Trafficking in women and children: a contemporary manifestation of slavery

Last March, Rojana Chuenchijit, a young woman from Thailand, stood on the steps of the California Capitol building and quietly told a crowd of 300 people her story. Flanked by refugee, immigrant, and labor advocates, Rojana, a victim of human trafficking, told of being lured to the United States by promises of a good job, benefits, and assurances that all travel arrangements would be made. She also told of being forced to work 18-hour days in the infamous El Monte sweatshop near Los Angeles, where she was imprisoned day and night in the factory by armed guards and where she earned $1.60 an hour for her work. She told of living in one bedroom with eight other people behind windows blocked by plywood, and of the threats her captors made against her and her family in Thailand to scare her into staying.

There is virtually no country on earth untouched by the trafficking of human beings. Last month, UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention director Pino Arlacchi called trafficking in people "the biggest violation of human rights in the world."

Trafficking in People

The official U.S. government definition of trafficking encompasses "all acts involved in the transport, harboring, or sale of persons within national or across international borders through coercion, force, kidnapping, deception or fraud, for purposes of placing persons in situations of forced labor or services, such as forced prostitution, domestic servitude, debt bondage or other slavery-like practices." The international community generally agrees children may be considered "trafficked" if they are transported and used for forced labor or services whether or not they have been taken forcibly. Legislation recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives describes trafficking as "a contemporary manifestation of slavery whose victims are predominantly women and children."

Trafficking is not a new phenomenon. In 1904, concerned about the trafficking of British women to brothels in continental Europe and girls from Europe and Asia to the United States, European leaders met in Paris to sign the first Convention on Trafficking. Nearly one hundred years later, the U.S. government estimates that some 1 to 2 million women and children are trafficked each year. Of these, at least 50,000 are trafficked to the United States.

According to a Congressional Research Service report for Congress, large numbers of trafficking victims are from Asia, with over 225,000 each year from Southeast Asia and 150,000 from South Asia. More than 100,000 are trafficked from the former Soviet Union; most are women used for prostitution and the sex industry. Around 75,000 are from Eastern Europe, 100,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean, and 50,000 from Africa. Most trafficking victims are sent to Asia, the Middle East, Western Europe, and North America. The primary source countries for the United States are Thailand, Vietnam, China, Mexico, Russia, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic, although trafficking victims also come to the United States from many other countries.

Human trafficking in prostitution, pornography, sex tourism, and other commercial sexual services accounts for much of the trafficking in the United States. Other trafficking victims commonly work as bonded or sweatshop laborers or as domestic servants. Also documented are trafficking for trinket peddling and begging. The Paloetti family of New York trafficked more than 1,000 deaf Mexicans to sell trinkets and beg from the early 1990s until 1997, when 70 victims were discovered in a raid and eventually offered legal status in the United States after testifying against their traffickers.

Trafficking is distinguished from "smuggling," which involves illegally facilitating transportation to a foreign country for people who are willing to pay a fee for the service. The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) has said that "people smuggling is a nasty business. It costs untold numbers of people their lives." In June, English authorities discovered 58 smuggled Chinese migrants who died in an airtight container, their smugglers obviously unconcerned for their safety.

CCR also has said that "if smuggling is bad, trafficking is much worse." While definitions of trafficking vary, themes of fear, force, and exploitation are central to most broadly accepted meanings. Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Elinor Caplan has said, "Human smuggling has been around for a while. It is a fee-for-service operation, involving simple payment for passage, and we all know that it is sometimes used by genuine refugees. Human trafficking, however, is more akin to human slavery. Its goal is profit from indentured human servitude."

Trafficked Refugees

Although refugees may more likely be smuggled than trafficked, refugees may also fall into the hands of traffickers. A July study commissioned by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) entitled Trafficking and Smuggling of Refugees: The End Game of European Asylum Policy? notes that while the smuggling definition "is closest to describing the migration stories of many refugees, some refugees will inevitably be involved in trafficking or it is the persecution involved in the process of trafficking itself that might provide grounds for asylum."

