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  • Writer's pictureAntonia Boorman

Human Trafficking: Common Misconceptions and Actual Realities

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

[Sex Work Series] Paper 2: Human Trafficking: Common Misconceptions and Actual Realities A social, political and legislative analysis of human trafficking: How perceptions of human trafficking differ from realities and how border, immigration, and citizenship laws affect levels of human trafficking.


Human trafficking, also known as modern-day slavery, is one of the current injustices in the world. There are an estimated 40.3 million people enslaved in the world today (Unseen UK, 2019). Due to the nature of human trafficking of secrecy and concealment, it is incredibly hard to identify and thus reduce. There are many misconceptions surrounding trafficking which influence policy and redirect the focus away from the crux of the causes, which I hypothesise to be migration policy. For example, a common misconception surrounding human trafficking, which is widely influenced by the portrayal of human trafficking in films and media, is that it is synonymous with kidnap and physical captivity when in reality, it is more associated with migration, citizenship, and border policy.

Within this paper, I will be exploring my hypothesis that immigration, border and citizenship legislation significantly affect the levels of human trafficking and that therefore a policy reform in this sector can reduce human trafficking levels. For example, some people voluntarily agree to be smuggled even when they are aware that they will be exploited on arrival, as immigration laws are so strict and inflexible, that illegal and dangerous crossing is still a preferred option. Another example is how some traffickers benefit from visa laws that tie workers to the company meaning that they can exploit workers who will not report them as the victims themselves will instead be deported. As the last example, due to some citizenship laws, migrants are subject to the law but not entitled to it, therefore they aren’t protected from exploitation in the same way citizens are ie. through labor unions. These are some of the outcomes that occur from different legislation currently in place which, arguably, could be quite easy to overcome with policy reform. The aim of this paper is to analyse why these misconceptions exist, how they impact policy, the actual causes of human trafficking, and how specific policy can be reformed to reduce the levels of human trafficking today.

What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the 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” (Article 3, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, 2000).

There are different forms of human trafficking; forced labor, sex trafficking¹, debt bondage, domestic servitude, and use of child soldiers (UNODC, 2019). There are three main elements of trafficking; force, fraud, and coercion. Force concerns when victims are controlled through violence from their oppressor; fraud concerns when victims are controlled through deception or withholding information; and coercion is when threats are used to control victims. A common misconception is that all trafficking victims are locked away, chained to beds, and unable to escape their physical confines. This does exist, however, it is more common that trafficking victims are economically, politically, or psychologically trapped instead.

It is important to note that human trafficking is different from migrant smuggling. A person can be illegally smuggled into a country but it only consists of trafficking if the is ongoing non-consensual exploitation of the person occurring, through the forms outlined above (UNODC, 2019). Trafficking isn’t always across international borders either, it can occur within a countries’ boundaries; as long as there is an act, means and a purpose occurring it is deemed trafficking (UNODC, 2019)². The act concerns the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons” (Article 3, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, 2000). When this act is combined with a means of force, fraud or coercion, for exploitation through slavery, prostitution, forced labor, etc, then it is officially deemed as human trafficking under the Trafficking in Persons Protocol (UNODC, 2019). It is crucial to explicitly understand this definition of trafficking as otherwise misconceptions, such as defining trafficking as synonymous with kidnapping, can occur and redirect the conversation away from the reform of the actual root causal factors of migration, border and citizenship policy problems.

Traffickers target vulnerability. This can be those in desperate poverty, those displaced, those unable to access other employment, those fleeing wars or oppression, runaway children and naive teenagers, those displaced or homeless, and those who lack knowledge or experience (Hartmann, 2018). The main commonality for these people is that they are in desperation and are easily led which can result in exploitation (Hartmann, 2018). For example, the Exodus Project gave examples of those who may be easily tricked and thus targeted; “a teenager who is approached by a trafficker may accept an attractive job offer, seeing it as a great opportunity at such a young age. An immigrant who arrives in a foreign country may not understand his or her rights, may be unfamiliar with the nation’s laws, or may not know the national language” (Hartmann, 2018, para. 8). Similarly, those who are psychologically desperate or vulnerable may be targeted too, such as runaways, abandoned children, and homeless people (Hartmann, 2018). Usually, these people live in social isolation and crave love and acceptance, which many traffickers use as a lure (Hartmann, 2018).

How and why does it occur?

