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date: 16 July 2020

Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking

Summary and Keywords

Trafficking and smuggling in persons is a serious crime and a grave violation of human rights. In the world today, there are more slaves than at any other time in human history—these present-day slaves are the victims of human smuggling and human trafficking. Human trafficking refers to the trade of humans, most commonly for the purpose of forced labor, sexual slavery, or commercial sexual exploitation for the trafficker or others. This may encompass providing a spouse in the context of forced marriage, or the extraction of organs or tissues, including for surrogacy and ova removal. Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall into the hands of traffickers, in their own countries and abroad. Almost every country in the world is affected by trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims. The 1980s saw human trafficking emerge on the political agenda of states as well as of supranational and international organizations. By the early 1990s, human smuggling—which is extremely important in illegal migration—has prompted policy attention. The academic scholarship on human smuggling focuses on the factors for the increase of trafficking, the structure and organization of smuggler networks, and on the question of whether smuggled individuals are victims or perpetrators of a crime.

Keywords: human trafficking, human smuggling, forced labor, sexual slavery, human rights, illegal migration, smuggler networks


This article provides an overview of the phenomena of human smuggling and human trafficking, which gained prominence as policy issues in the late 1980s and increasingly became a subject of scholarly inquiry in the 1990s. After discussing the legal and analytical differences between the concepts, as codified in international law, the article proceeds with a review of the debates in the academic literature on human smuggling. The subsequent section discusses the four main perspectives on human trafficking, including feminist perspectives, and the writing on the social construction of trafficking in academic discourse and policy. Following a review of the challenges in data collection, the final portion of the article offers an overview of the work of some of the main international organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that participate in the fight against human trafficking and human smuggling. It concludes with a summary of the debates and issues in the field.


The definition currently employed in international law to distinguish human trafficking and smuggling is contained in two United Nations protocols, the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air (adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000 and effective since January 2004), and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (adopted in 2000 and in effect since December 2003). These protocols supplement the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, adopted in 2000 by the UN General Assembly (UNODC 2012). The protocols opened for signature at a convention in Palermo, Italy, in 2000 and are sometimes referred to as the Palermo Protocols. The protocols represent, for the first time in international law, an agreed-upon definition of human smuggling and trafficking in a legally binding convention (UNODC 2012).

In the two 2000 United Nations Protocols, human smuggling and trafficking are defined differently. As stipulated in the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, Article 3A, migrant smuggling is “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident” (Dauvergne 2008). “Human smuggling” has been defined in the academic literature as “the act of assisting or facilitating, often for a fee, the unauthorized entry of a foreign national into another country” (Zhang 2007). It can be of two kinds: smuggling for profit and smuggling as a favor, for instance to one's family members (Zhang 2007).

For trafficking, the definition and obligations of the state signatories to the convention are currently defined by the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, and the Interpretative Notes to the Trafficking Protocol. These three documents outline obligations of states, under international law, with regard to human trafficking (Global Rights 2002). Under earlier international obligations, such as the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, only forced trafficking for prostitution was addressed, thus leaving out other forms of trafficking (UN 1949). The definition set forth in the Trafficking Protocol covers both the most common form of trafficking, trafficking for sexual exploitation (UNODC 2009), and also trafficking for labor and organ harvesting. Legislation in a number of European Union (EU) member states over the past decade has been modified to incorporate this wider definition.

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, includes three main aspects of the definition of trafficking in persons: (a) it involves the transfer of persons: recruitment from the country of origin and transport to the destination country; (b) it takes place through force or coercion: the victim may be threatened, kidnapped, or defrauded as to the type of employment (e.g., consents to work abroad as a nanny, but is exploited as a prostitute), or the victim may be defrauded as to the conditions of employment, in which case an element of fraud or abuse of power is present, when the victim is in a position of vulnerability; (c) it must be for the purposes of exploitation (in prostitution, bonded labor, removal of organs, etc.) (UN 2010). One of the purposes of the Trafficking Protocol is victim protection and assistance, and governments accordingly have the obligation to adopt domestic legislation and develop policies for victim protection (Global Rights 2002:3). The Trafficking Protocol, as of 2010, had 117 state signatories (UN 2010).

Legally and analytically, trafficking and smuggling are fundamentally different crimes. The main difference between human smuggling and trafficking is that of consent and exploitation – individuals smuggled generally consent to the act and remunerate the smuggler in exchange, while trafficked people are exploited against their will. Trafficking involves victims of a crime who have either never consented to migrating for work or, if they did consent initially, that consent has been rendered meaningless due to the deception and abuse they suffer (ASEAN 2007). Trafficking is a crime against an individual. Smuggling of migrants is a crime against the government into whose territory the person is smuggled and is a breach of immigration laws. Trafficking involves exploitation that often continues after the victim has arrived at their destination. In contrast, migrant smuggling generally ends once a person has arrived at the destination (ASEAN 2007:3). Trafficking can occur either within a country, in the form of domestic trafficking, or transnationally, in the form of international trafficking. In contrast, migrant smuggling is always across international borders (UNODC 2006; ASEAN 2007:3). Some scholars maintain that human smuggling and trafficking are better thought of as being two ends of a continuum, as smuggling can turn into migrant trafficking and exploitation (Graycar 1999; Moises 2005, cited in Lobasz 2009).

