What is Human Trafficking?


What is human trafficking?  It is a simple question that often comes with a complicated answer depending on who is defining it.  The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) defines human trafficking as the act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving persons through use of force, coercion or deception for the the purpose of exploiting them. This definition is accepted internationally but tends to place too much emphasis on movement. In the most simplest definition, human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery where people profit from the control and exploitation of others.

Every country is effected by trafficking whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for individuals who are victimized. Human trafficking is a lucrative criminal industry – second only to drug trafficking – generating billions of dollars annually. According to the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, it is estimated that 27 million people are currently enslaved worldwide – the highest rate in human history.  It is crime under U.S. federal and international law.


Myths and Misconceptions

There are numerous myths and misconceptions about human trafficking which cause confusion and muddle people’s perceptions.  It is important to identify and understand these myths in order to understand human trafficking further.

Myth 1: Trafficked persons can only be foreign nationals or immigrants from other countries.
Reality: Human trafficking encompasses both transnational trafficking where borders are crossed as well as domestic or internal trafficking that occurs solely within one country.

Myth 2: Human trafficking is a crime that must involved some form of travel, transportation or movement across national borders.
Reality: Trafficking does not require transportation, travel or border crossing. Although transportation may be involved it is not certain in every instance.

Myth 3: Human trafficking is another term for human smuggling.
Reality: There are fundamental differences between the crimes of human trafficking and human smuggling.  Both are entirely separate federal crimes under U.S. law. Smuggling is a crime against a country’s borders, whereas human trafficking is a crime against a person.  While smuggling requires illegal border crossings, human trafficking does not. It is important to understand that human trafficking is not synonymous with “forced migration” or “smuggling.”

Myth 4: Human trafficking instances always involve elements of physical restraint, force or physical bondage.
Reality: A wide range of trafficking cases happen in which there is no physical restraint, force or bodily harm. Oftentimes, there are much subtler forms of coercion or force within families and communities.

Myth 5: People who have been trafficked understand their rights and understand they have been trafficked.
Reality:  Many individuals who fall victim to trafficking have no understanding of their rights and many are unaware of the term “trafficking.”  In cultures where child labor is the norm, there is no broader sense that something illegal or immoral is happening.  It is important to understand that the terms “trafficking,” “child labor,” and “exploitation” are western terms.

Myth 6:  Sex trafficking is the only form of human trafficking.
Reality: There are numerous forms of human trafficking effecting both adult women and men as well as children.  Broadly defined, there are two main categories: sex trafficking and labor trafficking.  The latter includes but is not limited to domestic servitude, field labor, child soldiers, factory labor, bridal and reproductive slavery and organ trade.

Myth 7: Human trafficking only occurs within well-organized underground criminal networks.
Reality: Human trafficking can occur within families, with well-trusted members of one’s community, within legal and legitimate business settings, as well as organized and disorganized underground networks.

Myth 8: The largest perpetrators fueling the demand for sexual services in Southeast Asia are Western men.
Reality: While Western sex tourism does drive the demand for commercial sex work in Southeast Asia primarily in the urban areas, by and far, the largest demand is fueled by local Asian men. These men pay notoriously lower rates for sexual services, have higher demands, and are more abusive towards the girls. Many rural ethnic minority villages have one or more “community brothels” for the servicing of local men and villagers passing by. These are commonplace and accepted within the communities.


Types of Human Trafficking

Men, women, and children all over the world are effected by human trafficking.  There are two main categories: sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

  • Sex trafficking: When an adult or minor is coerced, forced, deceived or sold into prostitution that person is a victim of sex trafficking. All of the people involved in recruitment, transportation, harboring, receiving and obtaining the person for that purpose have committed a trafficking crime. Sex trafficking can also occur alongside debt bondage wherein women and girls are forced to continue providing sexual services through the enforcement of real or imaginary “debts” incurred through their transportation, recruitment and sale, which must be paid in full before the victim can be freed.
  • Bonded Labor or Debt Bondage: The same thing applies with labor trafficking. An individual is held responsible for repaying arbitrarily assigned “debts” which traffickers or recruiters unlawfully exploit.  The laborer is indebted to the trafficker, recruiter or employer until the debt is paid in full.  Laborers may also inherit intergenerational debt.
  • Domestic Servitude: A unique form of forced labor, domestic servitude keeps laborers in an informal workplace where labor is easily exploited outside the vision of local authorities. Laborers are often socially isolated and experience widespread sexual abuse.
  • Forced Child Labor: Often the vilest forms of trafficking are those that involve children. This can include child soldiers, child begging, child field labor, and child sex trafficking. According to UNICEF, as many as two million children are subjected to prostitution in the global commercial sex trade. Child trafficking has devastating consequences for minors including long-lasting physical and psychological trauma, disease (including HIV/AIDS and STIs), drug addiction, social ostracism and suicidal ideation.

