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Human trafficking: Combating an international crisis

By April Palmerlee - posted Wednesday, 10 November 2004

Human trafficking - the illegal and highly profitable transport and sale of human beings for the purpose of exploiting their labour - is a worldwide epidemic. The number of people trafficked each year is estimated to be in the millions.

Although the trafficking of humans can take on different forms in different contexts, there are consistent patterns. Typically, a woman is recruited with promises of a good job abroad, and lacking better options at home, she agrees to migrate. An agent makes arrangements for the victim’s travel and job placement, obtaining the necessary travel documentation, contacting employers, and hiring someone to accompany the woman. She is then escorted to her destination and delivered to an employer.

She has no control over the nature or place of work, or the terms and conditions of her employment. Many women learn they have been deceived while all find themselves in coercive and abusive situations from which escape is difficult and dangerous.


The most common form of coercion is debt bondage. Women are told they must work without wages until they have repaid the purchase price advanced by their employers to the agent. This amount far exceeds the cost of their travel expenses. Even for those women who knew they would be in debt, the amount is invariably higher than they expected and is also routinely increased with arbitrary fines and dishonest account keeping.

Employers maintain the power to "resell" indebted women into renewed levels of debt. In some cases, women find that their debts only increase and can never be fully repaid. Other women are eventually released from debt, but only after months or years of coercive and abusive labor.

To prevent escape, employers take advantage of the women's vulnerable position as migrants. They do not speak the local language, are unfamiliar with their surroundings, and fear arrest and mistreatment by local law enforcement authorities. These factors are compounded by a range of tactics, which includes constant surveillance, isolation, threats of retaliation against the woman and her family members at home, and confiscation of passports and other documentation.

The impact of trafficking needs to be considered on both an individual as well as on society. Individuals may suffer from:

  • Physical harm, including disease and stunted growth;
  • Physical and emotional damage from premature sexual activity;
  • Exposure to sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS;
  • Permanent damage to reproductive organs;
  • Psychological damage from isolation and domination, especially when trafficked to countries where they cannot speak or understand the language;
  • Missed critical opportunities for social, moral, and spiritual development;
  • Progressive exploitation: a child trafficked into one form of labor may be further abused in another;
  • Forced substance abuse; and
  • Extreme violence.

There are also societal effects of trafficking that must be considered. Social breakdown is just one of the results of trafficking. The loss of family and community support networks renders the victim vulnerable to the traffickers’ demands and threats and contributes in several ways to the breakdown of social structures. Trafficking:

  • Separates children from their parents and families, preventing nurturing and moral guidance;
  • Interrupts the passage of knowledge and cultural values from parent to child and from generation to generation, weakening a core pillar of society;
  • Produces profits that allow the practice to take root in a particular community, which is then repeatedly exploited as a ready source of victims;
  • Causes vulnerable groups such as children and young women to go into hiding to avoid it, with adverse effects on schooling or family structure;
  • Leads to a loss of education, thus reducing victims' future economic opportunities and increasing their vulnerability to being trafficked in the future;
  • Stigmatises and ostracises its victims, requiring continuing social services; and
  • Leads its victims to become involved in substance abuse and criminal activity.

Another aspect of trafficking is how this lucrative business ties in to organised crime. The profits from the illegal sale and purchase of human beings are often used to fuel several other kinds of criminal activities. According to the UN, human trafficking is the third largest criminal enterprise in the world. It generates an estimated US$9.5 billion in annual revenue according to US intelligence. Victims are often subdued because of encouraged or enforced substance abuse, tying them to the drug trade. There have also been documented links to terrorism, such as the profits from trafficking and prostitution being used to support terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.

Another grave risk to societies where trafficking flourishes is the loss of human capital. Trafficking has a negative impact on labour markets, contributing to an irretrievable loss of human resources. Some effects of trafficking include depressed wages, fewer carers left for the aged, and an undereducated generation. These effects also lead to the loss of future productivity and earning power. Forcing children to work 10-18 hours a day denies them access to education and reinforces the cycle of poverty and illiteracy that stunts national development.

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This is an edited version of April Palmerlee's lecture to the Centre for Independent Studies on October 26, 2004.

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About the Author

April Palmerlee is Director of Potomac Partners, a Sydney-based international policy consultancy. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the CIS.

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