The Trafficking Protocol has provisions for victim protection and assistance, while the Smuggling Protocol is essentially directed at protecting the state from illegal migration. While in the Smuggling Protocol states do have obligations to respect basic human rights under international law such as the right to life and freedom from torture and degrading treatment, the language of the Protocol makes no provisions for victim protection in terms of medical and psychological care, as provided to trafficking victims, for instance (Bhabha and Zard 2006).

Background and Significance

By the mid-1980s, human trafficking emerged on the political agenda of states as well as of supranational and international organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations (Outshoorn 2005). Smuggling of persons, which is extremely important in illegal migration, emerged as a pressing issue in the late 1980s, and in the early 1990s began to generate policy attention. Human smuggling has garnered increasing prominence in the policy scene over the last decade (Antonopoulos 2008). The European Union, after the 1992 Maastricht treaty, increasingly began to associate transnational illegal migration with transnational crime (Koslowski 2001). In the United States, President Clinton initiated the development of a policy agenda to combat human smuggling and trafficking (Winer 1997 in Koslowski 2001). The US Congress passed legislation on trafficking, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, in 2000 (NILC 2000). As interest in the subject grew, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) held a conference addressing human smuggling in 1994; the G8 summit directed attention to the issue in 1998 and prepared an action plan. The United Nations held a conference on trafficking in 2000 (G8 1999; Miller 2001; Koslowski 2001). The same year the UN Convention against Transnational Crime, the supplementary Trafficking Protocol, and the Smuggling Protocol were passed by the General Assembly and opened for signatures (UN 2010).

Issues in the Academic Literature on Human Smuggling

A decade ago, the migration literature was characterized by a lack of attention to human smuggling (Koslowski 2001; Bilger and Van Liempt 2009). At the time, the existing academic treatment of the issue was centered on viewing it through the perspective of criminology (Chin 1999; Schloenhardt 2001) and through an economic lens (Salt and Stein 1997; Bilger and Van Liempt 2009). More recently, there has been a rise in interest in the subject of human smuggling from a variety of fields, not only migration but also security, criminology, human rights, labor market analysis, and social policy (Heckmann 2004).

The academic literature on human smuggling has centered on the factors for the increase of trafficking, the structure and organization of smuggler networks, and on the question of whether smuggled individuals are victims or perpetrators of a crime. Finally, unlike academic writing on human trafficking, there has been extremely limited coverage on the gender dimensions in human smuggling.

Factors for the Increase in Human Smuggling

Different factors are analyzed in the academic literature as affecting an increase in human smuggling, including the effects of economic globalization, local demand for illegal labor, and, paradoxically, state policies to stem illegal migration and limit smuggling. Koslowski (2001) has addressed human smuggling from the perspective of economic globalization and argues that, as globalization creates more jobs, the surplus is often used as migration capital (a point also made by Singer and Massey 1998; Spener 2001; and Kyle 1996, cited in Koslowski 2001). Siracusa and Acacio (2004), in an atypical study, compare labor-exporting policies of Spain and the Philippines, casting light on a little discussed phenomenon – states as agents of human smuggling and trafficking, giving rise to illicit migration through their migrant-exporting schemes in the context of economic interrelatedness.

Kwong (1997) attributes a rise in human smuggling to the possible outcome of a heightened demand of employers for the labor of smuggled individuals. Sometimes the employers may have been illegal migrants or originally smuggled themselves (Chin 2001; Kwong 2001). Aronowitz (2001) argues that the tightening of immigration regulations makes entry into a country more difficult, therefore increasing demand for the services of human smugglers. The same conclusion has been proposed by Guerette and Clarke (2005), who have shown how the strategy of the United States to combat illegal entries since the 1990s has resulted in making border-crossing more difficult and dangerous, therefore increasing reliance on human smugglers and driving up prices. This has been evident in the research of Andreas (2001), Cornelius (2001), Reyes, Johnson, and Van Swearingen (2002), and Spener (2001). Therefore, the paradoxical outcome of a clampdown by industrialized states trying to stem illegal migration is a growth in human smuggling and trafficking and any elements of crime and danger associated with them (Miller 2001; Kempadoo, Sanghera, and Pattanaik 2005). According to the UNHCR, a consequence of the secondary movements of populations (the travel of refugees to a third host country) is an increase in both smuggling and human trafficking, which has negative consequences for refugees, who may be exposed to human rights violations (Scalettaris 2009).

Structure of Smuggling Networks

An issue widely covered in the literature is the question of the social organization of smuggler networks, and whether human smuggling is part of organized crime carried out by large transnational syndicates, akin to drug smuggling (IOM 1996; Yates 1997; Albrecht 2002) or, to the contrary, human smuggling is operated by smaller groups. The latter opinion prevails in academic discourse.

