Topics of Special Interest

Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons

The Vulnerability of LGBT Individuals to Human Trafficking

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons around the world often experience discrimination and elevated threats of violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2013, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Association (ILGA) reported that nearly 80 countries had laws that criminalize people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBT persons face elevated threats of violence and discrimination in employment, healthcare, and educational opportunities. Some family members have ostracized LGBT relatives from their homes. The cumulative effects of homophobia and discrimination make LGBT persons particularly vulnerable to traffickers who prey on the desperation of those who wish to escape social alienation and maltreatment.

Governments and NGOs have made progress in identifying LGBT trafficking victims and highlighting the vulnerability of LGBT persons to crimes such as human trafficking. For example, in 2013, NGOs working on LGBT issues in Argentina identified traffickers who promised transgender women job opportunities in Europe, but instead confiscated their passports and forced them into prostitution. Police in the Philippines have identified LGBT trafficking victims during anti-trafficking operations. Civil society in South Africa has identified instances of traffickers coercing LGBT children to remain in prostitution under threat of disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity to their families. As part of the 2013-2017 Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Trafficking in the United States, U.S. agencies have committed to gathering information on the needs of LGBT victims of human trafficking. NGOs in the United States estimate LGBT homeless youth comprise 20 to 40 percent of the homeless youth population; these youth are at particularly high risk of being forced into prostitution.

Biases and discrimination severely complicate proper identification of, and provision of care to, LGBT victims of human trafficking. Law enforcement officials and service providers should partner with LGBT organizations to enhance victim identification efforts and adapt assistance services to meet the unique needs of LGBT victims. LGBT victims of human trafficking should also be included in the dialogue on these issues as well as on helping victims become survivors.

The Use of Forced Criminality: Victims Hidden Behind a Crime

Methods used by human traffickers continue to evolve, as does the understanding of this crime among law enforcement and anti-trafficking activists. One distinct, yet often under-identified, characteristic of human trafficking is forced criminality. Traffickers may force adults and children to commit crimes in the course of their victimization, including theft, illicit drug production and transport, prostitution, terrorism, and murder. For example, in Mexico, organized criminal groups have coerced children and migrants to work as assassins and in the production, transportation, and sale of drugs. In November 2013, police arrested six adult Roma accused of forcing their children to commit burglaries in Paris and its suburbs. The victims were reportedly physically beaten for failure to deliver a daily quota of stolen goods. In Afghanistan, insurgent groups force older Afghan children to serve as suicide bombers. Non-state militant groups in Pakistan force children—some as young as 9 years old—to serve as suicide bombers in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Children and men, primarily from Vietnam and China, have been forced to work on cannabis farms in the United Kingdom and Denmark through the use of verbal and physical threats and intimidation.

Victims of trafficking should not be held liable for their involvement in unlawful activities that are a direct consequence of their victimization. Trafficked individuals who are forced to commit a crime are commonly mistaken for criminals—rather than being identified as victims—and therefore treated as such by law enforcement and judicial officials. Many victims of trafficking remain undetected among those who have committed crimes because of a lack of proper victim identification and screening. One example in the United States involves victims of human trafficking who are forced to commit commercial sex acts, and are then prosecuted by state or local officials for prostitution or prostitution-related activity. Many states, including New York State, have passed laws to allow trafficking victims to overturn or vacate these convictions where criminal activity was committed as part of the trafficking situation. In 2009, three Vietnamese children were arrested for working on cannabis farms in the United Kingdom, convicted for drug offenses, and sentenced to imprisonment. An appellate court, however, overturned the convictions in 2013, holding that the children were victims of trafficking. This case reflects a growing awareness that victims of human trafficking involved in forced criminality should be shielded from prosecution. It also demonstrates the difficulties that law enforcement and judicial officials face when combating crimes and enforcing the law.

It is important that governments develop and implement policies to identify trafficking victims who are forced to participate in criminal activity in the course of their victimization, and provide them with appropriate protective services. In addition to general awareness training on human trafficking, training law enforcement and judicial officials about the principles of non-punishment and non-prosecution of victims is key to increasing the likelihood that individuals will be properly identified by the authorities, and thereby secure access to justice and protection.

Marginalized Communities: Romani Victims of Trafficking

Romani—also known as Roma, Roms, or Romane—are one of the largest minority groups in Europe and are highly vulnerable to human trafficking. Ethnic Romani men, women, and particularly children are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor—including forced begging, forced criminality, involuntary domestic servitude, and servile marriages—throughout Europe, including in Western Europe, Central Europe, and the Balkans. This exploitation occurs both internally, especially in countries with large native Romani populations, and transnationally. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Ministerial Council issued a decision in December 2013 that called on participating States to take measures to address Romani victims of human trafficking.