Common Misconceptions: Media and Film

A major problem is the societal portrayal of human trafficking. As alluded to before, many assume that human trafficking is a form of kidnap, where a young girl is hand-cuffed to a bed or people are beaten like slaves forced to work in fields out in the hot sun for long treacherous hours. This does occur, unfortunately, yet it is only one of many forms of how human trafficking occurs. This misconception is further propagated by the modern anti-trafficking campaigns depicting “a white girl held captive by a black man: he is a dark hand over her mouth or a looming, shadowy figure behind her” (Mac & Smith, 2018, p.118), as depicted below. Victims are depicted as young white girls, “pre-pubescent, in pigtails or hair ribbons, holding teddy bears” (Mac & Smith, 2018, p.119) crafted to highlight their innocence. This again is problematic as it narrows the perception of who are the victims of human trafficking.

Figure 1: Picture portraying sex trafficking with the popular image as described by Mac & Smith (2018).

Note: Sourced from Community Policing Newsletter (Burke, 2015).

A popular mainstream media film depicting the Hollywood version of human trafficking is Taken (2008). Taken depicts sex trafficking as “a context-free evil, a kidnap at random that could happen to anyone, anywhere” (Mac & Smith, 2018, p. 121), which as discussed above, is possible but rarely the reality. This portrayal is fine as a fictional film, yet for many in the public sphere this, and other media like it, is the only insight into trafficking they have, reinforcing the incorrect stereotyping into what human trafficking actually is and directs the conversation away from addressing the political issues surrounding migration and citizenship that are fixable through policy reform, “concern becomes focused on the evil wrongdoers rather than more systemic factors” (Anderson & Andrijasevic, 2009, p.135).

By focusing on this Hollywood view of kidnapped, chained victims, it narrates the initiative to help those by rescue missions; busting into the place where people are being exploited, breaking down doors and saving trafficking migrants, is the current norm as illustrated in US law (Mac & Smith, 2018). The HERO act (Human Exploitation Rescue Operations Act), which reinforces the Hollywood stereotype through it’s name of “hero”, trains US military veterans to partake in these rescue missions which involves saving trafficking victims by sending them home (Mac & Smith, 2018), which as discussed above is often exactly the opposite of what people want. People want to have their rights protected in the country they are in, rather than being deported back to a country they specifically left in desperation (Mac & Smith, 2018). The other forms of trafficking, outlined above, that are more aligned with economic and political issues surrounding migration are not commonly talked about in mainstream media. Therefore, society is left to assume only the former exists.

Many women have been psychologically manipulated into becoming sex workers. Again, these women are usually not physically trapped or handcuffed to beds, as widely portrayed in the media, but instead are manipulated by pimps looking to profit from them. When pimps or traffickers convince people that they are loved, cared for and are proving their loyalty or love by engaging in sex work (Mac & Smith, 2018). Many have been manipulated to crave the love and attention of their oppressors, which results in loyalty to them and a psychological desire to please, trapping them in exploitative circumstances. Therefore not being physically captive, but psychologically. This is deemed trafficking as it builds upon the coercion and exploitative aspects of human trafficking defined above. Abusive pimps can use different forms of psychological manipulation such as making the women financially dependent on them, scaring them with the prospect of violence or reporting them for arrest (which is true in countries who adopt the criminalisation approach), using drug addiction to keep the women dependent on the pimps to get their next hit, or lastly, tricking them with the impression that the pimp is their loving, protective boyfriend and that sex work is a way for the women to prove their love and loyalty (Mac & Smith, 2018). Many have been manipulated to crave the love and attention of their oppressors, which results in loyalty to them and a psychological desire to please, trapping them in exploitative circumstances (Mac & Smith, 2018).

To reiterate, all of these forms are exploitative forms of coercion or manipulation, deeming this as sex trafficking, rather than consensual sex work. This is a very important distinction that I want to make extremely clear as there is an immense difference between women in the sex industry out of purely consensual choice, women in the sex industry consensually though influenced by economic need, and those who are being manipulated and trafficked. Confusing sex work and sex trafficking are problematic especially when the policy is involved as it can harm both victims of sex trafficking and sex work further, as illustrated by the SESTA (S.1693, 2017) and FOSTA (S.1865, 2017) laws in the United States. The SESTA (S.1693, 2017) and FOSTA (S.1865, 2017) laws ban sex work to be advertised on online platforms and prosecute the owners of the online platforms where these advertisements may be displayed to reduce the purchasing of sex work (Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2018). However, these acts have enacted controversy as there is no distinction between consensual sex work, which is legal in some states, and sex trafficking. These acts make it harder for sex workers to work safely by removing their ability to screen clients and negotiate terms beforehand, which can lead them to dangerous circumstances with strangers who could potentially be violent (Mac & Smith, 2018).

