The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of people through force, fraud, or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit.” It exists in almost every industry, including domestic work, agriculture, mining, fishing, factory work, and commercial sex work. Victims of human trafficking can also be forced into marriage & armed conflict. Victims may be paid (they often aren’t), but their wages are so low, they are essentially slaves. Why does human trafficking exist? Understanding the roots of trafficking can help the world address it. Here are ten of the primary causes:

#1. Poverty#2. A lack of education#3. The demand for cheap labor/sex#4. A lack of human rights protections#5. A lack of legimiate economic opportunities#6. Cultural factors#7. Conflict & natural disasters#8. A lack of safe migration options#9. Deception and intimidation#10. Profit

#1 Poverty

Poverty, especially extreme poverty, is one of the most significant drivers of human trafficking. Extreme poverty is defined as living with less than $1.90 a day. While efforts to over extreme poverty were on the right track, the COVID-19 pandemic reversed progress. In 2020 – for the first time in twenty years – the number of workers living in extreme poverty rose from 6.7% in 2019 to 7.2%. That increase represented 8 million people. To find better work, many people migrate, which makes them more vulnerable to traffickers. People also sell their own family members – including their children – to lớn survive or in the hopes their loved ones might get a chance at a better life. Other causes of human trafficking, like a lack of education và legitimate work, are closely tied to lớn poverty.

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#2 A lack of education

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists education as a human right in article 26. “Everyone has a right lớn education,” the text reads. It goes on lớn stipulate that education should be không tính tiền (at least in the elementary & fundamental stages) & compulsory, while technical và professional education should be made “generally available.” Higher education should be “equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” When people don’t get a good education, it negatively impacts their lives và the lives of their families, including their children. Income potential is a big reason why. It is much harder lớn escape poverty without education. Additionally, the types of jobs that tend to lớn not require academic education – lượt thích agricultural work, mining, fisheries, construction work, và domestic service – have higher rates of trafficking. Good education helps people get better work and avoid the conditions that lead lớn exploitation.

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#3 The demand for cheap labor/sex

Consumers are always looking for cheaper products and services. Unfortunately, this drives corporations to look for cheaper và cheaper labor, which incentivizes exploitation & trafficking. Industries lượt thích agriculture, fishing, mining, & domestic work are especially ripe for exploitation. Commercial sex is also very in demand, which encourages traffickers to lớn supply more people, especially women and girls. According to lớn 2020 UNODC data, women and girls cosplay 65% of trafficking victims. 90% of them are trafficked for commercial sex. Children are also especially vulnerable lớn exploitation like forced labor, forced marriage, armed conflict, and commercial sex as they’re easier to lớn manipulate và abuse. Globally, 1 out of every 3 victims are children. As long as there’s demand, vulnerable groups lượt thích children are in danger.

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#4 A lack of human rights protections

Many legal frameworks forbid human trafficking like debt bondage, child sexual exploitation, forced marriage, và forced prostitution. However, as the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner Fact Sheet 36 on Human Rights và Human Trafficking reads, not all legal frameworks center on human rights. Certain aspects of trafficking may be addressed as immigration, crime, or public order issues as opposed lớn human rights issues. When human rights aren’t centered, it can be trickier to determine who is responsible for responding to và preventing human trafficking. Anti-trafficking efforts can be scattershot & ineffective. Even when they vị identify victims, victims can be retraumatized when their rights aren’t protected. Trafficking is a clear violation of human rights, but if anti-trafficking activities don’t use a rights approach, attempts to kết thúc trafficking can cause more harm.

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#5 A lack of legitimate economic opportunities

No one wants khổng lồ be trafficked and exploited, but a lack of legitimate economic opportunities can drive people into dangerous situations. They’re more likely to take risks if they have no better options. COVID-19 caused an increase in unemployment, especially among women và youth workers, who are already at a higher risk for trafficking. People from low-income countries with high unemployment and the most vulnerable groups in wealthy nations are the most vulnerable. Stabilizing economies and improving economic development give people more legitimate economic opportunities, so they aren’t driven into risky situations by desperation.

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#6 Cultural factors

There are a handful of cultural factors that impact the prevalence of human trafficking. According khổng lồ the UNODC, sending a child away to work is commonly accepted in places like Central America, East Asia, và the Caribbean. It’s much easier lớn exploit children in these environments, so trafficking can often happen out in the open. Bonded labor, which occurs when people are forced to work khổng lồ pay off a debt, is also still prevalent in India, Pakistan, & other Asian countries. Debt bondage is itself a khung of exploitation, but it can lead khổng lồ worse trafficking as many are trapped after their debt has been paid. Devaluing the personhood of women & girls is also a persistent cultural factor impacting human trafficking. When women và girls are not seen as full humans worthy of rights and respect, they’re the first group to lớn be targeted by traffickers.

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#7 Conflict và natural disasters

When society faces severe disruptions, people get more desperate và trafficking becomes more prevalent. As the OHCHR says, “conflict tends to lớn fuel impunity,” so traffickers are more willing to lớn break laws and traffic others for profit. People also lack safe, legal options for work and/or migration, which opens the door to exploitation. In armed conflict, children as young as 8 years old can be forced khổng lồ work as soldiers, spies, messengers, or lookouts. Women & girls are often victims of sexual trafficking during conflict, as well. What about during natural disasters? Large groups of people can lose their homes, access to education, access lớn work, và access to lớn basics like water and food. Traffickers swoop in & exploit these vulnerabilities, often promising help.

