Trafficking in persons: Weak governance and growing profits

This chapter explores one of the most lucrative forms of organised crime: trafficking in persons. It focuses on the magnitude of the crime in terms of both profit and the number of victims, the transnational nature of trafficking in persons, and takes stock of progress in enforcement of the anti-trafficking laws in place. In addition, the chapter presents a number of efforts that have been made to combat trafficking in persons in terms of international and regional conventions, legislation from national governments and private sector initiatives.

Illicit trade is a multi-billion-dollar business (Table 1.1) and an increasing concern for countries. It ranges from trade in counterfeit pharmaceuticals, electronics and cigarettes to, among other things, trade in drugs, wildlife, and humans. From an economic perspective, all these activities divert money from governments’ tax revenue and the balance sheets of legitimate businesses and put cash in the hands of criminals, who build larger illicit networks (see, e.g. Luna, 2012). Illicit trade threatens the level playing field, economic growth, sustainable development, social cohesion, security and stability. Since illicit trade is a global problem, it cannot be solved by individual governments. Instead, bilateral, regional and international co-operation and initiatives are needed.

Table 1.1. Estimated value of illicit international trade, 2011


Estimated value of illicit international trade


USD 320 billion


USD 31.6 billion


USD 7.8-10 billion

Counterfeit total

USD 250 billion

Counterfeit pharmaceuticals

USD 35-40 billion

Counterfeit electronics

USD 50 billion

Counterfeit cigarettes

USD 2.6 billion

Human organs

USD 614 million to USD 1.2 billion

Small arms and light weapons

USD 300 million to USD 1 billion

Diamonds and colored gemstones

USD 860 million


USD 10.8 billion


USD 7 billion


USD 4.2-9.5 billion

Art and cultural property

USD 3.4-6.3 billion


USD 2.3 billion


USD 639-651 billion


USD 650 billion

Note: In 2015, the International Labour Organization published a new estimate of the total illicit profits produced in one year by trafficked forced labourers. This new estimate of USD 150 billion was not available during the time of publication of the study that the above table references. The table should therefore only be used as an indication of the relative values of the different markets of illicit trade, and not as a reference in relation to the absolute amounts.

Source: Haken, J. (2011). Transnational Crime in The Developing World, Global Financial Integrity, Washington, DC, p. 56, transnational crime web.pdf.

The UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol defines the crime of trafficking in persons as consisting of 1) acts such as recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring, receipt of a person, by 2) means of abduction, fraud, deception, coercion, abuse of power or a position of vulnerability and others for the 3) purpose of exploitation, including sexual exploitation, forced labour, and the removal of organs.1 Trafficking in persons differs from smuggling of migrants, which refers to “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident” (“Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air”) - with its focus on illegal border crossings. Trafficking in persons instead centres around human rights violations through exploitation, most commonly the right to personal autonomy, the right not to be held in slavery or servitude, the right to liberty and security of persons, the right to be free from cruel or inhumane treatment, the right to safe and healthy working conditions and the freedom of movement (GTZ, 2008). However, in practice, it is not uncommon that what starts off as smuggling of migrants can turn into a situation of human trafficking. For example, a pre-determined fee for entering a country illegally can - once the border crossing has been completed - be raised to an amount that the migrant cannot afford. In order to pay off this increased fee, and under threats from the smuggler to report the migrant’s illegal border entry to the authorities, the migrant can end up in a situation of forced labour or sexual exploitation, making this person a victim of trafficking.

Trafficking in persons has become one of the most lucrative forms of organised crime (Table 1.1) (see, e.g. Shelley, 2010). It is estimated that trafficking in persons and slavery is the third most lucrative illicit business in the world after arms and drugs trafficking (Arlacchi, 2000). ILO estimates that the total illicit profits produced per year by trafficked forced labourers are about USD 150 billion (Table 1.2). Out of these USD 150 billion, forced sexual exploitation is estimated to generate USD 99 billion per year, and forced labour exploitation, including domestic work, agriculture and other economic activities, an estimated USD 51 billion (ILO, 2015).

