What Is Human Trafficking?

Most people generally understand that human trafficking is slavery. While this is true in a general, philosophical sense, this limited understanding doesn’t lend itself well to the actual identification of human trafficking. Further, if our understanding of human trafficking is based on general concepts, we may unintentionally use subjective or cultural biases in our assessment of what is and is not human trafficking. 

In order to know what human trafficking is and be able to identify it, we must first know how it is defined by the law.

The cornerstone piece of federal legislation on human trafficking in the United States is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. This legislation which developed from the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines human trafficking as: 

“ the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or 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. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs” 

To further simplify this, human trafficking requires the presence of three basic elements: 

1) that an action was taken – The action could be transporting, recruiting, harboring, abducting, and/or receiving victims. In larger trafficking organizations, multiple people may be assuming different “action” roles. In some cases, a single individual may assume all of these roles.

2) by means of force, fraud or coercion – In the case of adult victims, some element of force, fraud or coercion is required. In the case of minor children under the age of 18, force, fraud or coercion is not required. This is an important distinction. Any individual who receives a minor under the age of 18 for commercial sex is engaging in human trafficking. A common example of this would be a homeless teen who trades sex for shelter. The perceived “agreement” of the child to trade sex for shelter is not relevant because the law provides age of consent protections for minors. As the 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report, further explains “there are no exceptions to this rule: no cultural or socioeconomic rationalizations alter the fact that children exploited in prostitution are sex trafficking victims”. 

3) for the purpose of exploiting another person for profit or something of value – The purpose or motive for traffickers’ actions almost universally comes down to financial gain or the acquisition of something of value. This can be money, the exchange of drugs, or some type of favor like obtaining a promotion or even saving labor costs.

Forms of human trafficking
Sex trafficking tends to get more attention in the media, however human trafficking takes other forms as well. 

  • Labor: domestic servitude, agriculture, mining, fisheries, factory work
  • Sexual Exploitation: prostitution, escorting, pornography, erotic type entertainment
  • “Other”: child soldiers, child brides, children sold for adoption, organ harvesting, begging, committing various crimes, human sacrifice

Human Trafficking in all its forms is an enormously complex issue. Its eradication requires a multi-faceted strategy that incorporates preventative actions, such as awareness, and assisting those who are vulnerable to it. It requires the ability to identify human trafficking victims, offenders and situations, as well as the ability to respond using “do no harm” practices. Perpetrators most be held accountable, and the protection and restoration of victims must be provided for. Additionally, it is not enough to focus on victims and their traffickers; we must address the ocean of demand—both sexual and monetary—that feeds this atrocity.

Alison Phillips is an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City specializing in human trafficking.


United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (2004). United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Article 3 paragraph (a) p42. Retrieved from: http://www.unodc.org/documents/treaties/UNTOC/Publications/TOC%20Convention/TOCebook-e.pdf

United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. (2007). Fact sheet on human trafficking. Retrieved from: http://www.unodc.org/documents/human-trafficking/UNVTF_fs_EN.pdf.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2009). Global report on trafficking in persons. Retrieved from: https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/282798.pdf

United States Congress, (2005). Trafficking victim’s re-authorization act of 2005. PUBLIC LAW 109-164. Retrieved from: http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/61106.html.

United States Department of State, (2018) Trafficking in Persons Report. Retrieved from: https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report-2018/

Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, Public Law 106-386, §§1-2004, 114 Stat. 1464 2000.