Like other marginalized groups across the world, Romani are particularly vulnerable to trafficking due to poverty, multi-generational social exclusion, and discrimination—including lack of access to a variety of social services, education, and employment. For instance, because of poor access to credit and employment opportunities, Romani often resort to using informal moneylenders that charge exorbitant interest rates, contributing to high levels of debt, which heighten trafficking vulnerability. Furthermore, recorded cases also exist of exploiters fraudulently claiming social benefits from Romani trafficking victims, depriving victims of this assistance.

In general, European governments do not adequately address the issue of identifying and protecting Romani trafficking victims. Victim protection services and prevention campaigns are often not accessible to the Romani community, as they are at times denied services based on their ethnicity or are located in isolated areas where services are not available. Law enforcement and other officials are typically not trained in or sensitized to trafficking issues in the Romani community. At times, combating trafficking has been used as a pretext to promote discriminatory policies against Romani, such as forced evictions and arbitrary arrests and detention.

Many Romani victims are hesitant to seek assistance from the police because they distrust authorities due to historic discrimination and a fear of unjust prosecution. In some instances, police have penalized Romani victims for committing illegal acts as a result of being trafficked, such as being forced to engage in petty theft. Furthermore, in those countries in which governments rely on victims to self-identify, this mistrust can result in disproportionately small numbers of Romani victims identified, which can contribute to continued exploitation of victims. The lack of formal victim identification may also lead to an absence of protection services, which in turn can result in increased vulnerability to re-trafficking.

Some policy recommendations to address the needs of Romani victims of human trafficking include:

  • Governments should include full and effective participation of Romani communities and organizations in anti-trafficking bodies, including anti-trafficking law enforcement and victim identification groups.
  • Trafficking prevention campaigns and efforts should be targeted to Romani communities, particularly those that are segregated and socially excluded.
  • Governments should improve access to prevention and protection services, such as public awareness campaigns for communities and law enforcement, and adequate shelters, legal and social services, and vocational assistance.
  • Law enforcement should not impose criminal liability on trafficking victims, including Romani, for crimes they were forced to commit.
  • Anti-trafficking policies should explicitly recognize the Romani as a vulnerable group.

Human Trafficking and Major Sporting Events

Major sporting events—such as the Olympics, World Cup, and Super Bowl—provide both an opportunity to raise awareness about human trafficking as well as a challenge to identify trafficking victims and prosecute traffickers who take advantage of these events. Successful anti-trafficking efforts must be comprehensive and sustainable, addressing both labor and sex trafficking conditions before, during, and after such events.

Prior to the Event: Major sporting events often entail massive capital improvement and infrastructure projects, creating a huge demand for cost-effective labor and materials. Governments and civil society can take steps to prevent this significant increase in construction from being accompanied by an increase in forced labor. Governments should ensure labor laws meet international standards, regulate labor recruitment agencies, and frequently inspect construction sites for violations of labor laws. To prepare for the 2012 Olympics in London, the London Councils, a government association in the United Kingdom, commissioned a report on the potential impact of the Olympics on human trafficking. Governments in countries hosting major sporting events may wish to consider similar analyses to identify potential gaps in human trafficking responses. These strategies will be particularly important in countries planning to host future Olympics (Brazil in 2016, South Korea in 2018, and Japan in 2020) and World Cup tournaments (Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022).

Game Day: Increased commerce, tourism, and media attention accompany major sporting events. Unfortunately, there is a lack of hard data on the prevalence of human trafficking—including sex trafficking —associated with these events. Governments and civil society—including the airline and hospitality sectors—can collaborate to combat trafficking by launching media campaigns, training law enforcement officials and event volunteers, and establishing partnerships to recognize indicators of human trafficking and to identify victims. Additional data collection of human trafficking surrounding major sporting events will inform future anti-trafficking efforts.

After the Event Concludes: Modern slavery is a 365-day-a-year crime that requires a 365-day-a-year response. Traffickers do not cease operations once a sporting event concludes, and stadiums and surrounding areas can remain popular destinations for travel and tourism. The lasting effect of anti-trafficking efforts associated with major sporting events can be even more important than the impact of those efforts during the event itself. This ripple effect can take the form of enhanced partnerships between law enforcement officials, service providers, and the tourism industry, or simply sports fans sustaining the anti-trafficking efforts that they learned about during the event.

Promising Practices in the Eradication of Trafficking in Persons

Innovation and technology are essential in the fight against human trafficking. The private sector, anti-trafficking advocates, law enforcement officials, academics, and governments are working together to develop innovative solutions to address the complexities involved in both fighting this crime and supporting victims as they strive to restore their lives. Examples of these promising practices include:

Mobile Technologies in Uganda:

In partnership with the Government of Norway, International Organization for Migration (IOM) caseworkers in the field are using mobile technologies in Uganda to collect information about the protection needs of trafficked children. The data, which caseworkers capture using smart phones and then send to a central database for storage, aggregation, and analysis, identifies trends in the trafficking of children from rural to urban areas. IOM uses these trends and patterns to guide the project’s anti-trafficking strategy. The web application of the database displays live charts that show anonymous and disaggregated data in a visual format for public viewing.

