Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

To download Report -



Globally countries are detecting and reporting more victims, and are convicting more traffickers. This can be the result of increased capacity to identify victims and/or an increased number of trafficked victims Countries have reported increased numbers of detected trafficking victims over the last few years. While the number of reporting countries did not significantly increase, the total number of victims per country did. The trend for the average number of detected and reported victims per country had previously fluctuated during the earlier years for which UNODC has collected this data, but it has been increasing steadily over the last few years.

From a regional perspective, the increases in the numbers of detected victims have been more pronounced in the Americas and in Asia. These increases can be the result of enhanced national capacities to detect, record and report data on trafficking victims, or to a growth in the incidence of trafficking, that is, that more victims have been trafficked. Enhanced national capacity to detect victims could be achieved through strengthened institutional efforts to combat trafficking including legislative reforms, coordination among national actors, special law enforcement capacities and improved victim protection efforts, to mention some. In countries with a long-standing anti-trafficking framework, with no major recent legislative or programmatic initiatives, more detections may be more likely to reflect an increased number of trafficked victims.

Over the last ten years, the capacity of national authorities to track and assess patterns and flows of trafficking in persons has improved in many parts of the world. This is also due to a specific focus of the international community in developing standards for data collection. Capacitybuilding in data collection has become one of the aspects of counter trafficking activities that the international community considers for evidence-based responses. More countries are now also able to collect and record data and report on trafficking in persons, the capacity to collect official statistics on trafficking in persons at the national level has improved. In 2009, only 26 countries had an institution which systematically collected and disseminated data on trafficking cases, while by 2018, the number had risen to 65.

Still large areas of impunity

While most countries have had comprehensive trafficking in persons legislation in place for some years, the number of convictions has only recently started to grow. Pronounced increasing trends in the numbers of convictions were recorded in Asia, the Americas, and Africa and the Middle East. The increased number of convictions broadly follows the increases in the number of detected and reported victims, which shows that the criminal justice response is reflecting the detection trend. However, many countries in Africa and Asia continue to have very low numbers of convictions for trafficking, and at the same time detect fewer victims.

Reporting limited numbers of detected victims and few convictions does not necessarily mean that traffickers are not active in these countries. In fact, victims trafficked from subregions with low detection and conviction rates are found in large numbers in other subregions. This suggests that trafficking networks operate with a high degree of impunity in these countries. This impunity could serve as an incentive to carry out more trafficking.

More trafficking of domestic victims, while the richest countries are destinations for long-distance flows

Most trafficking victims are detected in their countries of citizenship. Detections of domestic victims have increased over the last 15 years. In addition to domestic and subregional trafficking, wealthy countries are more likely to be destinations for detected victims trafficked from more distant origins. Western and Southern Europe and countries in the Middle East, for example, record sizable shares of victims trafficked from other regions; whereas such detections are relatively rare in most other parts of the world.

Furthermore, detected trafficking flows towards richer countries are also more geographically diverse. Affluent countries in Western and Southern Europe as well as in North America detect victims originating from a large number of countries around the world.

Traffickers are mainly targeting women and girls

Most of the victims detected across the world are females; mainly adult women, but also increasingly girls. Almost three-quarters of the detected victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation are females, and 35 per cent of the victims trafficked for forced labour are also females, both women and girls. At the same time, more than half of the victims of trafficking for forced labour are men.

There are considerable regional differences in the sex and age profiles of detected trafficking victims, however. In West Africa, most of the detected victims are children, both boys and girls, while in South Asia, victims are equally reported to be men, women and children. In Central Asia, a larger share of adult men is detected compared to other regions, while in Central America and the Caribbean, more girls are recorded.

Trafficking for sexual exploitation continues to be the most detected form Most of the victims detected globally are trafficked for sexual exploitation, although this pattern is not consistent across all regions. Trafficking of females – both women and girls - for sexual exploitation prevails in the areas where most of the victims are detected: the Americas,
Europe, and East Asia and the Pacific. In Central America and the Caribbean, more girls are detected as victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation, while women are more commonly detected as victims of this form of exploitation in the other subregions.

Trafficking for forced labour is the most commonly detected form in sub-Saharan Africa. In the Middle East, forced labour is also the main form of trafficking detected, mainly involving adults. In Central Asia and South Asia, trafficking for forced labour and sexual exploitation are near-equally detected, although with different victim profiles.

The few national studies that have been carried out in European countries to estimate the total number of trafficking victims and their profiles have revealed that trafficking for sexual exploitation is the most prevalent form of trafficking. At the same time, they show that trafficking for forced labour may be less readily detected there.

