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Blogs and Opinion Human Trafficking & Modern Slavery: Common Misconceptions

Human Trafficking & Modern Slavery: Common Misconceptions

Modern slavery is a major injustice in our world. Due to the hidden nature of modern slavery, it can be incredibly hard to identify and quantify. Yet, it is estimated that almost 50 million[1] people are trapped in modern slavery today. This is an increase of almost 10 million more people in the last 5 years.

Criminals make over £193 billion each year from modern slavery, that’s over £5,500 every second. The last in-depth study suggested criminals rake in $150bn a year from this horrific trade, exploiting humans as commodities. But that study was nearly 10 years ago, and Hope for Justice estimates that with inflation and the rising number of people in modern slavery, the figure today is likely to be closer to $245bn – that’s over $7,500 every second.[2]

There are many misconceptions surrounding trafficking that influence policy and redirect the focus away from where it ought to be. By educating ourselves on the real causes and indicators of human trafficking and modern slavery, we can start to create actionable and sustainable change.

Misconception #1: Modern slavery and human trafficking are the same thing.

These terms are often conflated or assumed to be synonyms, but there are some distinctions to be aware of between human trafficking and modern slavery.

According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), human trafficking is “the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation”.[3]

Modern slavery is where one person controls another for profit by exploiting a vulnerability. The victim can be forced to work or exploited sexually. This control can be physical, financial or psychological. Modern slavery is used internationally and in many legal jurisdictions as an umbrella term covering all forms of slavery, servitude, human trafficking and related exploitation, including forced labour, debt bondage, forced child labour, forced marriage, and commercial sexual exploitation.

Under international conventions, for human trafficking to be present, all three of these elements must exist:

  • The Act is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people.
  • The Means can be through threat of or use of force, deception, coercion, abuse of power or position of vulnerability.
  • The Purpose is for exploitation.

For modern slavery, only two of these elements need to be present, the means and the purpose.[4]

Misconception #2: You can consent to being trafficked.

You cannot ever consent to being exploited or trafficked. According to the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, “the consent of the victim to the exploitation is irrelevant when the threat of or use of force, deception, coercion, abuse of power or position of vulnerability is used”.[5] Even if someone initially consented to providing labour, services, or commercial sex acts, they may still be a victim of trafficking if this situation becomes exploitative. It is the behaviour of the trafficker, not the victim, which makes the difference – if force, fraud, or coercion is used at any point in order to exploit someone, then it counts as human trafficking.

This is extremely important to reduce the levels of victim-blaming that still unfortunately exist.

Misconception #3: Human trafficking must involve crossing across borders.

People smuggling and human trafficking are sometimes used interchangeably in media and political discussions or seen as synonymous.[6]

Trafficking can sometimes involve or begin as consensual smuggling across a border. The crime of trafficking occurs if something happens for the purpose of exploitation, using one of the means described above. This might happen before, during or after the actual border crossing.

Some other differences to note are that people smuggling usually involves illegal (false or stolen) documents; it is voluntary; the commodity involved is the service of being moved across a border; it is a crime against the state; and it always involves illegal border crossing.

By contrast, human trafficking can involve legal or illegal documents, or documents being taken; it involves coercion and often repeated exploitation; the commodity involved is the individual themselves; it is a crime against an individual; and it can involve legal, illegal or no border crossing. In human trafficking cases, victims may be moved hundreds or thousands of miles away, or they may be exploited in their own neighbourhood. Even if someone is made to go from one hotel room to another, if force, fraud, or coercion is used at any point, then it counts as trafficking. Exploitation or coercion are the defining aspects of human trafficking, not the amount of distance travelled.[7]

Misconception #4: Victims of modern slavery are always physically held against their will.

When hearing the words slavery and human trafficking, some people imagine chains and locked doors. While this does occasionally happen, it is rare. Control is far more commonly established through psychological and financial control, forms of indoctrination, and more subtle forms of manipulation and threats.

Not all victims of trafficking are physically held captive, but that doesn’t mean escaping is any easier. Traffickers use methods that are both seen and unseen.

Some perpetrators use drugs or alcohol to control their victims, while others implicate them in criminal activities (including commercial sex or drugs) and threaten to report them to the police or immigration if they try to leave. Threats of violence against the victim or their family are also used to keep a victim in a state of fear. Many feel ashamed or helpless, distrustful of the authorities and unaware of what help might be out there for them. Traffickers commonly use debt bondage, using real or inflated debts or a sense of financial or emotional obligation to keep their victims under their control.

Anyone from any walk of life can be targeted and can end up as a victim of modern slavery, but traffickers usually focus on those easiest to exploit, which tends to be people with fewer resources, networks of family/friends, or who have existing vulnerabilities. This is why being able to recognise the signs of human trafficking is so important, so we can reach out to someone who may be too afraid to come forward.[8]

Misconception #5: Sex trafficking is the only form of human trafficking.

Sex trafficking is a form of human trafficking and modern slavery, but it is not the only one or the most common globally. Some of the most common forms are: forced labour, sex exploitation, debt bondage, domestic servitude, criminal exploitation, forced marriage and use of child soldiers.

Of the 49.6 million people estimated to be in modern slavery:

  • 19.9 million people in forced labour in private or state-run companies, or criminal exploitation
  • 1.4 million people experiencing domestic servitude in private homes
  • 6.3 million people in forced sexual exploitation (including 1.7 million children)
  • 21.9 million people in a forced marriage to which they had not consented

Misconception #6: Only women can be a victim of human trafficking or modern slavery.

Men, women and children of all ages from all backgrounds can become victims of human trafficking, and this occurs across the world.

Women and girls make up 54% of all victims worldwide and are 78% of victims of forced commercial sexual exploitation,[9] and so are disproportionally affected. Almost 27 million women and more than 12 million children are estimated to be in modern slavery today. However, men are also at risk of trafficking; over 22.8 million victims of modern slavery are men, and even more male victims are likely to be hidden away, uncounted.

Victims of modern slavery can be any age, nationality or gender, and come from any ethnic or socioeconomic background. Nevertheless, some groups and individuals are more vulnerable than others including those living in extreme poverty, those in politically and economically unstable environments, and those who are marginalised or isolated, those with a disability or mental health issue, or those who lack a stable living environment or family support.

Both modern slavery and human trafficking are horrific crimes, and they exist in almost every region of the world. Understanding the true nature of human trafficking and modern slavery makes us all more able to take effective action to tackle these crimes, and eventually to end slavery for good.

Learn more about what you can do to help: 

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