According to CCR, "People facing persecution face enormous obstacles in attempting to flee, both from their persecutors who may try to prevent them from leaving and from other states that are attempting to control their borders." CCR notes that interdiction programs reinforce the barriers that persecuted persons have to overcome to reach asylum, and that smugglers and traffickers are sometimes the only options left for desperate people trying to save their lives. CCR adds that the interdiction of migrants on the high seas may fuel the demand for people smugglers and traffickers.

The UNHCR report states that "human trafficking is the only escape route for many genuine refugees who flee persecution in Europe." According to the report, the majority of asylum seekers arriving in the European Union have been smuggled or trafficked. The report also states, "There are no systematic proposals for the resettlement of refugees in the European Union. Rather, the effects of blanket enforcement measures, such as common visa policies, readmission treaties, carrier sanctions, and airline liaison officers act to deny refugees the possibility of illegal exit from the regions of their persecution."

The UNHCR report notes that Europe's most smuggled and trafficked nationalities include Afghans and Iraqis – who "have a very high rate of recognition as refugees." At the same time, these are the nationalities that have been the "main target of all European anti-trafficking and anti smuggling activity." The UNHCR report concludes that describing the "customers" of smugglers and traffickers as "illegal migrants" is misleading, and that the term "refugee in need of protection" may be more appropriate in many cases.

The report recommends that European nations review their migration and asylum policies to open other channels to people fleeing persecution in their native countries. This includes incorporating the right to seek asylum and the responsibility of nonrefoulement into anti-trafficking and anti smuggling policy, recognizing that trafficking and smuggling are both "inherently abusive" and that both trafficked and smuggled persons can be refugees.

How Trafficking Works

Trafficking is usually coordinated by crime rings or networks of criminals made up of family and associates. Often, these crime rings cross national borders. Chinese and other Asian, Mexican, Central American, Russian, and other former Soviet Union gangs are among the major traffickers of people. The United Nations has identified Albanian gangs involved in trafficking as being "particularly ferocious."

Although large crime rings are common, a single person may also orchestrate a trafficking operation. In January, Supawan Veerapol, the common-law wife of a Thai diplomat, was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for forcing several Thai women into involuntary servitude in Los Angeles. She had recruited them in Thailand, brought them to the United States, and forced them to work 18-hour days for six years in her home and restaurant for almost no pay. The women had no access to health care or contact with their families.

Traffickers facilitate travel abroad by providing visas and passports (often forged) and airfare. In making these arrangements, traffickers force a commitment that obligates victims to a "contract" or bondage. Often, the victims have paid a fee to travel and know that they are entering countries illegally but believe that they will be free once they arrive.

According to Human Rights Watch, many countries have no specific laws aimed at punishing traffickers. In some countries, local officials ignore or are complicit in trafficking. It is commonplace for government officials in some countries to accept bribes from traffickers, help provide false documentation, and patronize brothels linked to trafficking rings. In addition, local police often fear reprisals from criminal gangs.

Upon arriving in the destination country, traffickers typically confiscate their victims' documents. Rojana Chuenchijit's traffickers and the Paoletti family used this tactic. They then force their victims to remain in servitude until their contract – which can be tens of thousands of dollars – is paid off. During such servitude, victims often incur more debt because traffickers will frequently charge them for necessary expenses like food, rent, and visits to the doctor. Thus begins an endless cycle of debt and bondage.

Traffickers have found a multitude of ways to smuggle their victims into a country. To reach the United States, many travel to Canada or Mexico and enter the country on foot. For example, many U.S.-bound Russian women are channeled through Toronto, where they appear to be ordinary migrants because of the large Russian community in that city. Other traffickers obtain legal visas for their victims, who then overstay their authorized period of stay.

Traffickers use coercive tactics to ensure that victims will not escape, including sexual abuse, torture, starvation, imprisonment, and threats of violence towards victims or their families at home. Traffickers also confiscate passports to manipulate their victims, many of whom know they have entered the country illegally and worry about trouble with government authorities.

