What is human trafficking? An exploration of definitions, types and regulatory frameworks

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The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 calls on all governments around the world to Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms

Yet the International Labour Organisation estimates that in 2017, there were 40.3 million people affected by “modern slavery” – and more than double that number over the previous five years, and the problem is growing. Indeed, at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, 12.5 million were taken from Africa to the Americas over a 340 year period – many sources suggest that the problem of slavery and human trafficking is bigger now than at any time in history.

As Ruth Dearnley, CEO of the NGO Stop the Traffik, puts it, “Fifty years ago, the abomination of slavery seemed like a thing of the past. But history has a way of repeating itself”.

So how can journalists, and data-driven reporting in particular, help to improve reporting on the problem?

Defining human trafficking

It’s important to understand that human trafficking is a broad topic that touches on many areas of criminality and abuse. In its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, published in the year 2000, the UN established this definition:

“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring 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 labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs; 

As you can see, it’s very broad.

Types of human trafficking

(Image – Global Slavery Index)

In recent years, the term “modern slavery” has also become popular as a way of helping to highlight the seriousness of human trafficking. Using the framework above, published by Global Slavery Index, helps us to see the relationship between subjects such as the high incidence of forced marriage of underage children in Zimbabwe and agricultural workers being transported to work in a foreign country where they do not know the language.

While we desperately need good data to improve our reporting, at its heart trafficking is a story about the exploitation of vulnerable people. It is a human story. 

The rise of social media, too, has made it easy for perpetrators to groom victims – through public adverts and direct messages.

Many have remarked that the Covid-19 crisis has also had an impact on human trafficking that has yet to be fully understood, by pushing vulnerable groups further into instability and poverty, increasing the opportunities for exploitation.


The challenges of reporting on human trafficking

As you will see throughout this course, there are many challenges in reporting on human trafficking. 

Traffickers and networks are often highly organised, very dangerous and – by their nature – operate out of sight of the general public. It often involves cross-border operations that are difficult to track, and even though – as we shall see later in the course – social media has become an important tool for traffickers to capture victims, there’s a vast gap between public data and the full extent of the crime.

In other words, most trafficking goes unreported, and we can only estimate the true scale of the issue. It is important that journalists understand how to interpret the data that is available to us for research and not overstate the ability of the data we do have to draw conclusions. Many academics warn of the danger of “sensationalist” headline figures that undermine faith in reporting

For example, The Counter Trafficking Data Collaborative (CTDC) collates case data from national police organisations and makes it available for researchers to access. It has captured information relating to 108 613 cases in 164 countries since it was founded in 2017. CTDC’s database is widely acknowledged as one of the most reliable and comprehensive available – but the compilers make it clear that it only contains a small part of the complete picture.

Fundamentally, though, human trafficking is a human story. 

Regulatory frameworks

The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children is part of the Palermo Convention, which has 150 signatories. The protocol calls for national governments to create specific laws to tackle human trafficking issues, in addition to overlapping legislation, and provide case data for the Trafficking in Persons Report.

In addition, the African Union entered into a partnership with the European Union to implement local regulations, under the AU.COMMIT campaign. AU.COMMIT aims to fulfil the obligations outlined in the 2006 Ouagadoudou Action Plan, which presents a roadmap for legislation.

In South Africa, for example, these commitments are embodied in the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act of 2013.

Common terms

Human trafficking is a complex issue which can encompass on many other types of criminal activity and human rights challenges. It is therefore important to develop a common language which removes ambiguity from the subject.

Here are some common terms you may come across in your research.

Debt bondage 

Takes various forms, but one common example is when traffickers claim to have incurred large costs in the transportation of a victim to a country of their choice, and withholds earnings on this pretext (essentially the trafficked victim earns no money of their own).

Forced begging

A particular problem involving trafficked children, who are forced to beg on street corners on behalf of gangs. 

Forced marriage/Servile forms of marriage

Takes different forms around the world. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, young women are often kidnapped and forced into marriage. In many countries this is intrinsically linked to underage marriages (for example the Zimbabwean example above).

Illegal adoption

Adoptions resulting from crimes such as abduction or fraud in the declaration of adoptability (UNHCR)

Modern Slavery

The severe exploitation of other people for personal or commercial gain. (


Do these change your perception of certain activities you may have reported on, and establish links between different crimes and human trafficking?