“TechCamps” in Phnom Penh and Tlaxcala:

Department of State “TechCamps” bring local and regional civil society organizations together with technologists to develop solutions to challenges faced in particular communities. In September 2013, the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia hosted the first-ever “TechCamp” focused on using technology to address challenges in combating modern slavery in Southeast Asia. Challenges ranged from providing hotline information to labor migrants to reducing social stigma for sex trafficking survivors. The McCain Institute for International Leadership provided seed funding for two local projects after the Phnom Penh event. The U.S. Embassy in Mexico also hosted a “TechCamp” in Tlaxcala, a state facing significant challenges in combating sex trafficking. “TechCamp” Mexico focused on developing low-cost, easily-implemented solutions, including interactive soap operas to increase public awareness about trafficking and data scraping to map high-risk areas.

Technology to Identify and Serve Victims:

The White House Forum to Combat Human Trafficking in 2013 brought stakeholders together with survivors to highlight technology that is being used to help identify victims, connect them to services, and bring traffickers to justice. The forum featured new technology being used by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline, including the development of a system for individuals to connect discreetly with NHTRC through text messages in addition to a toll-free hotline. Additionally, Polaris Project, working with Google, software companies, and other NGOs, launched a Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network project to help create a more coordinated global response for victims of trafficking.

Identifying Irregular Financial Transactions:

Collaboration between the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and financial institutions and foundations is helping corporations to identify potential cases of human trafficking by looking for irregularities and red flags in financial transactions. American Express, Bank of America, Barclays, Citigroup, the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, JPMorgan Chase & Co., TD Bank, Theodore S. Greenberg, Polaris Project, Wells Fargo, and Western Union participated in the effort. The U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), in dialogue with other U.S. agencies, private industry, NGOs, academia, and law enforcement, launched a similar initiative to identify financial red flags and provide guidance to financial institutions on how to detect and properly report suspected human trafficking. FinCEN’s goal is to supplement and aid law enforcement investigations by supporting the effective detection and reporting of human trafficking financing through Suspicious Activity Reports. Through these efforts, financial institutions are developing the ability to identify suspicious financial activity that may help identify human traffickers.

Making the Problem Worse: Off-Duty Law Enforcement Officers Providing Security in High-Risk Establishments

At times, trafficking offenders employ off-duty law enforcement officers to provide nighttime security in clubs, bars, or other establishments that are at high risk of being a venue for trafficking. This practice likely inhibits the willingness of law enforcement authorities to investigate allegations of human trafficking. Off-duty officers on the payroll of an establishment engaging in human trafficking may be less likely to report or investigate a potential trafficking situation at that locale. In addition, their law enforcement colleagues who do not work in the establishment may feel pressure to look the other way, rather than risk compromising their fellow officers. The practice of off-duty law enforcement officers working other security jobs may also have a negative impact on the community’s perception of the role of law enforcement. Most significantly, potential trafficking victims are not likely to turn to these law enforcement officers for help or trust a police officer who works in, and potentially enables, an environment where exploitation is occurring.

Governments can help by discouraging law enforcement officials from providing security in their off-duty hours to such establishments. Governments can also conduct sensitization training for law enforcement that includes a human trafficking component and by prosecuting officials found to be complicit in human trafficking. Further, governments can develop codes of conduct for officials that outline clear conflicts of interest in regard to off-duty employment and encourage trafficking victim identification and referral.

Reactivating Trauma in Sex Trafficking Testimony

Sex trafficking victims face a long road to recovery, and testifying against their exploiters can often hinder that process. While witness testimony can be an effective and necessary form of evidence for a criminal trial, the primary trauma experienced by a victim during the trafficking situation may be reactivated when recounting the exploitation or confronting the exploiter face-to-face. In many cases, the victim-witness has been threatened by the trafficker directly warning against reporting to law enforcement, or the witness’s family members have been threatened or intimidated as a way to prevent cooperation in an investigation or prosecution. In addition, a victim may fear possible prosecution for unlawful activities committed as part of the victimization such as prostitution, drug use, and illegal immigration. This fear is compounded in some cases in which victims experienced previous instances of being treated as criminals, whether arrested, detained, charged, or even prosecuted. The defense may also cite the victim’s engagement in criminal activity or criminal record as evidence of his or her lack of credibility. In fact, sometimes victims are not ideal witnesses. If the victim had a close relationship with the trafficker (also known as trauma bonding), has a deep-rooted distrust of law enforcement, or fears retaliation, a victim may be a reluctant or ineffective witness.