Table 1.2. Estimated average annual profits generated by trafficked forced labourers

Annual profit per victim of forced labour per region (USD)

Annual profits of forced labour per region (USD billions)


5 000


Developed economies and European Union

34 800


Central and South-Eastern Europe and CIS

12 900



3 900


Latin America and the Caribbean

7 500


Middle East

15 000




Source: ILO. (2015), Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour, ILO, Geneva, p. 14.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour2 globally (ILO, 2012). At the EU level, data from the 2015 edition of the Eurostat report on statistics on trafficking in human beings shows that 30 146 victims were registered in the 28 EU Member States between 2010 and 2012. Some 80% of these victims were female, and 69% of the total number of victims registered were trafficked for sexual exploitation (Eurostat, 2015).

Trafficking in persons is often transnational in nature, with 66% of trafficking victims being trafficked across borders. However, 40% of detected victims are trafficked from a country in the same region as the country of destination or from a nearby subregion, and only about a quarter (26%) are trafficked across different regions (UNODC, 2014). Between 2010 and 2012, 97% of detected victims in the East Asia and Pacific region were from within the region or the country (Figure 1.1). Eurostat data also supports this finding. Between 2010 and 2012, 65% of registered victims in the European Union were EU citizens (Eurostat, 2015). This finding would support a focus on regional co-operation to combat TIP, with the exception of North Africa and the Middle East.

Figure 1.1. Share of detected victims who were trafficked within or from outside the region, 2010-12

Source: UNODC (2014), Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014, United Nations, New York, p. 39, 2014 full report.pdf.

Of 173 countries covered by the UNODC’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014, 146 countries had a specific offence in their domestic legislation covering most or all forms of trafficking in persons. However, 9 countries had no legislation in place, and 18 countries had partial legislation in place, leaving 2 billion people without the full protection of the Trafficking in Persons Protocol (UNODC, 2014).

Despite the evident global concern over trafficking in persons, progress in enforcement remains limited. According to the UNODC (2014), 15% of the countries that have included TIP as a specific offense did not record a single conviction in the period 2010-12. Similar trends were recorded in the period 2007-10 (see Figure 1.2). In the European Union, Eurostat data show that 8 805 prosecutions for trafficking in human beings were reported between 2010 and 2012 in the European Union, with 2 855 convictions (Eurostat, 2015).

Figure 1.2. Number of trafficking convictions recorded per year, 2007-10

Source: UNODC (2012), Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012, United Nations, New York, p. 86, 2012.html.

The US Department of State collects worldwide data on trafficking prosecutions, convictions and sentences and estimates that in 2014 there were 10 051 prosecutions and 4 443 convictions globally (Table 1.3). The low conviction rate overall reveals difficulty in successfully prosecuting the underlying offenses. In addition, the low ratio of prosecutions to number of victims identified could imply that some regions are particularly inactive - although this low ratio could also be explained by traffickers in these regions victimising a higher volume of persons.

Table 1.3. Law enforcement data by region, 2014



Victims identified



317 (33)

9 523 (1 308)

East Asia and Pacific

1 938 (88)

969 (16)

6 349 (1 084)


4 199 (197)

1 585 (69)

11 910 (3 531)

Near East

320 (5)

144 (25)

3 388 (2 460)

South and Central Asia

1 839 (12)

958 (10)

4878 (1 041)

Western Hemisphere

944 (67)

470 (63)

8 414 (2 014)


10 051 (418)

4443 (216)

44462 (11 438)

Note: The above statistics are estimates only, given the lack of uniformity in national reporting structures. The numbers in parentheses are those of labour trafficking prosecutions, convictions, and victims identified. The number of victims identified includes information from foreign governments and other sources.

Source: US Department of State (2015), Trafficking in Persons Report July 2015, US Department of State, Washington, DC, pp. 55-60.

The data that are collected worldwide by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the different national and local agencies tasked with working on trafficking in persons need to be systematically collected, aggregated, and shared at both the national and regional level. The availability of this information would make it possible to strengthen policies designed to prevent trafficking and protect victims, increase prosecutions, and evaluate whether the money invested to combat human trafficking has had the desired impact or could be better spent in the future. An economic analysis could provide insights into the functioning of trafficking markets for persons, and where policy interventions could usefully undermine the prevailing incentive structures. Donors and governments need to know what public policies work and what has proven sub-optimal.

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