Basics of Human Trafficking

Most Americans today think that slavery is a thing of the past. The word “slavery” brings to mind images of Southern cotton fields in the 1850’s, with Africans forced to toil without pay on the plantations, under fear of lashing or worse.

But slavery did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery still exists today. It has simply taken on a new and more all-encompassing name: human trafficking.

Approximately 27 million people are in slavery today. This is the largest absolute number of slaves that there has ever been in human history. By comparison, about 6 million people were taken from Africa to the New World and enslaved during the entire eighteenth century.

Human trafficking is the fastest-growing transnational crime. There is debate about whether human trafficking is currently the second- or third-largest transnational crime (after drug trafficking and perhaps arms trafficking), but if it has not already, it will shortly overtake arms trafficking for the number two spot. Human trafficking is a tremendously lucrative criminal business, estimated to generate at least $32 billion annually (more than Google, Nike, and Starbucks combined).

Between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year, to say nothing of the millions trafficked within their own countries. About 80% of trafficking victims are women and girls, and about 50% are children.

Human trafficking is illegal everywhere, but happens everywhere. Sex trafficking and labor trafficking are the two main forms of human trafficking, and in practice they often (some would say usually) overlap to some degree. See Types of Human Trafficking for more information.

Globalization has steadily lowered the price of slaves around the world today. Whereas in 1850 in the American South a slave cost around $40,000 (adjusted to today’s money), the average price of a slave in the world today is a mere $90. Human trafficking expert Kevin Bales points out that this drop in the price of slaves has made them increasingly “disposable,” since it is relatively cheap and easy to replace them. Thus, if a trafficked person gets sick, pregnant, or old, they are simply discarded and replaced.


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