The need for resources for victims throughout, and even after, the investigation and prosecution is critical, especially because some human trafficking trials last several years. During this time, victims often face financial difficulties—including lack of housing and employment—and continued emotional and psychological stress, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in many cases, resulting from the trafficking situation, that require long-term medical and mental health care.

To prevent or reduce the chance of reactivating primary trauma, experts encourage government officials to incorporate a victim-centered approach and provide support to victim-witnesses when investigating and prosecuting trafficking offenses. Specialized courts to hear human trafficking cases and the designation of specific prosecutors who have significant experience in handling these cases have led to a greater number of prosecutions while minimizing victim re-traumatization. Collaboration between law enforcement officials and NGOs that provide comprehensive victim assistance, including legal and case management services, has also proven to be a necessary component in successful prosecutions. The Government of Canada, for example, has fostered partnerships with NGOs through the Victims Fund, resulting in additional support for victims, such as projects that raise awareness and provide services and assistance. Law enforcement officials in many countries would benefit from sharing best practices to ensure that victims are not re-traumatized and traffickers are prosecuted in accordance with due process. Best practices include:

  • Interviewing victims in a comfortable, non-group setting with a legal advocate present where possible.
  • Providing the option, where legally possible, to pre-record statements for use as evidence to avoid the need for repeated accounts of abuse.
  • Adopting evidentiary rules to preclude introduction of prior sexual history.
  • Providing support—such as victim advocates, free legal counsel, and change in immigration status—that is not conditional on live trial testimony.

Media Best Practices

Ask most people where their information about human trafficking comes from, and the answer is often “I heard about it on the news.” Unsurprisingly, the media play an enormous role shaping perceptions and guiding the public conversation about this crime. How the media reports on human trafficking is just as important as what is being reported, and the overall impact of these stories is reflected in the way the public, politicians, law enforcement, and even other media outlets understand the issue.

In recent years, a number of reports about trafficking have relied on misinformation and outdated statistics, blamed or exploited victims, and conflated terminology. Instead of shining a brighter light on this problem, such reports add confusion to a crime that is already underreported and often misunderstood by the public. As the issue of human trafficking begins to enter the public consciousness, members of the media have a responsibility to report thoroughly and responsibly, and to protect those who have already been victimized.

A few promising practices can keep journalists on the right track:

Language matters. Is there a difference between survivor and victim? Prostitution and sex trafficking? Human smuggling and human trafficking? The conflation of terms, as well as the failure to use the correct definition to describe human trafficking, can confuse and mislead audiences. Human trafficking is a complex crime that many communities are still trying to understand, and using outdated terms or incorrect definitions only weakens understanding of the issue. Become familiar with the trafficking definitions of international law, found in the Palermo Protocol to the United Nations Transnational Organized Crime Convention, as well as other related terms that are commonly used.

Dangers of re-victimization. Photos or names of human trafficking victims should not be published without their consent, and journalists should not speak with a minor without a victim specialist, parent, or guardian present. Human trafficking cases often involve complex safety concerns that could be exacerbated by a published story, or if a victim or survivor has not fully healed, a published story may reactivate trauma or shame years later. Ensure that, before a victim of human trafficking agrees to share his or her story, he or she understands that once the story is published, it will be available to the public at large.

Survivor stories. Although interviewing survivors may be the key to understanding human trafficking, there are optimal ways to approach survivors and learn about their experiences. Reporters should invest time engaging service providers and NGOs that work with survivors to learn and understand the best possible approaches. Be flexible, do not make demands, and do not expect the survivor to tell you his or her story in one sitting. Spend time with survivors, get to know them as people, and follow up even after the story is complete.

Half the story. When media report on only one type of human trafficking, the public is left with only part of the story. Human trafficking includes sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, forced labor, bonded labor, involuntary domestic servitude, and debt bondage. Strengthen the public’s understanding of human trafficking and the full scope of the crime.

Numbers game. Reporters often lead with numbers, but reliable statistics related to human trafficking are difficult to find. Human trafficking is a clandestine crime and few victims and survivors come forward for fear of retaliation, shame, or lack of understanding of what is happening to them. Numbers are not always the story. Pursue individual stories of survival, new government initiatives, or innovative research efforts until better data are available.

Human trafficking happens. Simply reporting that human trafficking occurs is not a story. Human trafficking happens in every country in the world. Go deeper and find out who are the most vulnerable to victimization, what kind of help is offered for survivors, and what your community is doing to eradicate this problem.

Advocacy journalism. Human trafficking is a popular topic for journalists hoping to make a social impact. Journalists may befriend survivors, earn their trust, and in some cases help remove them from a harmful situation. This is typically not appropriate. Everyone should do their part to help eradicate this crime, but victim assistance should be handled by accredited organizations. “Rescuing” a victim is not a means to a story. Instead, connect a victim to a reputable service provider to ensure they are safe and their needs are met.

