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21st Century Modern Slavery: Human Trafficking

There is a persistent belief in society that slavery is a term of the past and is currently illegal everywhere in the world. However, this is not entirely true. Even though the legal ownership of human beings has been abolished in almost every country in the world, it has not been criminalized in many of them. This means that in almost half of the world's countries, there is no criminal law to punish slavery and trafficking, which refers to the unlawful exploitation of people (FBI, 2022). In other words, in 94 countries around the world, it is not possible to prosecute and punish a person who has enslaved another human being (Allain, n.d.). Simultaneously, 180 countries around the world have not enacted legislative provisions that would criminalize slavery. Modern slavery can be difficult to detect, mainly because it has moved underground and its definition is inconsistent. The definition of the term comes in many forms, but each includes aspects of control, exploitation, and involuntary action (Anti-Slavery International, 2022). The World Population Review (n.d.) defines slavery as a system in which the principles of property rights are applied to a person, allowing people to own and trade other human beings. People who are trapped in this system have no way out, and their remuneration is often between minimum wage and nothing. Forms of modern slavery include chattel slavery, state conscription, forced migrant labor, sexual slavery, forced marriage, as well as child marriage or forced child labor (World Population Review, n.d.). This represents more than 50 million people around the world who are now enslaved. In 167 countries around the world, some form of slavery still prevails, as countries have varying definitions and legislation regarding the issue. This means that not all of the mentioned forms of modern slavery are part of every country's legislation. Among the most commonly occurring forms of modern slavery is human trafficking (Anti-Slavery International, 2022), which is the subject of this article. The article starts with a general definition of the term, followed by global statistics, and narrows down to a focus on trafficking within Europe.

Human trafficking is a global crime whose main purpose is to exploit people in order to enrich themselves. The most common forms of trafficking are sexual exploitation (79%) and forced labor (18%). However, these statistics may be skewed as the sexual exploitation of women is more visible in urban centers and along highways than forced labor, domestic servitude, forced marriage, or the exploitation of children in begging (Allain, n.d.). Victims of trafficking may be men, women, or children of any age and background (UNODC, n.d.). Traffickers use a variety of tactics and methods, such as bogus employment agencies and fake job or educational opportunities, to lure their victims. The United Nations (UN) protocol defines trafficking in persons as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer and harboring or receipt of a person by such means as the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation"(UNODC, n.d.). The results of the 2020 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Global Report on Human Trafficking, based on data collected from more than 148 countries, indicate that 46% of victims in 2018 were women, 19% were girls, 20% were men, and 15% were boys. The report also indicates that over the past 15 years, the proportion of child victims has tripled and the proportion of boys who are trafficked has increased by five times. This means that one in every three people trafficked is a child. While the primary purpose of trafficking for girls is sexual exploitation, for boys it is forced labor. An increase is also observed in male victims when in 2003 they accounted for roughly 10% and by 2018 they accounted for 20% of individuals being trafficked (UNODC, n.d.). According to the available statistics, there is no specific profile of a victim of human trafficking. As noted above, a variety of people are victimized, regardless of age, gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, education level, or socioeconomic status (U.S. Department of Justice, 2022). Despite this diversity in victim profiles, it is possible to make predictions as to where traffickers seek out their victims. Hence, they are mainly individuals from marginalized communities, individuals without legal immigration status, and other vulnerable individuals such as children who are either in the foster care system, placed in the juvenile justice system, homeless, or unsupervised (U.S. Department of Justice, 2022).

Hand pointing on children
Figure 2: An illustration demonstrating the diversity of victims of human trafficking, who are often children (Schwarz and Allain, 2020).

Similar to victims, there is no consistent profile of perpetrators of trafficking offenses. Traffickers may be citizens of the country where the offense takes place, but they may also be foreigners committing the offense within the territory of another country (U.S. Department of Justice, 2022). Perpetrators can also be family members, partners, wider or closer circles of acquaintances, or strangers. They may act either alone or as members of an organized criminal group. Often people assume that, as with other crimes, especially organized crime, men are the only perpetrators. However, the opposite appears to be true, and data from 46 countries implies that women play a key role as perpetrators in human trafficking (UNODC, 2019). In Europe, for example, more women have been convicted of the crime of human trafficking than of any other crime. While the percentage of women convicted of all offenses did not exceed 15% of the total crimes committed during the reporting period, women convicted of trafficking offenses in the same region exceeded 50% (UNODC, 2019). In addition to gender, the report also focused on the origin of the perpetrators. The data showed that most offenders came from the country in which they were arrested. That means that local criminal groups sell victims originating from the same area as them to foreign-based criminal groups. Many of these source countries are poor, and local perpetrators are able to use their connections to intimidate their victims and take over their families under threat of harm. Arrested perpetrators in source countries were generally local while arrested perpetrators in high-income countries were largely foreigners (UNODC, 2019).