Traffickers use several methods of isolation to control their victims. They often take advantage of victims' inability to speak the language of their new country. Traffickers often move their victims around to limit their ability to form ties to the community – or, in the case of the sex industry, to clients. Like Rojana Chuenchijit, many victims are housed where they work and are supervised by armed guards. Some victims report barbed wires surrounding their living and working quarters. Victims of trafficking – particularly those trafficked for prostitution – may not attempt to escape or return to their home countries because they fear their family's rejection and further exploitation there.

Trafficking on the Rise

According to U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, trafficking in people is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world and the third largest source of profits for international organized crime, behind only drugs and guns. The UN's Arlacchi explained, "In four centuries, about 11.5 million Africans were trafficked into slavery, while in the last decade, more than 30 million women and children may have been trafficked within and from Southeast Asia for sexual purposes and sweatshop labor."

One factor contributing to the rise of trafficking in people is the relatively low risk involved. Many countries do not have laws banning trafficking, and trafficking in people has become much less risky than trafficking in drugs. Brunson McKinley, director of the International Organization for Migration, wrote in the International Herald Tribune, "The penalties are far less severe than for drugs, the up-front investment much smaller, and the evidence has legs and tends to run away."

Also contributing to the rise in trafficking is recent political and economic turmoil across the globe, which has provided traffickers with a seemingly unlimited supply of victims. After the break-up of the Soviet Union and the more recent Asian economic crisis, countries in these regions emerged as principal trafficking suppliers.

Increasingly restrictive immigration policies in developed countries also play a role in the rise in trafficking. A July New York Times editorial explained, "The trade in illegal migration is growing partly because more countries have tightened legal avenues for immigration." In a February Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, Hae Jung Cho of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) and Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrants' Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) stated, "As opportunities for legal migration are shrinking globally, workers will continue to be lured by false promises and deceptions of recruiters."

Women and Children

The majority of trafficking victims, particularly those trafficked for sex, are women and girls. Teresa Loar, director of the President's Interagency Council on Women and senior coordinator for International Women's Issues in the U.S. Department of State testified before the House Committee on International Relations in May that women are particularly vulnerable to trafficking because, in many countries, women and girls have "little or no access to economic opportunities, support services, or resources, including credit, land ownership, and inheritance." The low social status of women in many countries contributes as well. Girls are pulled out of school early, explained Ms. Loar, "enhancing the likelihood that they will end up in the hands of traffickers."

High rates of joblessness for women in a country also contribute to a higher likelihood that its women will be channeled into trafficking. In a May briefing hosted by the Congressional Taskforce on HIV/AIDS, the Human Rights Caucus and the Caucus for Women's Issues, Marina Pisklakova, president of the Russian Association of Crisis for Women, stated, "There is no hope in Russia for the future of women. They are now willing to take a risk without even thinking about the effects." According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), between 70 and 80 percent of unemployed Russian workers are women. A 1999 University of Leiden study showed that more than one-third of the Netherlands' 25,000 prostitutes are from Ukraine and Russia. Many of them are believed to be involved in trafficking rings.

In countries with severe gender inequality or limited economic opportunities, traffickers often promise good jobs or, particularly in South Asia, marriage. Some trafficking victims, particularly girls trafficked for sex to India from Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and other South Asian countries, are sold by their relatives or kidnapped. The Pakistan-based Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid estimates that as many as 150 Bangladeshi women are forced into international trafficking each day.

Trafficking in children is also on the rise. Children are mostly trafficked for prostitution and the sex industry and for forced labor. The Media Alert and Relief Foundation, based in Nepal, documented the story of a 15-year-old Nepali girl forced into prostitution in Bombay. Her trafficker had promised security for her parents, who permitted the trafficker to marry their daughter. When the girl returned home after contracting HIV in a brothel, she was banished from her village.

According to a 1999 study by the Center for the Study of Intelligence, commissioned by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, in one case, between 1996 and 1998, at least 25 Mexican girls were trafficked into Florida and South Carolina. Told before leaving that they would be working as caregivers and landscapers, the victims were forced into prostitution. In 1999, 1,000 Asian sex trafficking victims were discovered in Atlanta. Ranging in age between 13 and 24, the girls were held until they had paid off their contracts, which varied between $30,000 and $40,000.