Human Trafficking and the Demand for Organs

More than 114,000 organ transplants are reportedly performed every year around the world. These operations satisfy less than an estimated 10 percent of the global need for organs such as kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs, and pancreases. One third of these operations include kidneys and livers from living donors. The shortage of human organs, coupled with the desperation experienced by patients in need of transplants, has created an illicit market for organs.

Governments, the medical community, and international organizations, such as the World Health Organization, are addressing the illicit sale and purchase of organs through the adoption of regulations, laws, codes of conduct, awareness campaigns, and mechanisms to improve traceability of organs, as well as to protect the health and safety of all participants. Many countries have also criminalized the buying and selling of human organs. Unscrupulous individuals seeking to profit from this shortage, however, prey on disadvantaged persons, frequently adult male laborers from less-developed countries. These living donors are often paid a fraction of what they were promised, are not able to return to work due to poor health outcomes resulting from their surgeries, and have little hope of being compensated for their damages. This practice is exploitative and unethical, and often illegal under local law. Sometimes it also involves trafficking in persons for the purpose of organ removal.

But what makes an illegal organ trade also a human trafficking crime?

The sale and purchase of organs themselves, while a crime in many countries, does not per se constitute human trafficking. The crime of trafficking in persons requires the recruitment, transport, or harboring of a person for organ removal through coercive means, including the “abuse of a position of vulnerability.” Cases in which organs are donated from deceased donors who have died of natural causes do not involve human trafficking.

Some advocates have taken the position that when economically disadvantaged donors enter into agreements for organ removal in exchange for money, they invariably become trafficking victims because there is “an abuse of a position of vulnerability.” Abuse of a position of vulnerability is one of the “means” under the Palermo Protocol definition of trafficking in persons. Thus, if a person who is in a position of vulnerability is recruited by another who abuses that position by falsely promising payment and health care benefits in exchange for a kidney, the recruiter may well have engaged in trafficking in persons for the purpose of organ removal. The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) states in its Guidance Note on “abuse of a position of vulnerability” as a means of trafficking in persons that the abuse of vulnerability occurs when “an individual’s personal, situational, or circumstantial vulnerability is intentionally used or otherwise taken advantage of such that the person believes that submitting to the will of the abuser is the only real and acceptable option available to him or her, and that belief is reasonable in light of the victim’s situation.” Thus, poverty alone—without abuse of that vulnerability in a manner to make a victim’s submission to exploitation the “only real and acceptable option”—is not enough to support a trafficking case, whether the exploitation is sexual exploitation, forced labor, or the removal of organs.

Victims’ Consent

A common perception of a trafficking victim is of a woman kidnapped, made to cross a border, forced into sexual slavery, and physically beaten. The reality of human trafficking is frequently much more subtle. Vulnerable individuals may be aware of, and initially agree to, poor working conditions or the basic duties of the job that underlies their exploitation. Victims may sign contracts and thereby initially agree to work for a certain employer, but later find that they were deceived and cannot leave the job because of threats against their families or overwhelming debts owed to the recruitment agency that arranged the employment.

On the issue of victims’ consent to exploitation, the Palermo Protocol is clear: if any coercive means have been used, a victim’s consent “shall be irrelevant.” This means that a man who has signed a contract to work in a factory, but who is later forced to work through threats or physical abuse, is a trafficking victim regardless of his agreement to work in that factory. Similarly, a woman who has voluntarily traveled to a country knowing that she would engage in prostitution is also a trafficking victim if, subsequently, her exploiters use any form of coercion to require her to engage in prostitution for their benefit. If a state’s laws conform to the Palermo Protocol requirements, a trafficker would not be able to successfully defend a trafficking charge by presenting evidence that a victim previously engaged in prostitution, knew the purpose of travel, or in any other way consented or agreed to work for someone who subsequently used coercion to exploit the victim.

With regard to children, the Palermo Protocol provides that proof of coercive means is not relevant. Thus, a child is considered to be a victim of human trafficking simply if she or he is subjected to forced labor or prostitution by a third party, regardless of whether any form of coercion was used at any stage in the process.