Based on the data collected, trafficking is divided into three main groups: trans-regional, intra-regional, and domestic trafficking (UNODC, 2019). Domestic trafficking, as the name implies, exploits citizens of the country in which the exploitation takes place. Intra-regional trafficking means trafficking between different countries of the same region i.e. cross-border trafficking and trafficking between countries close to each other. Trans-regional trafficking refers to trafficking between regions, i.e. between Eastern, Western, and Central Europe or between North and Central America, and can extend to the transcontinental level, which is trafficking between continents (UNODC, 2019). Statistical data suggests that domestic trafficking occurs not only in countries like India or Brazil, whose size and socio-economic disparities may be one of the reasons for this phenomenon, but also in smaller, relatively wealthy countries such as those in Europe (UNODC, 2019). Victims of domestic trafficking appear to be less prevalent than international trafficking according to statistics. However, this estimate is likely to be biased, as domestic trafficking is mostly reported in the context of other crimes. Intra-regional trafficking was more common compared to trans-regional trafficking, and trans-regional trafficking appeared to be most prevalent in 12 countries during the reporting period. While the majority of victims in the Czech Republic, Turkey, or Poland originated from neighboring countries, victims in Afghanistan came from cross-border countries such as Pakistan or China. This suggests that long-distance trafficking may only be significant for certain parts of the world. Moreover, cross-border trafficking is particularly significant for South and Central America, where more than 50% of the victims originated from another region (UNODC, 2019).

world map
Figure 2: Illustration of a map displaying the criminalization of slavery around the world (Schwarz and Allain, 2020).

Furthermore, Western and Central Europe has recorded the most diverse nationalities of victims of human trafficking compared to the rest of the world (UNODC, 2010). The vast majority (84%) of these victims were imported for the purpose of sexual exploitation. These victims are mainly of Romanian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Russian, and Moldavian nationality. It seems that in the case of trafficking in human beings from the Balkans, it is their family, acquaintances, or close relatives who are responsible for their trafficking. Furthermore, studies coming from Ukraine suggest that 11% of victims were trafficked with the cooperation of their spouses (UNODC, 2010). The motivation for these victims is mostly "a better life," as they often come from poor backgrounds. Twenty percent of these victims are aware that their job will be to provide sexual services, but they lack knowledge of the conditions under which they will be working (UNODC, 2010). These Balkan organized groups responsible for trafficking their citizens are characterized by a particularly violent approach to their victims. They control their victims not only through violence but also through various drugs. Generally, these victims are trafficked underground, i.e. in private homes or brothels. However, some of these victims are seen on the streets engaging in street prostitution.

Organized human trafficking groups operate on the principle of high demand. It is precisely this demand that fuels human exploitation, which takes many forms and abuses the vulnerable situation of people all over the world. The members of organized groups are motivated by high profits, which were estimated at €29.4 billion worldwide in 2015 (European Commission, 2021). In Europe alone, these profits are approximately €14 billion, covering only sexual exploitation (European Commission, 2021). The results of these statistics clearly imply that a reduction in demand would reduce the prevalence of human trafficking. As a precautionary measure, the European Union called in 2021 for each member state to consider criminalizing the deliberate use of services linked to human trafficking. However, this final ruling is left to the individual decision of each member state which means that the legislation varies in each member state. As part of the evaluation of the Anti-Trafficking in Human Beings Directive, the European Commission will consider the possibility of introducing minimum European Union rules in the coming years to criminalize the use of exploitative services linked to human trafficking throughout Europe (European Commission, 2021).

woman being held in hands and in the other hand with money
Figure 3: An illustration depicting the trade of a human being for money (Two row times, 2021).

Slavery should be a thing of the past, but unfortunately it is not. People all over the world exploit other people who are vulnerable because of circumstances such as poverty, inferior living conditions, or criminality. Human trafficking occurs in almost every part of the world. This problem is fostered by people exploiting others to make money just as much as it is by people who, perhaps unknowingly, use the services that support the industry. Therefore, one of the main solutions to combat this crime is to raise awareness of how seemingly legal activities support human exploitation. Another solution to eradicate this problem is to regulate the legislation and criminalize directly related activities. Nonetheless, whichever approach is taken to address this problem, it is necessary and essential to have a full understanding of the data and statistics of this crime and those who are vulnerable to it. As this article points out, definitions and legislation are inconsistent, so collecting data to develop specific preventative measures is challenging. The solution, therefore, is to encourage national authorities to rethink this data collection. Lastly, it is important to emphasize that all humans should have equal rights and freedom, and achieving this goal should be a priority for all countries and governments.

Bibliographical References

Allain, J. (n.d.). Slavery is not a crime in almost half the countries of the world – new research. The Conversation.

Anti-Slavery International. (2022, October 26). What is modern slavery?. Retrieved March 17, 2023, from

European Commission. (2021a). Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions empty on the EU strategy on combatting trafficking in human beings. 2021- 2025. In Eur-Lex (COM(2021) 171 final). Retrieved March 17, 2023, from

FBI. (2022, August 26). Human trafficking/involuntary servitude. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

UNODC. (2009). Global report on trafficking in persons. In United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Retrieved March 17, 2023, from

UNODC. (n.d.). Human Trafficking FAQs. United Nations: Office on Drugs and Crime. Retrieved March 17, 2023, from

UNODC. (2010). Trafficking in Persons to Europe for sexual exploitation. In United Nations. United Nations. Retrieved March 17, 2023, from

U.S. Department of Justice. (2022, September 28). What is human trafficking?. Retrieved March 17, 2023, from

World Population Review. (n.d.). Countries that still have slavery 2023. Retrieved March 17, 2023, from

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Greta Nachajova

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