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#8 A lack of safe migration options

Refugees & migrants are among the most targeted groups for trafficking. When they lack options for safe, legal migration, people may turn khổng lồ smugglers. Smugglers aren’t always traffickers since the migrant agrees to lớn pay them for their services. The situation can quickly turn into trafficking, however. The smuggler might demand more payment than agreed upon, sexually exploit the people they’re smuggling, or sell them. We don’t have accurate information about how many migrants are trafficked or how many are taking “irregular pathways” versus regular migration channels. This means that not only are people at risk when they lack safe migration options, they’re still vulnerable even if they aren’t being smuggled.

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#9 Deception and intimidation

No one wants to be trafficked, so traffickers use a variety of tactics khổng lồ manipulate và intimidate vulnerable people. Deception is key. According lớn the UNODC, some trafficking networks pretend lớn be legitimate recruitment agencies. They target migrants who want to lớn work abroad, lying about fees, documents, transport, & more. Once the victim is given work, the network may steal their salaries. These “agencies” also often lie about the nature of the job, especially to lớn women. Promised domestic work like childcare or housekeeping, women & girls can over up forced into commercial sex. In addition lớn deception, traffickers rely on intimidation tactics lượt thích physical assault, sexual abuse, harassment, và psychological abuse to keep victims trapped.

#10 Profit

As is the case with any criminal activity, traffickers & trafficking networks are in it for the money. It’s difficult khổng lồ get clear, updated information on how much the human trafficking industry brings in, but in 2014, the ILO reported the industry’s worth at $150 billion. $99 billion came from commercial sexual exploitation while forced labor was worth $51 billion. According lớn the UNODC 2020 report on human trafficking, some large criminal organizations can make millions or even tens of millions of dollars over the years. Smaller groups or individuals may only make a few thousand dollars for a woman or girl, but in many places, that money goes a long way. There’s also the money saved by using trafficked labor for services & product creation. As an example, a fishing boat with trafficked workers only has lớn pay for the supplies necessary to lớn keep their workers alive; they aren’t paying a wage. The traffickers keep the wages và raise their profits.

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In recognition of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a look at the factors fueling human trafficking, both globally and locally. 

At its most basic form, human trafficking is the buying và selling of people. It exists across continents và is facilitated through a variety of venues, but ultimately, human trafficking is an industry, and it profits from the exploitation of people.

Human trafficking has been likened lớn modern-day slavery, & in many respects, the similarities are obvious.

It"s the 21st century và children, women và men are still being forced lớn work in inhumane conditions, for long hours, for little to lớn no pay

Slavery of the past was an accepted economic practice, but today, human trafficking is a criminal activity. Historically, slavery systematically exploited specific groups of people. Today, anyone can be a human trafficking victim regardless of ethnicity, nationality, gender, age or economic status. Human trafficking is now facilitated online and through social media. Traffickers use love và affection as control mechanisms, and those victimized might not even self-identify as victims. Human trafficking is an incredibly complex issue based on dozens of contributing factors. To lớn understand how trafficking exists today, what it looks like, & why it is sustained, we are going khổng lồ explore three factors that give it fuel.



First, human trafficking is fueled by a high reward, low risk dynamic. This means that traffickers can expect khổng lồ make a lot of money with minimal fear of punishment or legal consequence. It’s the second most profitable illegal industry— second only to the drug trade. & while drugs are sold in one transaction, human beings can be sold over & over again. The costs are low & the profits are extremely high. The International Labor Organization estimates that profits from human trafficking và forced labor are $150 billion annually. 

But what are the risks?

The table below shows the Global Enforcement Data from the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report. It describes the estimated amount of human trafficking prosecutions & convictions around the world each year.



The number of prosecutions is shockingly low for an industry that victimizes an estimated 21 million people around the world. Lasting legal consequences for human traffickers are still minimal & rare. Traffickers know they can sell & exploit others & little will be done lớn stop them.

Second, human trafficking is fueled by the economic principles of supply and demand.

Human trafficking is the only industry in which the supply & demand are the same thing: human beings. People demanding the sale of people

High demand drives the high volume of supply. Increasing demand from consumers for cheap goods incentivizes corporations to demand cheap labor, often forcing those at the bottom of the supply chain to lớn exploit workers. Secondly, increased demand for commercial sex — especially with young girls & boys — incentivizes commercial sex venues including strip clubs, pornography và prostitution to lớn recruit và exploit children.

Lastly, systemic inequalities và disparities make certain groups much more vulnerable khổng lồ exploitation. Mass displacement, conflict, extreme poverty, lack of access lớn education and job opportunities, violence và harmful social norms lượt thích child marriage are all factors that push individuals into situations of trafficking. Families living in extreme poverty or families in desperate circumstances are more likely to lớn accept risky job offers. When girls aren’t allowed to learn, parents are more likely to sell their daughters to lớn men for marriage.

Ultimately, harmful social norms & systemic inequity fuel trafficking because traffickers target vulnerability. Traffickers look for people living in poverty, those who are desperate, those without legitimate job options, those without educational opportunities and the ones looking for a way lớn escape violence.

If we never address these basic human rights violations, we will never see the day when trafficking no longer exists

Want to take action? You can address the three factors that fuel trafficking by taking the following steps:

Advocate for legislation that increases penalties for traffickers and enhances protections for victims. Support UNICEF’s humanitarian work for vulnerable children around the world.

Learn about how UNICEF is working lớn ensure that every child is protected & respected. Support UNICEF. Donate today.