those trafficked are given a lower priority. In many anti-trafficking programs, the trafficked persons are sent home, even though in many cases women had compelling reasons to leave in the first place. Combating trafficking without addressing the need for women to be able to migrate in safety does not get to the root of the problem.

Programs offering status to trafficked persons

An alternative approach is to allow trafficked persons to regularize their status in the country to which they have been trafficked. Some countries, including the US, have such programs. However, where testifying against their traffickers is a condition of receiving status, trafficked persons may be unwilling to do so because they fear that this would put themselves or their families at risk.

In some cases, trafficked persons should be recognized as refugees. The UNHCR has issued guidelines on applying the refugee definition to victims of trafficking and persons at risk of being trafficked.

For further information, including recommendations for Canadian action on trafficking issues, also see the CCR's current concerns.

International anti-trafficking efforts

The Palermo Protocol

  • The United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and its two supplementary Protocols were signed by 120 states of 148 present in Palermo, Italy in December 2000.
  • The Trafficking Protocol recognizes the need for a combined approach that integrates effective prevention of trafficking with the prosecution of traffickers and the protection of human rights and assistance to victims of trafficking.
  • Over 140 NGOs participated in the negotiations leading to the signature of the instruments in Palermo. The NGO coalition worked to ensure that the Convention and its Protocols were consistent with the human rights principles expressed in various international instruments. However, many NGOs have been highly critical of the protocol, notably because it addresses trafficking within the context of organized crime, rather than within the framework of migrants' rights. The Protocol does not acknowledge the responsibility of states for creating the conditions within which trafficking flourishes. It frames anti-trafficking measures as migration control measures.
  • The text calls on States parties adopt measures to:
    • Prevent trafficking in persons, especially women and children, as well as to hunt down and punish international traffickers
    • Boost cooperation among nations to combat trafficking more effectively
    • Protect trafficking victims and help them return safely to their own or a third country
    • Inform the public about trafficking and its negative consequences for both traffickers and victims.

For more information on the Palermo Protocol:

United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children (Palermo Protocol)