By removing the ability to advertise for sex, this doesn't reduce the amount of sex trafficking happening but instead forces it underground and to the secrecy of the black market, making it much harder for police officers to track and locate potential victims (Romano, 2018). According to a State Department report in 2016, the number of identified sex trafficking victims through online avenues has risen from 42,000 to 100,000 (US Department of State, 2016). This is out of an estimation of 600,000-800,000 people being trafficked annually (US Department of State, 2016). Therefore, by eliminating the ability to publicly post these advertisements, this directly impacts the ability of law enforcement to identify these victims online. In conclusion, the SESTA (S.1693, 2017) and FOSTA (S.1865, 2017) laws have not reduced sex trafficking but instead have just further harmed sex workers and made sex trafficking victims harder to locate (Romano, 2018), which illustrates how detrimental misconceptions surrounding human trafficking can be especially when passed from a societal level to a political level.

Misconceptions surrounding human trafficking can be critical in influencing legislation, which if said legislation is based upon incorrect portrayals from the media can end up hurting victims more, for example, by enforcing laws that make it more difficult for sex trafficking to be detected such as the SESTA (S.1693, 2017) and FOSTA (S.1865, 2017) bills, or by scaring victims into staying silent through fear of incarceration through criminalisation of sex work or deportation, both of which hurt victims more while simultaneously directing the conversation away from the policy reform that could lead towards the reduction of human trafficking.

Actual Influences: Migration, Borders and Citizenship

When legal migration is complex, political, bureaucratic and expensive, it becomes very restrictive, making it difficult to comply with, and thus, increasing the commercial demand for smuggling. Many migrants consent to being smuggled into a country as the regular channels of migration are not possible for political or economic reasons. Due to restrictive border control, many migrants who are denied entry to a country and desperate to migrate due to fleeing oppressive dictatorships or seeking a better quality of life through improved access to healthcare, job opportunities, education, etc, agree to be smuggled and can be targeted for trafficking due to their vulnerability. The OHCHR has reported that there has been a direct relationship between the growth in trafficking rates with the rise in international demand for migrant workers (OHCHR, 2014). People who cannot use the regular channels of migration, due to the overly restrictive nature, become dependent on smugglers which sometimes leads to exploitative circumstances. If migrants are desperate enough to migrate into a country they will pay a smuggler a fee to smuggle them across the border. These fees are usually very high and transportation may be dangerous. For example, 39 people died due to overcrowding in a lorry when being smuggled into the UK (BBC, 2019). Yet due to desperation, this is still consented to and paid for. The aspect of consent to be smuggled and even paying for it is very important here as it is the polar opposite to the kidnapping perspective that is portrayed through the media.

When the migrants reach their destination however this is when they can be taken advantage of. Trafficking usually occurs after migrants have been smuggled into a country. This can be in the form of working without (or for very little) pay due to having to repay a debt to the smuggler, being trapped in exploitative labor practices due to the smuggler withholding their passports or threatening to report their illegal status to the police (which would result in deportation) or physical captivity. Experts claim that trafficking is often a mix of threat, violence, debt, and deception (Van den Anker and Doomernik, 2006). To again make explicit, trafficking is not smuggling, yet they are usually connected. Smugglers are those paid to take people across borders illegally, while traffickers are those who take advantage of people once they arrive (Van den Anker and Doomernik, 2006)³. The more vulnerable migrants, those who cannot afford to pay the smugglers’ fees, are more likely to be trafficked as they can incur debts to the smugglers, which are supposedly paid off through labor, prostitution, etc. The problem is that these debts sometimes come with arbitrary interest rates, meaning that many victims are trapped in exploitative circumstances unable to ever repay this debt. This debt is also sometimes passed on to children of the migrants, economically trapping people in a continuous life of slavery (Van den Anker & Doomernik, 2006).