In the first category of scholars is Koslowski (2001), who views human smuggling as a form of transnationally organized crime. Supporters of the opposing opinion, who do not consider human smuggling to be perpetrated by large transnational groups, include Finckenauer and Waring (1996), Salt and Hogarth (2000), and Kyle and Liang (2001), who envision it as an organized crime, yet one perpetrated by people without prior experience and connections with transnational networks. Chin's (2001) research has shown that, in a number of cases, smugglers represent networks of relatives and are not organized similarly to transnational criminal groups. Utilizing over 100 interviews with Chinese smuggled from Fijuan province into the United States, Chin (2001) reveals that human smuggling is an international business, which operates similarly to other transnational business enterprises, however illegally. These findings are supported by Heckmann (2004, 2005), who, based on data on illegal migration into Germany, critiques the theory of human smuggling as an organized crime. Heckmann (2004, 2005) shows that human smuggling is carried out in networks not structured along the lines of a centralized, mafia-type organization. Similarly, Spener (2004) has argued that, specifically along the US–Mexico border, contrary to what has been proposed by the US immigration enforcement, human smuggling is not carried out by transnational criminal syndicates, but rather by small groups of smugglers based in the Mexican migrant community. Zhang (2008), in a frequently referenced work, uses over 100 interviews with government officials and “snakeheads,” i.e., smugglers who transfer Chinese citizens into western Europe and the United States, to substantiate the findings that human smuggling does not operate as a traditional criminal organization. In fact, according to Zhang (2008), most of the individuals involved in smuggling are “freelance,” operating in a non–pyramid-like system, where each member of the chain knows personally only a few others and no centralized authority over the system exists (Aguilera 2009).

Smuggled Individuals as Victims? The Security–Migration Nexus

Another question raised in scholarly publications is whether the smuggled migrants are perpetrators or victims of a crime (Koslowski 2001). While in political discourse conservative leaders in Western states may portray illegal migrants as perpetrators of a crime, some scholars have argued that they are in fact the victims (Miller 1998, in Koslowski 2011). Mountz (2010) examines Canada's regulation of migration in the context of securitizing discourses. Uehling (2004), analyzing the discourse of migrants portrayed as “illegals” in the former USSR, in the Ukraine, maintains that migrants are not the problem, but rather international migratory regimes, which need to be amended. A subsequent section of this article addresses in detail this migration–security nexus in state policy.


There is no developed body of literature on gender dimensions within human smuggling, which makes the contribution of Zhang, Chin, and Miller (2007) particularly valuable. Examining the dynamics of transnational criminal organizations vis-à-vis those of Chinese smuggling organizations in the United States, Zhang et al. (2007) argue that the different contexts account for greater possibilities for women to occupy a meaningful niche in the human smuggling business. This role of women is the result of a variety of factors, including the importance of interpersonal networks, ideologies about caregiving, as well as the low level of violence associated with human smuggling (Zhang et al. 2007). Violence, while sometimes present, is not an inherent feature of human smuggling (Kyle and Scarcelli 2009).

Country Studies on Smuggling

A great deal of the literature on human smuggling is region-specific, with a large part dedicated to smuggling originating in China, smuggling from Latin America into the US, and smuggling into the European Union. In detecting recent trends of human smuggling within the European Union, Jandl (2007) points out that people are increasingly smuggled through official road borders and with the use of falsified documents. Overall, at least a million migrants are smuggled yearly across international borders, with human smuggling estimated to generate between $5 billion and $10 billion (Martin and Miller 2000).

UNODC (2011) and Kyle and Koslowski's edited collection (2001) focus on smuggling internationally. Shelley (2007) analyzes human smuggling and trafficking into the US, where an estimated 100,000 people are smuggled each year (Antonopoulos 2008; Aguilera 2009). Some 400,000 to 600,000 people are estimated as irregularly entering the European Union annually, the large majority facilitated by human smugglers (Jandl 2007). Among works on Chinese human smuggling are Chin (1999), Hessler (2000), Kyle and Liang (2001), and Sun (2005). Yates (1997) examines the smuggling of Chinese nationals into the United States, and Mountz (2006) studies human smuggling from China's Fijuan province into Canada.

Works on Latin America and the Caribbean include Moreno (1998) on smuggling from Mexico and Central America to the United States; Andreas (2001) on smuggling Mexican citizens into the US; Kyle and Liang (2001) on smuggling from Ecuador and China; and Kyle and Scarcelli (2009) on smuggling from Cuba and Haiti.

There is a large volume of literature on human smuggling in a European context. The smuggling of persons in the European Union has been examined by Koslowski (2005), Obokata (2006a, 2006b), and Aus (2007), specifically on the evolution of criminal law on human smuggling within the EU. Peterka-Benton (2011) examines human smuggling from the Russian Federation and the former Yugoslavia into Austria. On central and eastern Europe is also the work of Laczko, Stacher, and Klekowski von Koppenfels (2002); Futo, Jandl, and Karsakova (2005); and specifically in the context of the eastern enlargement of the EU, Jandl (2007).

Specific country studies, some of which incorporate discussion not only of human smuggling but also of trafficking, include Mavris (2002) on the former Yugoslavia; Jandl (2004) and Bilger, Hofmann, and Jandl (2006) on Austria; Van Liempt (2008) on human smuggling, and Staring (2006) on human smuggling and trafficking in the Netherlands; Cyrus and Vogel (2006) on the laws on smuggling and trafficking in Germany; Peixoto (2008) on human smuggling and trafficking in Portugal; Içduygu and Toktas (2002) on Turkey; Psychulina (2004) on anti-trafficking legislation in the Ukraine; IOM (2000) on the Ukraine, Hungary, and Poland; Enriquez (2006) on human smuggling and trafficking regulations in Spain, and Puggioni (2006) on those in Italy; McCreight (2006) on human smuggling in Italy and the UK from a legal perspective; and Koser (2008) on smuggling from Afghanistan and Pakistan into the UK. Saha (2007) has examined smuggling of Indian citizens; Schloenhardt (2001) has focused on the Asia Pacific and Australia; and Araia and Monson (2009) have written on human smuggling into South Africa.

