(December 2013) Human trafficking for sexual exploitation and forced labor is now on the agenda of dozens of governments worldwide. That was not the case 10 to 20 years ago, says Frank Laczko, head of migration research at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva.

By 2012, 134 countries and territories had passed laws that meet recent United Nations protocols criminalizing human trafficking, but convictions of traffickers have been limited, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Trafficking involves transporting people across national borders or within countries for forced prostitution and forced labor in settings such as domestic service, street begging, agriculture, sweatshops, and construction. Traffickers and organized crime syndicates profit from this exploitation by controlling victims, often through deception, threats, and violence.

Stepped-up data collection by governments, international agencies, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has bolstered efforts to raise awareness, galvanize support, and mobilize action against this human rights violation.

New information has also contributed to reframing countertrafficking efforts. Early on, Laczko says, anti-trafficking activities mainly emphasized preventing the sexual exploitation of women and children but evidence on forced labor, a crime with numerous male victims, “shifted the focus,” broadening prevention and enforcement initiatives.

“We have more data than ever before,” notes Laczko, who has been involved in efforts to improve data quality.

But because human trafficking is illegal and undertaken clandestinely, the global magnitude is impossible to quantify with certainty. Using new methodology, the International Labour Organization estimates that 21 million people worldwide were victims of all types of forced labor including forced prostitution in 2011.1 The U.S. State Department set the total number of global trafficking victims at 27 million in 2013.2

These global estimates are most useful for advocacy, according to Laczko. If these levels are accurate, the roughly 40,000 victims identified each year represent the “tiny tip of the iceberg,” he says.

Data on Victims Reveal Patterns

The most recent report from the UNODC finds that 58 percent of officially identified victims were trafficked for sexual exploitation and 36 percent for forced labor between 2007 and 2010, based on data provided by 132 countries. The report identified distinctly different regional patterns: Countries in Africa and Asia experience more instances of forced labor trafficking, while sexual exploitation is the main form of trafficking intercepted in Europe, North America, and South America.

Most trafficking victims are women (59 percent), with men accounting for a much smaller share (14 percent). Children under age 18 made up 27 percent of victims between 2007 and 2010, up from 20 percent between 2003 and 2006, with girls representing 17 percent of that proportion.

An increase in child victims may either “reflect a growing problem or that we are doing more to combat it,” with more child victims being intercepted and thereby coming to the attention of authorities, Laczko points out.

The UNODC findings underscore the widespread and complex nature of the crime: Victims from 136 countries were identified in 118 countries. About 460 different trafficking “flows” exist, that is, five or more victims at the same location from the same country of origin. The vast majority of these flows covered a geographically short or medium distance, with most victims being trafficked within the same region—either within their country of origin or across a nearby border. East Asians represented the largest number of victims trafficked across national borders. The Middle East region had the largest share of victims trafficked from other regions.  (The PRB Population Bulletin, “The Global Challenge of Managing Migration,” provides related information on global migration trends.)

Identifying trafficking patterns can help direct law enforcement activities and target mass media campaigns aimed at prevention. UNODC makes the case that improved data on trafficked persons are needed to assess whether trafficking flows are increasing or decreasing, to predict future trends, and to measure the effectiveness of countertrafficking initiatives.

The European Union (EU) countries collect some of the most extensive data on trafficking. Recently, the patterns documented in a 2013 European Migration Network report surprised some observers.3 Most trafficking victims (61 percent) identified between 2008 and 2010 in EU countries came from other EU countries. Romanian and Bulgarian citizens accounted for the largest numbers. Among non-EU citizens identified as victims in Europe, the top countries of origin were China and Nigeria. Victims from Brazil, Russia, and Algeria were identified in all three years as well.

“You expect trafficked people to be from the developing world, not to see major streams from eastern Europe,” Laczko says. “We think of trafficking occurring as people search for a better life, but the poorest have no means to migrate. Nigeria and China are not the poorest countries.” These EU trends likely reflect the way strong criminal networks in some countries act as “push factors,” facilitating the exploitation, he suggests.

The IOM maintains the world’s largest set of data collected directly from trafficking victims. The database has not been fully analyzed and Laczko is seeking academics to collaborate on such research. More could be learned about how trafficking works and the best ways to halt it, he says.

Law Enforcement Emphasized

The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report ranks countries based on the strength of their countertrafficking efforts. In 2013, China, Russia, and Uzbekistan were moved to the lowest rank for inaction; this classification could lead to U.S. sanctions such as cuts to nonhumanitarian aid and cultural exchanges. The 2013 edition also recognized South Korea, Georgia, and Israel for dramatically increasing enforcement and maintaining those improvements.

In some countries, the heightened attention to combating trafficking has led to unintended consequences. Laczko pointed to a report from Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women that showed that fear of being seen as trafficked has kept some young women from migrating for legitimate reasons.4 The report also documented the experiences of women who intentionally migrated to work in the sex industry but were “rescued” as part of anti-trafficking initiatives and returned to their home countries against their will. Additionally, Laczko notes, NGOs in some settings have found it easier to obtain help for migrants in distress by calling them trafficked when that was not the case.

These situations often reflect the complex dynamics of unauthorized migration. “UN conventions distinguish smuggling, where the client pays for help migrating from one country to another, and trafficking, where there is coercion and a victim,” explains Philip Martin, author of PRB’s “The Global Challenge of Managing Migration.” It is often hard to draw a firm line between the two, since what begins as a migrant hiring a smuggler can turn into trafficking if the migrant is held to pay off the smuggling debt, he says.

Paola Scommegna is a senior writer/editor at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. International Labour Organization, 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour (Geneva: ILO, 2012). The report does not include a separate estimate of forced laborers who were trafficking victims. However, close to half the victims of forced labor (9.1 million) had moved internally or internationally.
  2. U.S. State Department, Trafficking in Persons Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 2013).
  3. European Union, “Trafficking in Human Beings,” Eurostat Methodologies and Working Papers (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2013).
  4. Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Collateral Damage: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights Around the World (Bangkok: Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, 2007).