The Human Rights Caucus, a coalition of nine NGOs operating in the United States, Europe, South and Southeast Asia, South America, and the former Soviet Union, has called government treatment of trafficked women and children a "revictimization by authorities of the country." A recent Congressional Research Service report to Congress stated, "The priority placed on stemming illegal immigration in many countries, including the United States, has resulted in treatment of trafficking cases as a problem of illegal immigration, thus treating victims as criminals. When police raid brothels, women are often detained and punished, subjected to human rights abuses in jail, and swiftly deported. Few steps have been taken to provide support, health care, and access to justice. Few victims dare testify against the traffickers or those who hold them, fearing retribution for themselves and their families since most governments do not offer stays of deportation or adequate protection for witnesses."

Julie Su, an attorney from the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which represented Rojana Chuenchijit and other trafficking victims who brought suit against the El Monte sweatshop owners, criticized the attitude of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) towards her clients: "The first thing that happened [after the raid] was that the workers were taken immediately to an INS detention center were they were basically treated as criminals." In another case, the Human Rights Caucus reports 50 Asian women who had been trafficked into the United States for sex were discovered, charged by local police with prostitution, and jailed. Their traffickers offered to post their bail in exchange for new contracts that would add more debt to their existing contracts.

Amy O'Neill Richard, who authored the report for the Center for the Study of Intelligence, stated in her report that the INS assumes that all victims have agreed to engage in trafficking. "One INS agent," she noted, "recently stated that there are no innocent victims, they are all willing participants. Consequently, their focus is on deporting the women once they are discovered." Hae Jung Cho of CAST and Angelica Salas of CHIRLA explained, "Even though a person may have initially consented to go with a trafficker, at some point the purported terms and conditions of the initial work contract disappear. The issue of consent is irrelevant because no one willingly consents to slavery."

Additionally, many of the victims are detained while governments negotiate their return to their home countries. According to a CAST report, even when victims are released and remain in the United States to act as witnesses against their traffickers, few housing, legal, interpreter, or other services are available during the course of the trial, which can last one to two years. At the end of the proceedings, victim-witnesses are often deported and may face serious reprisals from their traffickers. CAST reports that some countries, such as Burma, have imprisoned deportees.

Weak or nonexistent laws against trafficking, even in the United States, where trafficking is a recognized problem and is subject to criminal sanctions, also contribute to "revictimization." According to the Center for the Study of Intelligence report, most trafficking is never prosecuted because it is difficult to detect and more difficult to investigate. International crime rings are difficult to penetrate, the study adds, and victims are reluctant to come forward for fear of being deported, beaten by their traffickers, or otherwise abused.

The consequences for victims of trafficking are not limited to the risk of deportation and immediate physical harm. According to AID, trafficked women and children are at enormous risk for HIV infection. In Southeast Asian centers of sex trafficking, like Burma and Cambodia, between one third and one-half of prostitutes, many of whom are trafficking victims, are HIV-positive. Some 150,000 women are trafficked into Japan for prostitution each year, mainly from Thailand and the Philippines, where the HIV rate is among the highest in Asia. An American University study blamed trafficking for increasing the spread of HIV among Russian women.

The CCR identifies yet another aspect of the "revictimization" of trafficked women and children: confusion by governments about who the victim of trafficking is. Some governments consider the country into which people are being trafficked as the victim, rather than the people who are trafficked. As an example, CCR cites Australia. Although the Australian government has expressed sympathy for the victims of traffickers and has acknowledged that some may have protection needs, a June 1999 Report of the Prime Minister's Coastal Surveillance Task Force refers to smuggling as the "ever changing threat" to Australia. The report also calls for military defense of the country's borders against migrants. CCR notes that in Australia and other countries, there has been "little or no concrete action undertaken by governments on behalf of the victims of traffickers" despite their "rhetoric of concern." In October 1999, Australia proposed penalizing refugees who arrived using false documents by granting them only temporary protection with probable deportation after three years.

U.S. Anti-Trafficking Efforts

The U.S. Congress began a concerted effort to address the problem of trafficking in November 1999, when the House International Relations Committee approved the "Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000" (H.R 3244) the day after it was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). The House of Representatives passed the bill in May 2000.