One of the most troubling aspects of this is the inability of the trafficking victims to reach out to external sources due to migration and citizenship policies. If a person has come into a country illegally, they are extremely likely to be deported if they reach out to authorities, even to report abusive or exploitative circumstances. For many, deportation can sometimes be worse than their current exploitative circumstances as they left their home countries for specific desperate reasons ie. they left their home countries as a means of survival, not opportunity (Kaye, 2003). Therefore, trafficking victims are more likely to stay silent, which their exploiters are aware of, leaving them politically trapped (Mac & Smith, 2018). Traffickers can take advantage of vulnerable migrants due to the lack of protection for them under the law. Their vulnerability due to the lack of legal protection makes human trafficking very easy to do.

Even when migrants are granted work visas, this can also sometimes be problematic if tied to a specific company/manager, like in Ireland, Portugal, and the UK, as this allows for employers to exploit their migrant employees, who are deemed as trafficking victims in these cases, by threatening the removal of their legal work status which would result in deportation. In these countries, migrants cannot legally change jobs, meaning there is no escape from their abusive employers without losing their resident permits. They are dependent on their employers. There are no labor unions or legislation to protect them (Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, 2006). Conveniently, they are subject to the law but not protected by it. Visa dependency is a common issue among those trafficked illustrating that even legal migrants can be victims of trafficking. By including migrants as workers yet not as citizens, this means that they are excluded from welfare services accessible to those holding valid citizenship only. This can create social exclusion and reduces the likelihood of finding an escape from their exploitative situations (Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, 2006). Migrants are thereby dependent solely on internationally guaranteed human rights. This, however, doesn’t solve the primary issues. For example, the internationally guaranteed human rights protect migrants from excessively forceful deportations, but not from deportations in general. That is up to the state’s discretion (OHCHR, 2014).

Citizenship as a concept is a social and political construct (Anderson & Andrijasevic, 2009). It brings people together through in-grouping, uniting them in terms of identity and nationalism, yet this can also create out grouping, which is exclusionary by nature. Citizenship creates the social term of “migrant” which classifies a person as not-belonging. Citizenship is restrictive, as non-citizens are limited in terms of access to welfare, protection under the law and social cohesion. For example, in Sweden, non-documented migrants have no access to welfare including healthcare, housing, and education, which results in unnecessary and preventable deaths (Khosravi, 2010). Additionally, this exclusion and segregation can further intensify the aspect of otherness and target racism or discrimination (Anderson & Andrijasevic, 2009), all of which can make these migrants more vulnerable, desperate and make them targets for exploitation from traffickers.

The Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings has implemented the Palermo Protocol (Van den Anker, 2012), which allows human trafficking victims are entitled to Victims of Trafficking (VoT) which is temporary access to citizenship (Anderson & Andrijasevic, 2009). VoT status is extremely difficult to obtain, and even if obtained, it only allows for human trafficking victims to stay in the host country for a thirty-day grace period to decided whether or not to press charges against their traffickers (Anderson & Andrijasevic, 2009). Regardless of their decision to pursue prosecution or not, after the thirty days they will be, in the words of the UK Home Office, “reintegrated and resettled” (UK Home Office, 2019, p. 10), aka deported (Anderson & Andrijasevic, 2009). Therefore, even the little minimum legal protection offered to victims via VoT status, this will still result in deportation, which as explained above will act as a disincentive to victims to report their exploitative circumstances.

Policy Proposal

Based on the above discussion, there is a need for migration policy reform. This could come in a variety of forms and is contextually dependent on the country that implements it. Therefore, below is a list of my proposed policy reforms and their justifications.

Migration & Borders

Reducing global inequality and the systemic reasons one may leave a country (ie. poverty, war, political dictatorships, etc) would reduce the desire for people to leave. A cosmopolitan approach pursuing open borders, making migration more accessible, would also reduce the need for smuggling to occur. Both of which however are idealist situations and would take significant effort to pursue and establish with numerous philosophical and political tensions involved. A philosophical question applicable here would be whose responsibility is it to combat trafficking: the host country or the country which people are leaving? Perhaps both, or neither. My stance is towards a cosmopolitan approach where people should be protected with their human rights ensured regardless of citizenship status, which is why I’d argue for national governments of a host country where trafficking is occurring has a responsibility to protect the people within its borders, especially those being exploited, regardless of citizenship, and especially if the host country has the means to do so.

