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Blogs and Opinion Who is vulnerable to human trafficking?

Who is vulnerable to human trafficking?

Who is vulnerable to human trafficking? Can it happen to anyone?

The short answer is, yes. Anyone from any walk of life can be targeted and can end up as a victim of modern slavery. However, there are certain vulnerabilities which may make it more likely for someone to become trapped in trafficking based on situation, profile or background. Traffickers usually focus on those easiest to exploit, which tends to be people with fewer resources or existing vulnerabilities.

A vulnerable person is defined as someone “who can be easily physically or mentally hurt, influenced or attacked”. Vulnerability is a main attractor for human traffickers as it makes it much easier to gain and maintain control over the victim. Exploitation relies on the ability to control another, and vulnerability strengthens this control.

In this article, we’ll explore some of the different vulnerabilities which may make a person more of a target for traffickers, and illustrate what we can do to guard against this.

Children and teenagers

Children and teenagers are particularly vulnerable to trafficking due to their age, naivety and trusting nature. Children can lack knowledge or experience, and traffickers prey on this. It’s estimated that there are more than 12 million children being exploited through human trafficking with approximately 1.7 million children forced into sexual exploitation.

Children should never be sold. This year we reunited 1,474 trafficked children and teenagers with their families or assisted them into independent living.

As technology advances and more children are online this also breeds the grounds for online exploitation as children are groomed and misled. Online exploitation can serve as the gateway to child trafficking. The U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), for example, reported a 130% increase in online enticement reports in 2021 compared to 2019.

Approximately 2 in 5 victims of sex trafficking in the U.S.A are recruited online, according to data presented by the Department of Justice, while for children specifically, the NCMEC estimates that 88% of their 9,800 reports of child sex trafficking each year involve a child being trafficked online. Online platforms like social media, gaming sites and messaging apps are the most common place for victim recruitment worldwide.

Take this free 60-minute e-learning course to Keep your Kids Safe in the Digital World.

Homeless and runaways

Homeless people and teenagers who have run away from their homes are vulnerable to traffickers due to desperation from poverty and lack of safety living on the streets. This is especially dangerous for children and teenagers. The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children found that 1 in 3 runway or homeless children are approached by traffickers within 48 hours.

Traffickers offer false hope of accommodation, food or job opportunities in exchange for ‘favors’ which often translates to forced labor, criminal exploitation or sexual exploitation. A recent survey by the National Clearing House of Homeless Youth & Families found that 36% of runaways traded sex for a place to stay or another need. The social isolation that comes from living on the streets can make a person more likely to be lured into a false sense of security by traffickers pretending to have a romantic, friendship or paternal interest.

Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees

Recent reports have found that migrant workers are three times more likely to be exploited through forced labour than non-migrant workers. Insecure immigration status, language and cultural barriers, and a lack of access to public services can all weaken the safety of migrants from traffickers.

Asylum seekers, displaced people and refugees are extremely vulnerable to trafficking due to their unstable circumstances. Conflict, climate change, extreme poverty and human rights persecutions can all be factors that create refugees. It’s been found that more people have been forced to migrate and flee more now than at any other point in the last fifty years.

Additionally, the Global Slavery Index shows that rising anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe and the United States has created more restrictive policies against safe immigration and refugee settlement. These policies have not actually reduced immigration but have exposed more people to greater risks of exploitation.

Marginalized groups

Identity can also play a part in the increased vulnerability and risk of trafficking. Those belonging to marginalized groups can be at risk of exclusion from society, oppression, abuse, threat of violence and even persecution. Marginalization can be based upon race, ethnicity, caste, religious beliefs, sexual identity and gender expression.

The recent Global Slavery Index found that: “the widescale deterioration of civil and political rights in the face of multiple crises increases risks for those already vulnerable to modern slavery” (Global Slavery Index, 2023).

Increased entrenched biases, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia across the globe are increasing the vulnerability of people belonging to these groups. The social isolation that results can make these groups vulnerable to trafficking.

Increased entrenched biases, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia across the globe are increasing the vulnerability of people belonging to these groups. The social isolation that results can make these groups vulnerable to trafficking.


An estimated 50 million people are trapped in modern slavery. The latest global estimates show no country is immune, with more than half (52%) of all forced labor and a quarter (26%) of all forced marriages found in high-income or upper-middle-income countries.

There are many reasons and situations that may force a person into trafficking, but the main commonality is desperation. A desperation to escape their circumstances which traffickers can easily use to lure victims.

Source: Vulnerability Model 2022, Global Slavery Index 2023, Walk Free

By understanding these vulnerabilities, we can limit the access traffickers have to victims and increase support networks to reduce the ability of traffickers to entrap victims. This starts with awareness, but it also involves significant governmental change and requires the work of all of us.

When people are tricked or forced into exploitation and kept there through violence, fraud or coercion, they often end up living and working in abominable conditions, have limited access to their families and may even face physical violence. This is why it’s so important to learn how to spot the signs of trafficking and recognize certain vulnerabilities that may make a person more susceptible to trafficking. The more awareness we raise, the more action we can take – we can become the generation to end modern slavery, for good.

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