Even if the legal concept of consent is clear, its application is more complex in practice, especially when the victim is an adult. Many countries struggle with uniform application of this provision. In some countries, courts have thrown out trafficking cases when prosecutors have been unable to prove that the victims were coerced at the outset of recruitment. For example, in one European country, a judge rejected trafficking charges in a case where a mentally disabled man was forced to pick berries. Despite clear use of force to compel labor—the victim was dragged back to the labor camp with a noose around his neck—the court held that lack of proof of coercion from the very beginning of recruitment nullified the trafficking. In other countries, defense attorneys have made arguments that victims’ prior prostitution proves that they had not been forced to engage in prostitution. More subtly, consent may influence whether prosecutors bring trafficking cases at all. Cases without the “paradigmatic victim” may prove more difficult to win because there is a risk that the judge or jury will view the victim as a criminal rather than a victim. To be successful, these cases require both strong legal presentations and compelling evidence in addition to victim testimony. Efforts to further address the challenging issue of consent would not only help ensure that victims’ rights are protected, but would also align prosecutions with the Palermo Protocol requirements. Such efforts might include the explicit incorporation of the Palermo Protocol provision on consent into domestic criminal law and the training of investigators and prosecutors. It is helpful to clarify for fact finders—whether they are judges or juries—that consent cannot be a valid defense to the charge of trafficking and to educate them on the various forms that apparent consent may take (e.g., contracts, failure to leave a situation of exploitation, or victims who do not self-identify as victims). Similarly, investigators can learn that investigations do not need to stop just because a victim had expressed a form of consent.

Vulnerability of Indigenous Persons to Human Trafficking

The United Nations estimates there are more than 370 million indigenous people worldwide. At times, they are described as aboriginal: members of a tribe, or members of a specific group. While there is no internationally accepted definition of “indigenous,” the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues identifies several key factors to facilitate international understanding of the term:

  • Self-identification of indigenous peoples at an individual and community level;
  • Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies;
  • Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources;
  • Distinct social, economic, or political systems;
  • Distinct language, culture, and beliefs;
  • Membership in non-dominant groups of society; and/or
  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and system as distinctive peoples and communities.

Worldwide, indigenous persons are often economically and politically marginalized and are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and armed conflict. They may lack citizenship and access to basic services, sometimes including education. These factors make indigenous peoples particularly vulnerable to both sex trafficking and forced labor. For example, children from hill tribes in northern Thailand seeking employment opportunities have been found in commercial sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking, in bars in major cities within the country. In North America, government officials and NGOs alike have identified aboriginal Canadian and American Indian women and girls as particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking. In Latin America, members of indigenous communities are often more vulnerable to both sex and labor trafficking than other segments of local society; in both Peru and Colombia, they have been forcibly recruited by illegal armed groups. In remote areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, members of Batwa, or pygmy groups, are subjected to conditions of forced labor in agriculture, mining, mechanics, and domestic service. San women and boys in Namibia are exploited in domestic servitude and forced cattle herding, while San girls are vulnerable to sex trafficking.

Combating the trafficking of indigenous persons requires prosecution, protection, and prevention efforts that are culturally-sensitive and collaborative—efforts that also empower indigenous groups to identify and respond to forced labor and sex trafficking within their communities. For example, the government of the Canadian province of British Columbia and NGOs have partnered with aboriginal communities to strengthen their collective capacity to effectively work with trafficking victims by incorporating community traditions and rituals into victim protection efforts, such as use of the medicine wheel—a diverse indigenous tradition with spiritual and healing purposes.

Child Soldiers

The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 (CSPA) was signed into law on December 23, 2008 (Title IV of Pub. L. 110-457), and took effect on June 21, 2009. The CSPA requires publication in the annual TIP Report of a list of foreign governments identified during the previous year as having governmental armed forces or government-supported armed groups that recruit and use child soldiers, as defined in the Act. These determinations cover the reporting period beginning April 1, 2013 and ending March 31, 2014.

For the purpose of the CSPA, and generally consistent with the provisions of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, the term “child soldier” means:

  1. any person under 18 years of age who takes a direct part in hostilities as a member of governmental armed forces;
  2. any person under 18 years of age who has been compulsorily recruited into governmental armed forces;
  3. any person under 15 years of age who has been voluntarily recruited into governmental armed forces; or
  4. any person under 18 years of age who has been recruited or used in hostilities by armed forces distinct from the armed forces of a state.

The term “child soldier” includes any person described in clauses (ii), (iii), or (iv) who is serving in any capacity, including in a support role such as a “cook, porter, messenger, medic, guard, or sex slave.”

Governments identified on the list are subject to restrictions, in the following fiscal year, on certain security assistance and commercial licensing of military equipment. The CSPA, as amended, prohibits assistance to governments that are identified in the list under the following authorities: International Military Education and Training, Foreign Military Financing, Excess Defense Articles, and Peacekeeping Operations, with exceptions for some programs undertaken pursuant to the Peacekeeping Operations authority. The CSPA also prohibits the issuance of licenses for direct commercial sales of military equipment to such governments. Beginning October 1, 2014 and effective throughout Fiscal Year 2015, these restrictions will apply to the listed countries, absent a presidential national interest waiver, applicable exception, or reinstatement of assistance pursuant to the terms of the CSPA. The determination to include a government in the CSPA list is informed by a range of sources, including first-hand observation by U.S. government personnel and research and credible reporting from various United Nations entities, international organizations, local and international NGOs, and international media outlets.

