What is human trafficking?

Mapping trafficking routes at the East Asia consultation

On this page:

What is human trafficking? Definition

What does it look like?

What is the scale of the problem and where is it most prevalent?

Global agreements that address trafficking

Individual country responses

Intersection with other issues

A theological perspective


What is human trafficking? (definition):

The UN Protocol to Prevent Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (commonly referred to as the ‘Palermo Protocol’) provides a definition of trafficking. Trafficking has three main elements:  

Act: “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons.” 

Means: the way in which a person is trafficked by “threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. 

Purpose– the reason for which a person is trafficked: “the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. 


Where human trafficking occurs, there will always be an act, means and purpose (except for children under 18 where only an act and purpose are needed). These three elements distinguish human trafficking from other forms of people movement such as smuggling, as they show that where a person is trafficked there is a lack of consent from the victim. Where people smuggling occurs it involves the giving of consent to be moved across an international border.   

According to the Palermo Protocol, even where there is consent of a victim of exploitation, this is irrelevant where means (ie. force, deception etc) have been used. Victims/survivors should not to be punished for offences or activities related to their trafficking.  Victims/survivors should be protected from deportation or return where significant security risk to them or their family. The Palermo Protocol also calls for special safeguards and care for children, including legal protection. 


What does it look like?

The different types of trafficking found on a global scale are as follows:  

Child labour: The sale or trafficking of children for forced labour, recruitment into armed conflict, offering of a child for prostitution, production of pornography and any other work which is likely to harm the health, safety or well-being of minors.  

Cyber trafficking: Any trafficking crime which is committed with the use of a computer network, often in online pornography.  

Debt bondage: Work exchanged for a debt which, ultimately, can often never be paid. Workers are told they can pay off a loan of their own or of a family member by working it off. The work is often hazardous in brutal conditions.  

Domestic servitude: Exploiting or exercising undue control over another to coerce them into performing services of a domestic nature in exploitative conditions.  

Early and forced marriage: Any situation in which persons have been forced to marry without their consent, including all those under the legal age of marriage.  

Forced criminality: A situation which coerces a person into criminal activity.  

Forced Labour: All work or service which is exacted from any person under threat and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.  

Organ Trafficking: Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of living or deceased persons or their organs.  

Sexual exploitation: Any persons who are forced to perform or provide a service involving sex or sexual activities.  

Slavery at sea: Any form of slave like conditions and human trafficking which takes place at sea.  

Trafficking for terrorism: The use of trafficking for terrorism activities. 

This video by our partner the Clewer Initiative looks at Modern Slavery in the UK.

What is the scale of the problem and where is it most prevalent?

The Global Slavery Index (GSI) provides a country by country ranking of the number of people living in modern slavery or slavery-like conditions. It also includes information on actions that governments are taking to respond to modern slavery and the factors which make people vulnerable.

The Index estimates that there are currently 40.3 million people living in slavery with 71% of all victims being women. The most common form of slavery is forced labour. Countries with the highest prevalence per capita of modern slavery include North Korea, Pakistan, Eritrea, Cambodia, Iran, Burundi, and Mauritania.

The GSI also finds that the more repressive the regime of a country, the greater the prevalence of modern slavery. People in countries experiencing conflict are also very vulnerable to human trafficking where there is a breakdown in the rule of law, social structures and existing systems of protection.

According to the GSI, the 10 countries with the largest estimated absolute numbers of people in modern slavery include some of the world’s most populous. Collectively, these 10 countries – India, China, Pakistan, North Korea, Nigeria, Iran, Indonesia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Russia, and the Philippines – account for 60 percent of people living in modern slavery and over half the world’s population.

These links provide information on the prevalence of human trafficking in different countries:  

Global Slavery Index 

Trafficking in persons report


Global Agreements that address trafficking 

Churches are responding to the issues of safe migration and modern slavery in the context of a range of global agreements. These agreements set goals, seek to raise standards and provide a platform for engagement with signatory states 

The Palermo Protocol 

The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, commonly referred to as The Palermo Protocol (referenced above) is among the most significant of these international agreements and protocols in relation to safe migration and human trafficking, which provide a framework for our work.  It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000 and signed by 179 states. The protocol includes a definition of trafficking which individual states can bring into their own laws.  

A link to the protocol can be found here.

UN Compact on Safe Migration  

The UN Compact on Safe Migration is a global agreement for safe, orderly and regular migration. It includes 23 objectives for managing migration at local, national and international levels, aiming to reduce the risks migrants face at each stage of their journey. It is not legally binding, countries remain in control of their own immigration policy, but commits to improving cooperation on international migration. 

More information can be found here: https://www.un.org/en/conf/migration/global-compact-for-safe-orderly-regular-migration.shtml  

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)  

The Sustainable Development Goals aim to address global challenges including on poverty, injustice, and environmental issues. There are 17 goals which were adopted by UN member states in 2015 and aim to be achieved by 2030. Goal 8 addresses decent work and economic growth, with the following two points directly relating to safe migration and trafficking:  

SDG 8.7: 

Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.  

SDG 8.8:

Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women, migrants, and those in precarious employment. 


Individual country responses

Countries which have taken the strongest action to tackle modern slavery include the UK, USA, Sweden, Belgium, Croatia and Norway.

One of the main achievements from the governments across the globe is that there are now (2020) 36 countries taking steps to address forced labour in businesses or supply chains compared to only four countries in 2016.


Intersection with other issues 

Human trafficking has a devastating impact on the lives of those affected, their families and communities. The effects of the problem are far-reaching and are connected to many wider issues across the globe including; the climate emergency, women and gender based violence, migrationbased problems and refugee crises.  

Human trafficking can result from push factors, including inequalities and injustices within communities which lead to exploitation. It is also driven by inequalities within and between countries. The effects of human trafficking are often intertwined with an increase in wider injustices. It is vital to recognise the connection with these wider issues when working to address the problem 

The Anglican Alliance is working across the Anglican Communion to connect and help equip churches to respond to inequalities across the globe. The pages below provide links to other areas of our work which are important to consider when thinking about the causes and knock-on effects human trafficking can have:  

Gender Justice  

Migrants and Refugees  

The Climate Emergency  

Women and Youth Empowerment  

COVID-19 pandemic:

ModerSlavery and human trafficking during COVID19

The impacts of COVID-19 on refugee and migrant populations


Biblical Context / Theological stance 

As Christians we believe that humans were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) as equal and valued, each with an important role to play. Every human being was created to live in freedom and dignity. Human trafficking is a crime which strips this freedom away from individuals and prevents them from living in the way which God has designed.  

Through Jesus’ ministry we see the promise of God’s kingdom in which there will be an end to injustice ‘to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free’ (Luke 4:18). As the Churchwe seek to follow the example Jesus sets in this passage to walk alongside and protect the most vulnerable in our society.

The Anglican Alliance works to connect, serve and equip churches to go out and address injustice across the Anglican Communion, enabling them to follow the example Jesus sets us of walking alongside the most vulnerable. We long for those caught up in the injustices of human trafficking and modern slavery to be brought to freedom and believe that as the Church we have a crucial role to play in this