Also in May, the International Relations Committee, chaired by Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), held hearings on international efforts to end discrimination against women, where the Committee explored the issue of trafficking and urged passage of H.R. 3244. Later in the month, the Congressional Taskforce on HIV/AIDS, the Human Rights Caucus, and the Caucus for Women's Issues hosted a congressional briefing entitled "Trafficking: Health and Human Rights."

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, with 37 cosponsors, aims to combat trafficking, ensure "just and effective" punishment of traffickers, and protect victims. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a similar measure in the Senate, the International Trafficking Act of 2000 (S. 2449). Sen. Brownback was made aware of the problem of trafficking in women and girls when he traveled to Bombay and discovered 12-year-old Nepali girls working in brothels, two thirds of whom had contracted AIDS or tuberculosis. The Senate bill has not yet been voted on.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act would allocate $94.5 million during the next two years to programs and organizations dedicated to fighting trafficking. The bill would also require the State Department to include detailed information on trafficking in its yearly Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

To punish traffickers, the legislation would: 1) establish an interagency task force to monitor and prevent trafficking; 2) double the current ten year maximum prison sentence for trafficking; 3) permit life sentences in cases of where victims are assaulted or killed; and 4) create new trafficking crimes with severe penalties.

To protect victims, the bill would establish a new nonimmigrant "T" visa (with a cap of 5,000 visas per year) for victims of "severe trafficking" (certain types of trafficking involving force, coercion, fraud, or deception) who cooperate with law enforcement efforts to prosecute traffickers. Victims must also face "a significant possibility of retribution or hardship" if removed from the United States to be eligible for the visa. T-visa holders who can demonstrate "good moral character" for three years would be eligible to adjust to lawful permanent resident status.

A controversial aspect of the legislation is that a victim of "severe trafficking" for purposes of receiving a "T" visa would have to be less than 18 years old and victimized for sexual purposes. In addition, only victims under the age of 15 and victims certified by the government as willing to identify, locate, and testify against their trafficker would be eligible for public benefits and services.

Also controversial is a provision that would require the President to sanction countries economically for failing to meet "minimum standards" for the elimination of trafficking. The minimum standards, outlined in the bill, require countries to prohibit severe forms of trafficking, prosecute and appropriately punish trafficking crimes, cooperate with other countries in combating trafficking, and protect victims. Countries that do not meet the minimum standards automatically become ineligible for "nonhumanitarian foreign assistance," unless the President determines that providing such assistance is in the national interest of the United States.

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) has introduced several anti-trafficking bills. His most recent bill is similar to the Republican proposals, but would not impose age limits for victims of trafficking eligible to receive benefits. Wellstone's bill also contains fewer restrictions than the Trafficking Victims Protection Act on victims' eligibility for legal status in the United States. It would also permit, rather than mandate, economic sanctions against governments that do not meet the minimum standards on trafficking.

The Clinton Administration opposes the mandatory economic sanctions provisions of the Trafficking Victim Protection Act. Although President Clinton supports anti-trafficking efforts and the need for legislation, Administration officials have stated that two-thirds of the world's countries currently fail to meet the minimum standards outlined in the bill. The Administration said that the automatic sanctions could limit the work of NGOs in these countries, force the United States to stop funding deterrence programs, and punish minor violators as much as major ones.

In 1998, President Clinton identified trafficking in women as a "fundamental human rights violation" and tasked the President's Interagency Council on Women with developing and coordinating government policy on this issue. Beyond punishing traffickers and protecting victims, the Clinton Administration favors entering into cooperative agreements with countries to combat trafficking. Secretary of State Albright's recent meetings with leaders of Italy, Finland, Ukraine, and Israel have resulted in new or strengthened anti-trafficking agreements.

In March, the United States and the Philippines launched the Asian Regional Initiative Against Trafficking of Women and Children (ARIAT). Also in March, in an address to the Indian Parliament, President Clinton announced $1.6 million in new funding for anti-trafficking efforts in South Asia. The United States has also partnered with NGOs in Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Moldova, and Armenia to create programs to combat domestic violence and trafficking by promoting cooperation between local law enforcement and local NGOs that provide services to abused women and women at risk of being trafficked.

(July, 2000)


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.