The 2014 CSPA List includes governments in the following countries:

1. Burma
2. Central African Republic
3. Democratic Republic of the Congo
4. Rwanda
5. Somalia
6. South Sudan
7. Sudan
8. Syria
9. Yemen

Special Court of Sierra Leone: Accountability at the Highest Level for Child Soldiering Offenses

The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) was established in 2002 by agreement between the Government of the Republic of Sierra Leone and the United Nations to try those most responsible for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, including conscripting or recruiting children under the age of 15 years, committed in the civil war. Since its inception, the Special Court has handed down several important decisions in cases involving allegations related to the conscripting or enlisting of children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or armed groups. During Sierra Leone’s civil war, all parties to the conflict recruited and used child soldiers. Children were forced to fight, commit atrocities, and were often sexually abused. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted by the SCSL on 11 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role in supporting armed groups, including the Revolutionary United Front, in the planning and commission of crimes committed during the conflict. In a landmark 2004 decision, the Court held that individual criminal responsibility for the crime of recruiting children under the age of 15 years had crystallized as customary international law prior to November 1996. In June 2007, the Court delivered the first judgment of an international or mixed tribunal convicting persons of conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities.

In 2013, the Special Court reached another milestone by upholding the conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor. The judgment marked the first time a former head of state had been convicted in an international or hybrid court of violations of international law. Taylor was convicted, among other charges, of aiding and abetting sexual slavery and conscription of child soldiers. After more than a decade of working toward accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Sierra Leone, the SCSL transitioned on December 31, 2013, to a successor mechanism, the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone, which will continue to provide a variety of ongoing functions, including witness protection services and management of convicted detainees. Its work stands for the proposition that the international community can achieve justice and accountability for crimes committed, even by proxy, against the most vulnerable—children in armed conflict.

The Intersection between Environmental Degradation and Human Trafficking

Certain industries face particularly high environmental risks, including agriculture, fishing and aquaculture, logging, and mining. Workers in these sectors also face risks; the use of forced labor has been documented along the supply chains of many commercial sectors. Exploitation of both people and natural resources appears even more likely when the yield is obtained or produced in illegal, unregulated, or environmentally harmful ways and in areas where monitoring and legal enforcement are weak.

Agriculture (Crops and Livestock)

Unsustainable agricultural practices around the world are a major cause of environmental degradation. The manner in which land is used can either protect or destroy biodiversity, water resources, and soil. Some governments and corporations are working to ensure that the agricultural sector becomes increasingly more productive, and also that this productivity is achieved in an environmentally sustainable way. Alongside the movement to protect the environment from harm, governments must also protect agricultural workers from exploitation.

Agriculture is considered by the ILO to be one of the most hazardous employment sectors. Particular risks to workers include exposure to harsh chemicals and diseases, work in extreme weather conditions, and operation of dangerous machinery without proper training. Moreover, many agricultural workers are vulnerable to human trafficking due to their exclusion from coverage by local labor laws, pressure on growers to reduce costs, insufficient internal monitoring and audits of labor policies, and lack of government oversight.

As documented in this Report over the years, adults and children are compelled to work in various agricultural sectors around the globe.

For example:

  • Throughout Africa, children and adults are forced to work on farms and plantations harvesting cotton, tea, coffee, cocoa, fruits, vegetables, rubber, rice, tobacco, and sugar. There are documented examples of children forced to herd cattle in Lesotho, Mozambique, and Namibia, and camels in Chad.
  • In Europe, men from Brazil, Bulgaria, China, and India are subjected to forced labor on horticulture sites and fruit farms in Belgium. Men and women are exploited in the agricultural sectors in Croatia, Georgia, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
  • In Latin America, adults and children are forced to harvest tomatoes in Mexico, gather fruits and grains in Argentina, and herd livestock in Brazil.
  • In the Middle East, traffickers exploit foreign migrant men in the agricultural sectors of Israel and Jordan. Traffickers reportedly force Syrian refugees, including children, to harvest fruits and vegetables on farms in Lebanon.
  • In the United States, victims of labor trafficking have been found among the nation’s migrant and seasonal farmworkers, including adults and children who harvest crops and raise animals.

Fishing and Aquaculture

The 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report highlighted forced labor on fishing vessels occurring concurrently with illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, which threatens food security and the preservation of marine resources. Vessels involved in other environmental crimes, such as poaching, may also trap their crews in forced labor. Testimonies from survivors of forced labor on fishing vessels have revealed that many of the vessels on which they suffered exploitation used banned fishing gear, fished in prohibited areas, failed to report or misreported catches, operated with fake licenses, and docked in unauthorized ports—all illegal fishing practices that contribute to resource depletion and species endangerment. Without proper regulation, monitoring, and enforcement of laws governing both fishing practices and working conditions, criminals will continue to threaten the environmental sustainability of oceans and exploit workers with impunity.