Trafficking Statistics

Estimated profits from human trafficking vary widely. The US State Department (2004) reported that human trafficking generates US$9.5 billion in revenues per year. UNICEF considers the figure to be between US$7 billion and US$10 billion. Belser's (2005) study, commissioned by the International Labor Organization, reports the highest figure for profits from trafficked victims at US$31.6 billion per year.

Statistics on the number of people trafficked also vary widely and between different organizations, which illustrates the challenges of data collection on trafficking of persons. According to a recent UN report, 2.5 million people are trafficked annually across international boundaries (UN 2008). The number reported by the US State Department in 2001 was 750,000 (US State Department 2001). In 2008 that figure was reported to be 600,000 to 800,000 persons. Trafficking is a crime committed overwhelmingly for purposes of sexual exploitation, and one that disproportionately affects female victims. According to figures released by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 79 percent of global trafficking of persons is for purposes of sexual exploitation (UNODC 2009c), with the remainder being for the purposes of labor or for organ harvesting. Based on the more than 60 countries globally for which gender and age information is available, a total of 79 percent of trafficked individuals are female, of which 66 percent are women and 13 percent girls under 18 (UNODC 2009a, 2009b:11).

Major Theoretical Perspectives on Trafficking

Human trafficking has been approached from a variety of sometimes intersecting perspectives, including gender, human rights and international law, migration, legal studies (on domestic legislation), as well as political economy. In the academic literature and in policy writing, there are four major theoretical approaches to the issue of trafficking (Marinova and James 2012). The first perspective is that of migration, that is, under this approach, trafficked individuals are treated merely as illegal migrants (Uçarer 1999). Trafficking is considered a threat to the state, placing the state as the “victim” under this scenario. This approach does not recognize important aspects of the crime, including the exploitation inherent in trafficking, which makes the trafficked individuals vulnerable, and does not account for the gender and human rights dimensions of the problem (Uçarer 1999).

The remaining three approaches incorporate a feminist standpoint and have dealt specifically with trafficking and its relationship to prostitution, as the largest number of trafficking victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation (other forms of sex trafficking include exploitation for pornographic material production, for instance). The second approach to trafficking is the “radical feminist,” or so-called abolitionist one, since its long-term goal is the eradication or abolition of prostitution (Hughes 2005). It has been advocated by Barry ([1979] 1984, 1995) and Raymond (2002), among others. The approach has been incorporated as domestic policy in three countries worldwide. Sweden pioneered the adoption of the abolitionist approach nationally in 1999, and has since been followed by Norway in 2008 and Iceland in 2009. The main precept under this approach, following the 1979 landmark book by Kathleen Barry, Female Sexual Slavery, endorses the view of prostitution as a form of violence against women. In practice, as applied by Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, this policy framework implies that, when caught in an act of buying and selling sex, the buyers of sexual services are punished and not the prostitute or trafficked woman. In Sweden, which pioneered the practice of the abolitionist approach, prostitution and trafficking are seen as inherently linked (Dodillet 2005).

A third approach, the “sex work” or “regulationist” approach, maintains that the best solution in terms of prostitution, and, by close association, trafficking, is legalization of prostitution and its regulation by the state. The proponents of the sex work view argue that when prostitution is decriminalized, consumers of sexual services will feel less entitled to abuse a woman, and legalization will therefore protect the women in the prostitution sector and reduce sex trafficking. According to this argument, law enforcement will be able to monitor legalized prostitution, and therefore the increased transparency will adversely affect trafficking of women (Bindman and Doezema 1997; Kempadoo and Doezema 1998; Wijers 1998; Doezema 2001; B. Sullivan 2003; Murray 2003; Kempadoo 2005; Daalder 2007). Kempadoo, Sanghera, and Pattanaik have argued that “under the ruse of anti-trafficking interventions, prostitutes’ rights to work, migrate, receive health care, social benefits, and respect” are being violated (2005:xxii, in Kassabian 2007). Countries worldwide that have applied the regulationist approach on the policy level include, among others, Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria.

The fourth, “repressive” viewpoint shares certain precepts with the radical feminist view in its opposition to legalization of prostitution. It has been endorsed by Aghatise (2004), Hughes (2000, 2005), Agustín (2001), M. Sullivan (2005) of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, and Farley (2009), based on the experience of New Zealand. These authors have specifically argued against legalization of prostitution as a solution, particularly to sex trafficking, maintaining that it is difficult to define “choice” in sex work, and that women are in fact not better protected under a sex work approach, as legalization only serves to mask the problem.

A central point of contention between the sex work feminists and the radical feminists is the issue of the woman's agency (Lobasz 2009). Supporters of the sex work approach advocate that women in prostitution have more, not less, agency when prostitution is legal. In contrast, the radical feminist and repressive theories believe that legalized prostitution is to the detriment of women, both in the sex industry and women altogether, because of the underlying normative message that legalization of prostitution sends in a society.

Other approaches in academic discourse include the human rights perspective (originally, the radical feminist approach incorporated an international law aspect and considered an international legal document as the solution to trafficking for prostitution, following the work of Barry). Trafficking has been addressed through a human rights lens by Gallagher (2006), who focuses on the human rights provisions and their shortcomings in current migration regimes, and Obokata (2006a), who advocates for a holistic approach in order to enhance victim protection, among others. There has also been a political economy lens applied to the problem of trafficking of women for prostitution, proposed by Limoncelli (2009), who argues that current debates between sex worker and radical feminists have not paid enough attention to the economic rights of women. Limoncelli proposes a feminist approach to develop a new political economy perspective to the international sex trade. A critical approach that sees trafficking as intertwined with economic globalization can be found in the work of Kara (2009).