Main forms of exploitation and profiles of detected victims in subregions

Different patterns of trafficking emerge in different parts of the world along with different forms of exploitation.

While forms other than sexual exploitation and forced labour are detected at much lower rates, they still display some geographical specificities. Trafficking for forced marriage, for example, is more commonly detected in parts of South-East Asia, while trafficking of children for illegal adoption is recorded in Central and South American countries. Trafficking for forced criminality is mainly reported in Western and Southern Europe, while trafficking for organ removal is primarily detected in North Africa, Central and South-Eastern Europe, and Eastern Europe. Many other forms, such as trafficking for exploitation in begging or for the production of pornographic material, are reported in different parts of the world. The detection of other forms of trafficking may partly reflect the ways in which countries have chosen to criminalize different forms of exploitation.

Armed conflicts can drive vulnerabilities to trafficking in persons

Armed conflicts can increase the vulnerability to trafficking in different ways. Areas with weak rule of law and lack of resources to respond to crime provide traffickers with a fertile terrain to carry out their operations. This is exacerbated by more people in a desperate situation, lacking access to basic needs. Some armed groups involved in conflict may exploit civilians. Armed groups and other criminals may take the opportunity to traffic victims – including children – for sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, forced marriage, armed combat and various forms of forced labour.
Trafficking in persons for sexual exploitation occurs within all conflict areas considered, including sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, South-East Asia and others. In some refugee camps in the Middle East, for example, it has been documented that girls and young women have been ‘married off’ without their consent and subjected to sexual exploitation in neighbouring countries.

Abduction of women and girls for sexual slavery has been reported in many conflicts in Central and West Africa, as well as in the conflicts in the Middle East. It has also been reported that women and girls are trafficked for forced marriage in the same areas.

Recruitment of children for use as armed combatants is widely documented in many of the conflict areas considered: from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Central African Republic, as well as in conflicts in the Middle East and other parts of Asia. In addition, the study finds that armed groups recruit children for exploitation in forced labour in various supportive roles, from logistics to catering. Recruitment and exploitation of children in extractive industries have been reported conflicts in subSaharan Africa, in some cases for the purpose of financing the activities of armed groups.

Within conflict zones, armed groups may make use of trafficking as a strategy to assert territorial dominance.

They can spread fear of being trafficked among groups in the territories where they operate to keep the local population under control. They may also use women and girls as ‘sex slaves’ or force them into marriages to appeal to new potential male recruits.
Armed groups, however, are not the only actors engaging in trafficking in persons in the context of armed conflicts.

Criminal groups and individual traffickers target civilians, as well as refugees and internally displaced populations in some formal or informal camps.

In all the conflicts considered for this study, forcibly displaced populations have been targeted by traffickers: from settlements of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, to Afghans and Rohingya fleeing conflict and persecution. The study also discusses the risk faced by migrants and refugees travelling through conflict areas, such as Libya or parts of sub-Saharan Africa, along the routes. In Libya, for example, militias control some detention centres for migrants and refugees.
It has been documented how militias and criminals are coercing detained migrants and refugees for different exploitative purposes.

In precarious socio-economic conditions or situations involving persecution, people escaping conflict can be more easily deceived into travel arrangements, accepting fraudulent job offers in neighbouring countries or fraudulent marriage proposals that are in fact exploitative situations. Armed conflicts tend to have a negative impact on the livelihood of people living in the surrounding areas, even when they are not directly involved in the violence.
Again, traffickers may target communities that are particularly vulnerable because of forced displacement, lack of access to opportunities for income generation, discrimination and family separation.


There has been an overall increase in the detection of victims of trafficking in persons across the world in recent years. This growth can reflect positive and negative developments in the fight against trafficking in persons as it can be a sign of enhanced efforts by authorities to identify victims and/or a larger trafficking problem. Where the number of detected victims has increased after legislative or programmatic action, however, these actions – including amendments to legislation, enforcement of welldesigned action plans, victim protection schemes and national referral mechanisms – have clearly contributed to improving the identification of victims and the effectiveness of criminal justice responses.

Despite the progress, impunity still prevails in large parts of the globe, as shown, for instance, by the low levels of victim detections and trafficker convictions recorded in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. Most countries in these regions are now parties to the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol and have appropriate legislation in place.

The work in these regions of origin, as well as in their main countries of destination now needs to focus on implementation of the Protocol provisions. In the spirit of shared responsibility and international cooperation, support from other countries affected by these trafficking flows can help to accelerate anti-trafficking efforts and tackle impunity for this crime.