Who is at Risk?

There are many factors that make adults and children vulnerable to human trafficking. However, human trafficking does not exist solely because people are vulnerable to exploitation. Human trafficking also exists because there is a global demand for cheap labor or services, including commercial sex acts.

 Risk factors that make people vulnerable to human trafficking include but are not limited to the following: undocumented migrants, ethnic minority groups, women and children, oppressed, marginalized and/or impoverished groups, broken families, families with substance abuse, and individuals fleeing armed conflict and natural disaster.

Human Trafficking in Thailand

Thailand is a source, transit and destination country.  Thailand borders Cambodia, Lao PDR,  Myanmar (Burma) and Malaysia and is a major hub for both sex and labor trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region. Both internal and cross-border trafficking occurs in and from Thailand.

The majority of people trafficked into Thailand come from Myanmar (Burma), Lao PDR, Cambodia and Southern China and are subjected to forced or bonded labor and commercial sexual exploitation. Thai nationals are trafficked from the relatively poorer region of northeastern Thailand to urban and tourist areas or internationally. According to the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP), Thai women, urban and rural, are sent to work in sex and domestic industries in almost all regions of the world, particularly Malaysia, Japan, Australia, USA, Canada, and Germany. This international trafficking is often under the guise of legal employment contracts that are not honored.

Migrants, ethnic minority hill tribe groups, and stateless individuals are at a higher risk of being trafficked than Thai nationals. It is estimated that two million undocumented Burmese migrants live in Thailand having left areas of military conflict or instability whether voluntarily or involuntarily. These undocumented migrants are often exploited for labor. Because they lack documentation, Thai language skills, and are often viewed negatively in Thai society, they remain vulnerable to exploitation with no legal recourse or advocacy.  Undocumented and stateless individuals exist in a subpar level of society lacking access to healthcare, education and viable employment opportunities keeping them vulnerable to human trafficking.

It is important to understand that culture plays a significant part. An ingrained sense of familial obligation makes children – especially girls – feel duty-bound to support their families financially. This cultural obligation is a major factor in perpetuating trafficking within the entire strata of Thai culture and particularly among the indigenous groups living in the mountainous region.  These indigenous groups or “ethnic minority” groups include Akha, Yao, Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Lisu and Tai Yai (Shan). They are predominately subsistence farmers working on small yields of rice, corn, tea and coffee. These communities are known locally as “Hill Tribe” and they reside in the high altitudes of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos PDR and Yunnan Province in China. These indigenous groups have migrated over the past few centuries from Myanmar, China and Tibet and despite having been here for generations, they lack full recognition from the Thai government. They are unable to own land or businesses and they are often uprooted and relocated by Thai authorities. Their access to education, health care and viable employment is severely reduced and oftentimes trafficking their children is a way to increase a family’s income on a very local and immediate level.

Thailand is unique in that there is a fair amount of internal trafficking of men, women and children for commercial sexual exploitation and labor trafficking. UNESCO asserts that lack of legal status is the single greatest risk factor for trafficking and exploitation.  There is an issue of rural-to-urban trafficking within Thailand where ethnic Thais are trafficking from the poorer regions of Chiang Rai, Phayao, and Nong Khai to Bangkok, Pattaya, Hua Hin and Phuket.

Prostitution is illegal in Thailand although it is widely available and relatively regulated causing sex tourism to remain a problem.  There are large markets for foreigners in the urban areas. It is important to understand that there is a large demand from Thai men for commercial sex throughout the nation in rural and urban areas. In Thai culture, paying for commercial sex services is relatively normal and it is estimated that the majority of Thai men purchase commercial sex services at least once in their lifetime. Sex solicitation and sexual services are widely available to local and foreigners alike in go-go bars, clubs, karaoke bars, massage parlors and elsewhere.
Child labor is prevalent throughout Thailand particularly in agriculture, factories, the fishing industry and through street begging.

The trafficking networks within Thailand tend to be small and not highly organized while the networks working abroad tend to be more organized with formal networks.  To date, there has been small efforts to combat human trafficking within Thailand.

How to Combat Trafficking

There are numerous ways to work against trafficking.  Different strategies include prevention, rescue, protection, prosecution, rehabilitation, repatriation, reintegration, reducing demand, advocacy, raising awareness, and building international and regional initiatives. It is important to understand that not all agencies, Government Organizations (GOs) and Non-Government Organziations (NGOs) agree on which strategies are best employed.  While many organizations focus on prevention and protection, others focus on rescue, rehabilitation and repatriation, and others work to assess regional trends through research and data collection. To date, collaborative efforts in the region are not strong and, unfortunately,this tends to be the global trend. COSA works primarily on prevention, protection, and raising awareness at a community level.

What Can You Do?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s