Country Studies on Trafficking

There are numerous country or region-specific studies on human trafficking. Extensive material is contained in the special editions dedicated to the topic of International Migration (2005), Forced Migration Review (2006), Crime, Law and Social Change (2001), and in a comprehensive volume by Shelley (2010), who examines linkages between trafficking and globalization, drawing on material from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. A bibliography by region, which includes academic publications and publications from international organizations on trafficking, including NGOs, the IOM, the UN, and the Council of Europe, is contained in Farquet, Mattila, and Laczko (2005) and Gozdziak and Bump (2008).

An issue that has received little scholarly attention is that of domestic or what is sometimes called “internal” trafficking, i.e., trafficking within a country. A UN country survey reports that in 11 of 38 surveyed states, domestic trafficking exists, which renders border and customs checks and other typical anti-trafficking measures inefficient, as these are designed to target transnational trafficking (UN.GIFT 2009:9–10). In some countries domestic trafficking accounts for the largest percentage of victims, when data are disaggregated by national origin. For instance, in 2007, 27 percent of victims in Germany were domestically trafficked and were German nationals. In the Netherlands, another traditional country of destination like Germany, in 2008 approximately 40 percent of trafficking victims were domestically trafficked (UN.GIFT 2009:9–10). Scholarly research has focused attention on whether victims of domestic trafficking can be categorized as internally displaced persons (Martin 2006).

Utilizing a regional focus, Gozdziak and Collett (2005) analyze trafficking in North America, and DeStefano (2007) and Farrell and Fahy (2009) analyze trafficking and policies in the United States. Raymond, Hughes, and Gomez (2009) include interviews with women trafficked for sexual exploitation, in the first primary-source, interview-based study that looks at domestic and international trafficking in the United States. Canadian policy on human trafficking has been addressed in Oxman-Martinez, Hanley, and Gomez (2005) and Stewart and Gajic-Veljanovski (2005). Zhang (2011) analyzes sex trafficking in Tijuana, Mexico, and Almeida, Leite, and Nederstigt (2006) focus on trafficking in Brazil.

In the African continent, Adepoju (2005) discusses trafficking, including that of children, in sub-Saharan Africa; Nwogu (2006) focuses specifically on Nigeria, Terada and De Guchteneire (2006) on southern Africa. In coverage of the Middle East, Calandruccio's (2005) article contains specific analysis for each state in the region; Huda (2006) analyzes trafficking in Lebanon, and De Regt (2006) studies trafficking into Yemen from Ethiopia.

Human trafficking within Europe has received wide coverage. Work includes Kelly (2005); Kligman and Limoncelli (2005) on trafficking into and from eastern Europe; Hughes (2004) specifically on the role of marriage agencies for trafficking women from the former Soviet Union; Hughes (2000) on trafficking from the Ukraine, and McCarthy (2011) on Russian law enforcement against trafficking; Lazaridis (2001) and Miller and Wasilewski (2011) on trafficking of women in Greece; Viuhko (2010) on sex trafficking in Finland; Danna (2012) on Sweden's pioneering approach; Rauber (2006) on the Swiss approach to trafficking; Young and Quick (2006) and Burgoyne and Darwin (2006) on anti-trafficking measures in the United Kingdom; and Aghatise (2002, 2004) on trafficking into Italy, primarily from Nigeria.

On the problem in Asia, Ali (2005), Pattanaik (2006), and Yousaf (2006) have addressed trafficking in South Asia; Dhungana's (2006) work focuses on Nepal; Magar (2012) looks at anti-trafficking efforts led by sex workers in India; Kempadoo (2005) discusses anti-trafficking efforts in India and Bangladesh; Ahmed (2005) examines trafficking in Bangladesh; Ali (2010) analyzes the issue in Bangladesh and Japan. An overview of the subject in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Cambodia is included in an ASEAN report (2007). Steinfatt (2011) analyzes trafficking in Cambodia. Thatun (2006) focuses on anti-trafficking initiatives in the Mekong Delta sub-region, between Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar/Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam. Molland (2010) analyzes human trafficking across the Thai–Laotian border, and Stanslas (2010) that into Malaysia. Lee (2005) has addressed human trafficking in East Asia; Kim et al. (2009) have addressed human trafficking from North Korea into China; Segrave (2009) has investigated the case of Australia; and M. Sullivan (2005) has examined legalized prostitution and trafficking in Victoria, Australia.

The Social Construction of Trafficking

Scholars have focused on the social construction of trafficking in two main respects. Some have argued that there is a moral crusade evident in the way trafficking is constructed, which disproportionately focuses on trafficking for sexual exploitation. The second kind of social construction of trafficking discourse portrays trafficking as part of illegal migration and a new security threat, and thus places the issue within the migration–security nexus, particularly referenced since 9/11.