In a departure from prior Global Report editions, the data show that victims who have been detected within their own national borders now represent the largest part of the victims detected worldwide. This finding clearly illustrates that the crime of trafficking in persons is not always defined by transnationality, and should be treated as a criminal justice priority in all national jurisdictions. It also shows that trafficking is rooted in the exploitation of victims, and not necessarily their movement, although victims detected in their own countries may have been destined for exploitation elsewhere. While transnational trafficking networks are still prevalent and must be responded to through international cooperation, national justice measures, strategies and priorities should acknowledge the increasingly national nature of the trafficking problem.

Trafficking for sexual exploitation is still the most detected form, although it continues to be a broad category. While trafficking for sexual exploitation may be carried out by criminals using physical violence and coercion, victims may also be trapped by means of abuse of vulnerability, power and deception. Victims may find it difficult to speak out about their experiences because of fear, lack of trust or shame. Institutions dealing with trafficking should be able to identify the different and often complex contexts and realities in which sexual exploitation takes place in order to respond to victims’ physical, psychological, social and economic needs.

The trafficking of children – particularly girls – remains a key concern. Dedicated training can make practitioners better equipped to detect and assist these victims, ensuring that the best interest of the child is safeguarded. Teachers need to be part of a holistic approach to prevent trafficking and reduce the vulnerability of children to becoming trapped in exploitative patterns. Anti-trafficking interventions for children can be more effective if they are included in programmes to provide quality education for all, especially in settings at an increased risk of trafficking such as refugee camps.

Addressing trafficking in persons in conflict situation is particularly challenging. A recent UNODC Thematic Paper on Countering Trafficking in Persons in Conflict Situations discusses how to integrate efforts against trafficking in persons into conflict-related work.1 United Nations actors and entities that operate in conflict and post-conflict settings are well placed to address trafficking in persons in these contexts. The Paper addresses the issue of information gathering and research in conflict and postconflict areas and the prevention of trafficking in persons in conflict situations, including reducing people’s vulnerability to being trafficked or becoming a perpetrator of trafficking. In addition, the Thematic Paper addresses the issue of victims’ assistance and protection in conflict settings, the investigations and prosecutions of cases of trafficking in persons in these contexts, and the issue of strengthening cooperation among the different actors working in conflict and post-conflict areas.

Given the prevalence of trafficking in persons, especially of a transnational nature, in areas marked by armed conflict and post-conflict situations, it is important to ensure that UN and other agencies’ peacekeeping personnel deployed in field missions have the capacity to identify and report on cases of trafficking in persons, in line with their mandates. For that reason, consideration should be given to reviewing pre-deployment training curricula for field mission personnel to better address trafficking in persons.

Children recruited and exploited by terrorist and violent extremist groups are not only victims of human trafficking but victims of violence at multiple levels as children may be used for violent purposes by the groups that recruited them. The criminal justice institutions and national authorities are often not equipped to adequately address this phenomenon. The UNODC Handbook on Children Recruited and Exploited by Terrorist and Violent Extremist Groups is a tool for policy-makers and provides guidance in three main areas: (a) preventing child recruitment by terrorist and violent extremist groups; (b) identifying effective justice responses to children recruited and exploited by such groups, whether they are in contact with the justice system as victims, witnesses or alleged offenders; and (c) promoting the rehabilitation and reintegration of those children.

As can be expected, many trafficking flows involve persons fleeing armed conflict and persecution towards safe destinations. Decisions on how and where to travel are also made in terms of the perceived risks along the routes and at destinations. Targeted information material that explains the risks of and possible responses to trafficking could be included in practical information given to migrants in refugee camps and along migratory routes.

Addressing the problem of trafficking in persons is part of the UN Sustainable Development Agenda. Monitoring progress to achieve the targets related to trafficking in persons in the framework of the SDGs calls on countries to report the number of trafficking victims per 100,000 population, by sex, age and form of exploitation. Going beyond the counting of detected victims, to cover the victims that are not detected, is a challenge in reporting on this indicator. UNODC has successfully tested a new, innovative methodology – Multiple Systems Estimation – in four countries in Europe. The application of MSE offers countries a sound and cost-effective means of estimating the total number of victims (detected and not detected) and report on the SDG indicator. Scaling up the implementation of this methodology across the world will foster a more comprehensive and solid understanding of the level and trends of the trafficking problem.

There remain significant knowledge gaps related to the patterns and flows of trafficking in persons. Many coun - tries in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and some parts of East Asia still lack sufficient capacity to record and share data on trafficking in persons. Qualitative research, field studies and the strengthening of national statistical sys - tems on crime and criminal justice can help fill these gaps.