In recent years, a growing body of evidence has documented forced labor on inland, coastal, and deep sea fishing vessels, as well as in shrimp farming and seafood processing. This evidence has prompted the international advocacy community to increase pressure on governments and private sector stakeholders to address the exploitation of men, women, and children who work in the commercial fishing and aquaculture sector.

Reports of maritime forced labor include:

  • In Europe, Belize-flagged fishing vessels operating in the Barents Sea north of Norway have used forced labor, as have vessels employing Ukrainian men in the Sea of Okhotsk.
  • In the Caribbean, foreign-flagged fishing vessels have used forced labor in the waters of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.
  • Along the coastline of sub-Saharan Africa, forced labor has become more apparent on European and Asian fishing vessels seeking to catch fish in poorly regulated waters. Traffickers have exploited victims in the territorial waters of Mauritius, South Africa, and Senegal, as well as aboard small lake-based boats in Ghana and Kenya.
  • In Asia, men from Cambodia, Burma, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, India, and Bangladesh are subjected to forced labor on foreign-flagged (largely Taiwanese, Korean, and Hong Kong) vessels operating in territorial waters of countries in Southeast Asia, the Pacific region, and New Zealand.


One out of five people in the world relies directly upon forests for food, income, building materials, and medicine. Yet laws to protect forests are often weak and poorly monitored. Illegal logging has led to forest degradation, deforestation, corruption at the highest levels in governments, and human rights abuses against entire communities, including indigenous populations. Human trafficking is included in this list of abuses. While some governments and civil society organizations have voiced strong opposition to illegal logging and made pledges to protect this valuable resource, the international community has given comparably little attention to the workers cutting down the trees, transporting the logs, or working in the intermediate processing centers. At the same time, the serious problem of workers in logging camps sexually exploiting trafficking victims has garnered insufficient attention.

There is a dearth of documented information on working conditions of loggers and the way the logging industry increases the risk of human trafficking in nearby communities.

Recent reports of trafficking in this sector include:

  • In Asia, victims have been subjected to labor trafficking in the logging industry. For example, Solomon Islands authorities reported a Malaysian logging company subjected Malaysians to trafficking-related abuse in 2012. Burmese military-linked logging operations have used villagers for forced labor. North Koreans are forced to work in the Russian logging industry under bilateral agreements. Migrant workers in logging camps in Pacific Island nations have forced children into marriage and the sex trade.
  • In Brazil, privately owned logging companies have subjected Brazilian men to forced labor.
  • The Government of Belarus has imposed forced labor on Belarusian nationals in its logging industry.


Mining—particularly artisanal and small-scale mining—often has a negative impact on the environment, including through deforestation and pollution due to widespread use of mercury. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that the mining sector is responsible for 37 percent of global mercury emissions, which harm ecosystems and have serious health impacts on humans and animals. In addition to degrading the environment, mining often occurs in remote or rural areas with limited government presence, leaving individuals in mining communities in Latin America, Africa, and Asia more vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking.

Examples of human trafficking related to the mining industry include:

  • In the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, a significant number of Congolese men and boys working as artisanal miners are exploited in debt bondage by businesspeople and supply dealers from whom they acquire cash advances, tools, food, and other provisions at inflated prices and to whom they must sell mined minerals at prices below the market value. The miners are forced to continue working to pay off constantly accumulating debts that are virtually impossible to repay.
  • In Angola, some Congolese migrants seeking employment in diamond-mining districts are exploited in forced labor in the mines or forced prostitution in mining communities.
  • A gold rush in southeastern Senegal has created serious health and environmental challenges for affected communities due to the use of mercury and cyanide in mining operations. The rapid influx of workers has also contributed to the forced labor and sex trafficking of children and women in mining areas.
  • In Guyana, traffickers are attracted to the country’s interior gold mining communities where there is limited government presence. Here, they exploit Guyanese girls in the sex trade in mining camps.
  • In Peru, forced labor in the gold mining industry remains a particular problem. In 2013, a report titled, Risk Analysis of Indicators of Forced Labor and Human Trafficking in Illegal Gold Mining in Peru, catalogued the result of interviews with nearly 100 mine workers and individuals involved in related industries (such as cooks, mechanics, and people in prostitution). It traces how gold tainted by human trafficking ends up in products available in the global marketplace, from watches to smart phones.

Next Steps

Governments, private industry, and civil society have an opportunity to push for greater environmental protections in tandem with greater protections for workers, including those victimized by human trafficking. Additional research is needed to further study the relationship between environmental degradation and human trafficking in these and other industries. It is also essential to strengthen partnerships to better understand this intersection and tackle both forms of exploitation, individually and together.