Lobasz (2009) highlights in depth the contributions of feminists writing on human trafficking, showing how feminists have analyzed the social construction of human trafficking. Peet (2011) illustrates how dominant ideas were incorporated into the Palermo Trafficking Protocol. Anderson and O'Connell Davidson (2003), in an often-cited work on the demand for trafficking, show that the demand for the services of trafficked women is socially constructed. The authors maintain that, just as individuals are not born with the desire to drink Coca-Cola and play the lottery, so the demand for the services of trafficked victims is also not innate. Data in Anderson and O'Connell Davidson's (2003) work underline that, in any of the countries surveyed, no less than 77 percent of men were aware that women may have been trafficked into prostitution, yet in a number of cases that knowledge did not preclude their demand for the services of trafficked women. Social norms in each country, the study found, had a strong impact on individual positions toward trafficking. The demand side of trafficking has also been analyzed by Hughes (2000), who highlights its importance and discusses it in the context of an argument against legalization of prostitution. Di Nicola et al. (2009), utilizing interviews with prostitutes and clients, also analyze the demand for sex trafficking and present policy recommendations.

Some authors have argued that too much of an exaggerated emphasis has been placed on sex trafficking in public discourse, therefore becoming an expression of certain moral tenets within a political agenda (Wijers 1998; Ditmore 2002, 2005; Weitzer 2007). Ditmore (2002, 2005) analyzes how morality and ideologies shape the social construction of trafficking and supports the view that there is a large conflation between trafficking and sex work. Trafficking for sexual exploitation has “captured the hearts and minds of the public,” making legislation on the topic a front for public morality. O'Brien (2011), in a comparative study with Australia, shows how ideology influences US policy-making on trafficking. Weitzer (2007) argues that trafficking was constructed as a moral crusade targeting prostitution under the George W. Bush administration, and the positions of the numerous organizations and NGOs that deal with the subject have been politicized. As an alternative, Weitzer proposes sector-specific policies and increased attention to the causes of trafficking.

In academic writing, there has been discussion of the migration–security nexus, especially pronounced after 9/11, and a stronger link between migration and state security in policy discourse, which places migrants within the framework of representing a potential threat to the state (Faist 2002; Lahav 2003; Karyotis 2007). Illegal migration, and, within that categorization, trafficking of persons, has been identified as one among a host of “new security” issues, along with international terrorism and ethnonational strife. Immigrants are perceived to be a threat to jobs, incomes, national identity and culture, among others (Faist 2002; Lahav 2004). Despite the fact that the connection between international migration and security threats is problematic and the linkage inconclusive (Faist 2002; Karyotis 2007), in both academic discourse and amongst the public, attention focuses disproportionately on the negative consequences of transnational communities (Faist 2002). In the context of the EU, for instance, the security–migration linkage has become strengthened since 9/11, ending a liberalization of EU migration policy and placing a strong emphasis on a security agenda (Lahav 2003), accelerating the expression of already existing social insecurities (Karyotis 2007).

The security–migration nexus in public debate has sometimes utilized the portrayal of some migrants as victims. Some authors argue that by creating a focus on “illegal migrants” and innocent victims, governments use international migration to advance their political goals (Chapkis 2003; Chacón 2010). Chapkis (2003) sees the Congressional passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 as such an example. TVPA provided for the introduction of a visa for victims of trafficking to remain in the United States legally and receive services comparable to those of refugees, while they testify against their attackers (DHHS 2000). Chapkis considers that the spirit of the legislation is not a departure from earlier policies but, rather, representative of anti-sex and anti-immigrant policies. Chapkis (2003) discusses the existence of a discourse around “sexual slavery,” which creates a moral panic and, more importantly, a distinction between “innocent victims” and “guilty migrants.” Thus, anxieties around sexuality and migration are utilized to further restrict international migration (Chapkis 2003).

Dauvergne (2008:69–93) also illustrates how trafficking discourse and legislation have centered on the trafficked individual as a victim. Dauvergne focuses specifically on the annual Trafficking in Persons report issued by the US State Department. Dauvergne (2008) holds that both the law and the discourse are overly focused on victimization, which “replaces illegality in this migration context” (Dauvergne 2008:92). Segrave (2009) also focuses on the important role of repatriation within the security–trafficking nexus, and emphasizes victimization and criminalization in policy efforts.

Data on Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking

The shortage of reliable data has been a pervasive problem for researchers in the fields of human smuggling and human trafficking. International organizations in recent years have attempted to propose improved guidelines for data compilation and increase standardization in data collection across countries. Despite the increase of attention to trafficking, and a certain increase in the availability of data on human smuggling and trafficking over the past decade (Savona and Stefanizzi 2007), the data remain insufficient and difficult to compile, and authors (Laczko and Gozdziak 2005; Tyldum and Brunovskis 2005; Antonopoulos 2008; Lobasz 2009) point out that few studies rely on extensive empirical work. The problem has been acknowledged by government agencies as well. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO), in a 2006 report to Congress, pointed out that better data were needed in order to enhance anti-trafficking efforts abroad (US GAO 2006).

Ali (2010) compares and critiques the data collection methods of some of the major organizations involved in such data reporting, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), the IOM, UNODC, and the US government, including the State Department. The State Department has issued the Trafficking in Persons Reports annually since 2001, with specific country statistics and summaries. UNODC released reports, in 2006 and 2009, which tracked global trends and specific country information. In an effort to improve data collection in 2009, IOM, together with the Austrian Ministry of the Interior and with financing from the European Commission, published guidelines for the collection of data on human trafficking (IOM and BM.I 2009). In a recent effort to standardize data collection, the ILO and the EU have compiled guidelines to be used by national governments (IOM and BM.I 2009). The expert group on trafficking in human beings in the European Union has taken steps to develop indicators that could be used to monitor trends and enhance comparative data between states (EU 2009). ASEAN has sought to improve data collection practices in Southeast Asia (ASEAN 2007).

