What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons (TIP), is a modern-day form of slavery where a person is selling or exploiting another person for sexual purposes, labor purposes, or organs. It is a crime under federal and international law.  It is also a crime in the majority of U.S. states.

Is human trafficking another word for smuggling?

No. There are many fundamental differences between the crimes of human trafficking and human smuggling. Both are entirely separate federal crimes in the U.S. Most notably, smuggling is a crime against a country’s borders, whereas human trafficking is a crime against a person. Also, while smuggling requires illegal border crossing, human trafficking involves commercial sex acts or labor or services that are induced through force, fraud, or coercion.  Unlike smuggling, human trafficking does not require transportation.

Is it a crime that must involve travel across state or national borders?

No. Although the word ‘trafficking’ sounds like movement, the federal definition of human trafficking in the U.S. does not require transportation. While transportation is not a requirement of human trafficking, it may often be used as a control mechanism.

Does physical violence have to be involved in human trafficking cases?

No. Under federal law, an individual who uses physical or psychological violence to force someone into labor or services or into commercial sex acts is considered a human trafficker. Therefore, while some victims experience beatings, rape, and other forms of physical violence, many victims are controlled by traffickers through psychological means, such as threats of violence, manipulation, and lies. In many cases, traffickers use a combination of direct violence and mental abuse.  The federal definition of the crime, as defined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, was created to address the wider spectrum of methods of control used by traffickers beyond “bodily harm.”

Who are the victims?

There is not one consistent face of trafficking victim.  Trafficked persons in the United States can be men or women, adults or children, foreign nationals or US citizens.  Some are well-educated, while others have no formal education.

While anyone can become a victim of trafficking, certain populations are especially vulnerable.  These may include: undocumented migrants; runaway and homeless youth; and oppressed, marginalized, and/or impoverished groups and individuals.  Traffickers specifically target individuals in these populations because they are vulnerable to recruitment tactics and methods of control.

Undocumented immigrants in the US are highly vulnerable due to a combination of factors, including: lack of legal status and protections, language barriers, limited employment options, poverty and immigration-related debts, and social isolation.  They are often victimized by traffickers from a similar ethnic or national background, on whom they may be dependent for employment or a means of support.

Under the federal definition, are victims only foreign nationals or immigrants?

No. The federal definition of human trafficking includes both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals – both are protected under the federal trafficking law and have been since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Human trafficking encompasses both transnational trafficking that crosses borders and domestic or internal trafficking that occurs within a country. Statistics about trafficking, estimates of the scope of trafficking, and descriptions of trafficking should be mindful to include both transnational and internal trafficking to be most accurate.

Do victims always come from a low-income or poor background?

No. Human trafficking victims can come from a range of backgrounds and some may come from middle and upper class families. Poverty is one of many factors that make individuals vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.

Who is at risk of becoming a victim of human trafficking?

The short answer is, no one is immune. Human trafficking victims can be men or women, adults or children, and foreign nationals or U.S. citizens. Trafficking is a crime that cuts across race, nationality, gender, age, and socio-economic background. However, human traffickers typically prey on individuals who are vulnerable in some way. Some examples of high risk populations include undocumented migrants, runaways and at-risk youth, impoverished persons, and oppressed or marginalized groups.

How many human trafficking victims are there in the United States?

Due to the covert nature of the crime and high levels of under-reporting, the total number of victims of human trafficking within the United States is still being researched by the government and academic researchers.  However, a range of estimates have been released by some government agencies and non-governmental organizations.

Do victims self-identify as a victim of a crime and ask for help immediately?

Often no. Victims of human trafficking often do not seek help immediately, due to a variety of factors including lack of trust, self-blame, having nowhere to return to, sustaining an alcohol or drug addiction by staying, or being directly trained by traffickers to distrust authorities.

Does human trafficking only occur in illegal underground industries?

While human trafficking does occur in illegal and underground markets, it can also occur in legal and legitimate settings. For example, common locations of human trafficking include private homes, hotels, nail salons, restaurants, bars, strip clubs, and massage parlors.

How is pimping a form of sex trafficking?

If certain behaviors and elements of control are present, yes, it can be.  In the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, a severe form of sex trafficking is a crime in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age. Pimps, who are motivated by the opportunity to make money, sell women, men, boys, and girls in the commercial sex industry by using numerous methods to gain control over their bodies and minds.  Many of these behaviors directly meet the definitions of force, fraud, or coercion that are the central elements of the crime of human trafficking.  It is often difficult to identify a pimp who is not using some form of deceit, lies, manipulation, threats, or violence towards the victims they are attempting to control.  An elaborated list of these controlling behaviors of pimps is provided below:


  • Beating and slapping
  • Beating with objects (bat, tools, chains, belts, hangers, canes, cords)
  • Burning
  • Sexual assault
  • Rape and gang rape
  • Confinement and physical restraint


  • False promises
  • Deceitful enticing and affectionate behavior
  • Lying about working conditions
  • Lying about the promise of a better life, “selling a dream”


  • Threats of serious harm or restraint
  • Intimidation and humiliation
  • Creating a climate of fear
  • Enforcement of trivial demands
  • Occasional Indulgences
  • Intense manipulation
  • Emotional abuse
  • Isolation
  • Creating dependency and fear of independence

Are there pimps who offer protection to girls in the sex industry?

No. Contrary to common perceptions, pimps often do not offer protection, and they are not benevolent managers. These images of a pimp are often romanticized and glamorized and are far from the actual reality of how pimps behave.  Instead, pimps usually take all of the money and typically establish nightly monetary quotas that women, men, and children are forced to earn in order to avoid violent repercussions. Pimps even “brand” those under their control with tattoos of their name to demonstrate ownership.

How do I get a copy of the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report?

The Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report is published annually by the Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.  An electronic archive of previous TIP Reports can be accessed at http://www.state.gov/g/tip/.  You can also contact the State Department office directly at 202-312-9639 to request a free hard copy of the report.

(provided courtesy of polarisproject.org)