This is not a philosophical paper, but it is important to note my stance and bias when understanding my policy proposals to pursue less restrictive, complex and bureaucratic migration policies. Therefore, I propose to make migration policies less restrictive, complex and bureaucratic will allow for more migration to flow through the established legal channels reducing the need for migrant smuggling and thus reducing the vulnerability of migrants who may be subject to trafficking due to desperation to migrate. The influx of legal migrants could also increase the influx of labor which can be very beneficial to the economy, however, those opposing immigration could also argue that this could also lead to a strain on welfare provisions due to an increased population who now have eligibility to access welfare provisions. Overall, in terms of the reduction of human trafficking levels through the reduction of the need for smuggling, opening up the avenues for legal migration would allow for this and protect more people from exploitation.


The UNODC says that no person can legally hand themselves over to slavery (UNODC, 2019). This should be recognised in citizenship and visa policies. Granting victims of trafficking full citizenship access through the protection of rights under the law, similarly to birth-right citizens would be an ideal situation, however, this could be difficult to implement due to the large scale of the human trafficking problem and could arguably lead to a strain on governmental resources, again due to the increased population who now have eligibility to access welfare provisions. Another option would be to give victims of human trafficking refugee status. A refugee is defined as “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2019, para. 1) which could be deemed applicable if the victims in question were so desperate to leave their country they consented to be smuggled even with the potential of trafficking. Yet this may be problematic as there are many different types of trafficking and ways of becoming trafficked that applying refugee status may not be appropriate, and may not solve the issues regarding citizenship as they still may not be granted the same access as full citizens. Another, and perhaps more feasible, option would be to grant VoT visas that had similar legal status to other migrant visas ie. would be a year rather than thirty days, and could be upgraded to work or naturalisation visas. With citizenship, victims of trafficking would be able to be integrated into society, access the appropriate welfare they need and be able to leave their exploitative situations without fear of deportation.

Social Reform

My last proposal would not be politically, but socially, related. Social dynamics can cause powerful change through protests, revolutions, social and political movements, etc. Therefore, I suggest incentivising people to mobilise against human trafficking through education of the actual dynamics of human trafficking, rather than the Hollywood version currently portrayed. By educating citizens on the actual influences of human trafficking, through governmental or NGO distribution of accurate information, citizens can realise that the influences are more policy-related, and thus can stand for political action through voting, campaigning or social movements. Social reform in terms of changing these portrayals in the media and educating the general public of the actual issues and causes of human trafficking can be a step towards policy reform through increased civil engagement, protests and intentional use of voting power among the electoral in democratic countries to pressure governmental officials to change the legislation that further harms human trafficking victims.

To Conclude

The aim of this paper was to analyse why misconceptions surrounding human trafficking exist, how they impact policy, the actual causes of human trafficking, and how specific policy can be reformed to reduce the levels of human trafficking today. I explored how the media and film can negatively impact societal perception, which can even lead to a political level (ie. the FOSTA/SESTA, and the HERO act) directing the conversation away from the actual policy reforms that could help reduce trafficking by portraying incorrect information. I examined my hypothesis that migration and citizenship laws are the actual influencers on human trafficking, that immigration laws being too complex or restrictive, the lack of citizenship protection and the strict borders create the demand for smuggling, which traffickers take advantage of as described above. Reforming these laws could significantly reduce human trafficking levels as the demand for smuggling would be lowered making it harder to take advantage of migrants. Similarly, protecting human trafficking victims under the law within the country, rather than deporting them could enable victims to report their abusers / exploitative circumstances under the protection of the law knowing that they wouldn't be punished, via deportation, for doing so.

Therefore, I conclude that reforming the restrictiveness of borders, as well as migration and citizenship laws could significantly reduce the levels of people being exploited through human trafficking through the reasoning explained above, and additionally, reforming social misconceptions, especially those which directly influence policy, will allow for more civic engagement and support which could both aid the transition process into society and put public pressure on national governments to reform these ineffective laws.



¹ Within this analysis, I will be focusing on both human trafficking in general and sex trafficking as a specific form of human trafficking. To reiterate, sex trafficking is “the manipulation, coercion, or control of an adult engaging in a commercial sex act. The adult may consent to prostitution but be held in the exchange unwillingly due to unlawful debts. Any physical or psychological manipulation or force used to retain the individual is illegal and is considered trafficking” (Lamanna, 2018).

² For this paper, I will be focusing on those trafficked across borders in order to analyse how migration, borders and citizenship effects human trafficking.

³ To clarity, trafficking can occur within the borders of a country. Due to the prevalence of smuggling and the misconception of smuggling as trafficking, I chose to write this paragraph distinguishing them.




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