Laczko and Gramegna (2003) address some of the problems in indicators on trafficking, and link the higher reliability of data to a higher priority accorded to the issue on the policy and enforcement level. Jahic and Finckenauer (2005) examine problems and definitions of the crime of human smuggling by different stakeholders, such as governments and the public, and their influence on formulating policies. The specific challenges, both ethical and methodological, in conducting research with illegal migrants have been addressed in the work of Bilger and Van Liempt (2009).

Policies of Organizations Involved in Addressing Human Trafficking and Smuggling

Residential Permit for Trafficking Victims

The migration approach to trafficking emphasizes state security and has frequently been incorporated as a policy approach on the national level. Contrary to that approach are policies allowing for trafficking victims, once identified, to receive a residential permit to remain in the country of reception and testify against their traffickers. The residential permit illustrates the legal and analytical distinction between trafficked and smuggled individuals. In the US, pursuant to the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, people who are victims of trafficking are eligible for such a permit, a T-visa, to stay in the country and testify, having access to government services, while those smuggled into the country are illegal aliens subject to deportation (NILC 2000; Shelley 2007). In 2004, a directive of the Council of the European Union provided that all EU members were to implement this residence permit for victims of trafficking from outside the EU. The renewable 6-month permit is issued for a “reflection period,” allowing victims to remain legally in the country and have access to medical, psychological, and social services, while deciding whether they want to testify against the traffickers (Council of Europe 2009). The provision of the temporary residential permit for trafficking victims in the European Union shows that policy has reflected the increasing awareness on the issue, as the norm against trafficking began consolidation after 1995 (Locher 2007). In practice, the residential permit is supposed to reduce the tension between police productivity, often measured by aliens in detention, and care for trafficking victims.

United Nations

A number of international institutions and NGOs have been actively involved in combating trafficking. Since 1999, the UNODC's Global Program Against Trafficking in Human Beings has been in existence, and UNODC has actively administered information campaigns and fostered international cooperation to combat trafficking. In addition to the passage by the UN General Assembly of the 2000 Convention on Transnational Crime and the Smuggling and Trafficking Protocols, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights appointed in 2004 a Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (OHCHR 2010). In 2007, a partnership between governments, academia, stakeholders, and NGOs was launched by UNODC, called the UN.GIFT program. UN.GIFT is a collaborative effort of the ILO, the IOM, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The program seeks to increase awareness, provide technical assistance, promote rights-based responses, and strengthen partnerships for joint action (UN.GIFT 2012).

European Union

The problems of trafficking and smuggling of persons have received increased attention in the European Union since the mid-1990s. Among the major EU initiatives is the 1997 Ministerial Hague Declaration, a landmark step in anti-trafficking efforts. Its issuance took place in the late 1990s, when the anti-trafficking norm emerged and became established in a European context (Locher 2007). Through a constructivist theory lens, Birgit Locher (2007) traces the process of how anti-trafficking norms gradually gained prominence and became incorporated into European Union policy.

The Declaration represented a major step in the fight against trafficking of women for sexual exploitation. In it, member states made a commitment to appoint national rapporteurs for trafficking. In 2002, the European Council adopted a program on combating illegal migration and trafficking in the European Union and subsequently, in November 2004, the Hague Program was adopted by the Council (Van Selm 2005). The program sought to manage migration, strengthen collaboration between member governments, and foster partnerships with trafficking regions of origin and transit, both within and outside the EU. The Joint EU Action Plan 2006–10 focused on developing a comprehensive EU strategy to measure crime, where the development of EU statistics on trafficking in human beings is a priority. Border management in EU policy has played a significant role in combating crime and human smuggling and trafficking (Bomberg, Peterson, and Stubb 2008) and an expert group on trafficking in human beings was commissioned in 2003 to assist the European Commission (EU 2003).

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

OSCE's anti-trafficking initiatives include the appointment of a Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, who works in coordination with other branches of the organization. OSCE's policy is guided by the Action Plan of the Maastricht Ministerial Council Decision on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings (2003). The blueprint contains recommendations for OSCE's 56 member states from Europe, Asia, and North America on the ways to implement anti-trafficking commitments and outlines with OSCE assistance (OSCE 2012).

An important OSCE initiative is the Alliance Against Trafficking in Persons, which includes national authorities, regional, international, and intergovernmental organizations, as well as NGOs. Since the initiation of the alliance by OSCE's Special Representative for Human Trafficking in 2004, it has held annual conferences to increase awareness and cooperation. Its membership includes Anti-Slavery International, the Council of Europe, the European Commission expert group, the European Police Office (Europol), ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes), the International Centre for Migration Policy Development, the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), IOM, ILO, La Strada International, Save the Children, Terre des Hommes, UNICEF, OHCHR, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and UNODC (OSCE 2012).

Council of Europe

The Council of Europe has also been active in anti-trafficking efforts, and in 2005 adopted and opened for signature its Convention against the Trafficking of Human Beings (Antonopoulos 2008:393). The convention views trafficking primarily through a human rights lens, emphasizing victim protection, and also contains provisions for prevention and prosecution (Antonopoulos 2008:393; Council of Europe 2008). The Convention has 27 states-parties that have ratified the document, which entered into force in February 2008 (Council of Europe 2008:2; 2010). The Council of Europe's Gender Equality and Anti-Trafficking division has carried out conferences, regional seminars, and anti-trafficking campaigns in 41 of the 47 member states (Council of Europe 2008:4), some in cooperation with OSCE and the UN. An elected Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings of the Council of Europe also meets throughout the year, since 2009 (Council of Europe 2008:8).

