- There are no accurate estimates of the number of victims of trafficking worldwide, nor of the number of victims who are migrants.
- Irregular migration routes and irregular migration status are factors in vulnerability to trafficking, but migrants in regular situations can also become victims of trafficking.
- Migrants have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, revealing and exacerbating their vulnerability to human trafficking.
- Effectively protecting victims of trafficking, including migrants, requires states to take preventive and protection actions beyond criminal justice responses.
The term “trafficking in persons” – or “human trafficking” – is widely used but often misunderstood. In essence, human trafficking refers to acts (such as the recruitment, transportation or transfer of persons) done through means (such as the use of force, deception or some form of coercion) for the specific purpose of exploitation. Some of the people most vulnerable to being trafficked are among the world’s 281 million international migrants. Today’s World Day against Trafficking in Persons provides an opportunity to challenge some common misconceptions about human trafficking in migration pathways.
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Assumption #1: There are accurate global estimates of the prevalence of the human trafficking of migrants
Horrifying trafficking statistics often make the headlines of media outlets around the world, yet there is no accurate estimation of the prevalence of human trafficking, nor of the number of victims who are migrants. The well-documented challenges of achieving estimates relate to the clandestine nature of the crime, different understandings of what constitutes trafficking, and states’ uneven capacities to identify victims and collect disaggregated data.
The available data reflects these limitations, and does not represent the overall number of victims who remain unidentified. Yet useful insights can be gleaned, including from the “UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons”, the Counter Trafficking Data Collaborative led by the International Organization for Migration, and the “Trafficking in Persons Report” by the US Department of State – all of which point to a high proportion of migrants among the victims of trafficking.
Assumption #2: Only irregular migrants are trafficked
The misconception that only irregular migrants are trafficked stems from the confusion between human trafficking and migrant smuggling. These are distinct phenomena that even major media outlets conflate. But assumptions are also made that regularity protects migrants from vulnerability.
While irregular pathways and irregular status are factors in vulnerability to trafficking, regular migration channels can also fuel vulnerability. Migrant labour schemes requiring workers to pay fees to unregulated and unscrupulous recruitment agencies, or that contractually tie them to employers, entrench their vulnerability to trafficking. Indeed, higher debts may even be incurred for regular migration channels than irregular ones. Certain labour sectors are particularly prone to trafficking of migrant labour – both in regular and irregular situations – including domestic work, construction, agriculture and hospitality.
Ironically, some of these sectors have been under the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic, revealing the essential work done by migrant workers and the need to better protect them. It has for instance been the case of domestic workers, many of whom are migrant women, seafarers on whom more than 80% of the global trade volume depends, and migrants working in agriculture in Europe and North America.
Assumption #3: COVID-19 travel restrictions have reduced trafficking of migrants
Every country in the world has been impacted by border closures and travel restrictions, posing significant barriers to migration and mobility worldwide that have not stopped trafficking. On the contrary, closed mobility pathways have opened up opportunities for criminals. Migrants already in destination countries have been disproportionately impacted with rising vulnerability creating a profitable market for traffickers, particularly as more people fall into irregularity and precarity. In some cases, living and working conditions have descended into situations of exploitation and lost jobs have created fertile hunting ground for traffickers.
But promising practices to address these vulnerabilities have also emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although not explicitly aimed at preventing trafficking, decisions by countries such as Portugal, Italy and Colombia to temporarily regularise some irregular migrants have been instrumental in reducing vulnerability. These lessons can be extrapolated for wider application in counter-trafficking response in a post-COVID world.
Assumption #4: Criminal justice responses are sufficient to prevent trafficking and protect migrants
States’ traditional focus on criminalising human trafficking and prosecuting traffickers is sometimes considered sufficient to protect victims. But prosecution is only part of the counter-trafficking picture. Preventing trafficking of migrants requires increased awareness about risks along migration routes, safe, orderly and regular migration pathways, and labour policies that are fair and decent for migrant workers.
Protection measures must be tailored to the specific situations of migrants. Policies to protect victims from punishment for offences they have committed during their trafficking (such as immigration offences, prostitution in countries where sex work is prohibited, or drug-related crimes they have been trafficked to commit) incentivise them to report to the authorities. Some countries in the European Union and the US provide opportunities for residence permits for victims in irregular situations, alleviating their fear of being detained and deported. Such measures are not only essential to protect migrant victims, but also to achieve their cooperation in bringing traffickers to justice.
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Challenging assumptions about human trafficking is essential to combating it. Diverse actors from governments, to civil society organizations, as well as the financial and tech sectors, have mobilised in the past decades to address trafficking. This year’s World Day against Trafficking in Persons on 30 July highlights the vital role of victims as key actors in shaping responses. The voices of migrants in both regular and irregular situations need to be urgently heard and earnestly heeded in the fight against trafficking.