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

ASEAN initiatives to fight trafficking include the 1997 ASEAN Declaration against Transnational Crime and the ASEAN Declaration against Trafficking in Persons, Particularly Women and Children (2004) (ASEAN 2007:ix). In 2006, the first ASEAN report entitled Responses to Trafficking in Persons: Ending Impunity for Traffickers and Securing Justice for Victims was released (ASEAN 2007:ix).

NGO Activity

NGOs have also been very active in the fight against human trafficking. In addition to the above-mentioned organizations that have participated in collaborative efforts, they include the European Women's Lobby, the largest umbrella association of women's organizations in the European Union, with branches in all 27 member states, Amnesty International, Bonded Labor, Anti-Slavery International, and La Strada. Prominent in the anti-trafficking fight is the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), an international NGO coalition. GAATW represents over 90 nongovernmental organizations from all regions of the world and is headquartered in Bangkok (GAATW 2010).

An in-depth overview of the rise of the humanitarian anti-traffic movement in the first half of the twentieth century and of its work with the League of Nations can be found in Limoncelli (2010), and a discussion of the latter's anti-trafficking committee activity before 1936 in Pliley (2010).

Initiatives Specific to Human Smuggling

Among the international organizations involved in the fight against human smuggling are the United Nations, IOM, OSCE, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). In the United Nations, trafficking efforts are handled within UNODC. The European Union addressed human smuggling in the period 1993–2009 primarily through the efforts of its Justice and Home Affairs pillar, established by the Treaty of Maastricht. SAARC has been involved in anti-smuggling initiatives in Asia, and in 2002 adopted the Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution. Another regional initiative is the Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, adopted in Beijing in 2001 by the interregional Asia–Europe Meeting, which involves 43 countries (Antonopoulos 2008).


In summary, human smuggling and human trafficking are fundamentally different crimes, as specified in the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (2000) and its two supplementary Protocols. Human smuggling is something to which individuals have consented, and is generally considered a crime against the government of the country that the migrant is trying to enter illegally. In contrast, human trafficking involves exploitation and is a crime against a person, as the trafficked person has not consented to the exploitative activity.

The two issues gained prominence in policy in the 1990s, and in academic literature in the last decade. Three main debates characterize the literature on human smuggling: the social organization of smuggling networks (i.e., whether they are large transnational criminal syndicates or, in contrast, small networks of smugglers who sometimes may even be relatives); the causes for the increase in human smuggling, such as economic globalization, increased demand for smuggled labor, and state security policies; and, within the discourse of the migration–security link, the question of whether the smuggled individuals are perpetrators or victims of a crime.

The voluminous literature on human trafficking has been dominated by four main theories: the migration approach, which treats trafficking victims merely as migrants, not accounting for human rights and gender dimensions of the matter; the radical feminist approach, which sees trafficking as violence against women (79 percent of all trafficking cases are for sexual exploitation); the sex work approach, which argues that the best way to counter sex trafficking is to legalize prostitution and increase transparency in the sector; and finally, the repressive approach, which opposes legalized prostitution, arguing that legalization neither curbs the problem nor helps trafficked women.

A great deal of work in human trafficking has addressed the social construction of trafficking, in the context of both illegal migration and the linkage between security and migration, and an emphatic focus on sex trafficking that reflects social norms on sexuality. The problem of trafficking and smuggling has been addressed by international institutions and nongovernmental organizations alike, including the United Nations, the European Union, ASEAN, the Council of Europe, ILO and IOM, as well as the European Women's Lobby and the Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women. In general, the efforts of states to codify and enforce specific measures against human trafficking remain key factors in combating the problem (Marinova and James 2012).

Overall, while the literature on human smuggling and human trafficking has developed a great deal over the past decade, more research is needed, for instance in addressing gender dimensions in human smuggling organizations. In academic writing, regional studies on trafficking have occupied a prominent place, yet the majority of the work has centered on North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. Further area-specific studies are needed on human trafficking and smuggling, particularly on the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and South America. Finally, despite the discussion in the scholarly literature of the methodological problems, and recent efforts of international organizations to improve standardization and data collection procedures, the lack of solid, reliable data remains a pervasive obstacle to research and policy formulation alike in the field of human trafficking.

Efforts to increase the standardization of data on trafficking include the WomenStats database by Caprioli et al. (2007, 2009), which seeks to comprehensively collect data on the status of women utilizing a variety of indicators from countries worldwide. Within this framework, it also incorporates the status of trafficking of women. The WomanStats Project (2012) includes a trafficking scale that serves as a quantitative measure of compliance and enforcement for each of the 174 countries in the database.

The problem for all researchers lies in the necessity to rely, in a number of cases, on data released by governmental institutions. In many cases, data are either not systematically collected or reported by governments, or are collected in ways that significantly vary across different countries. Further complicating the matter is the pervasive problem that human smuggling and human trafficking represent a subject area that lacks transparency and involves criminal groups or transnational criminal networks. As human trafficking and human smuggling are illicit activities, researcher access to information often encounters significant challenges and limitations.

Nonetheless, in light of both the gravity and the global scope of human smuggling and trafficking, the latter alone claiming an estimated 27 million victims worldwide (US State Department 2012), these issues are likely to remain a central focus of sustained academic and policy work in the coming decades.


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