Research Article: Where Human Trafficking Meets Migration

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

Human trafficking is a practice that has existed for centuries, but modern technology and global developments have greatly impacted the issue. Travel has become easier between countries, and communication avenues have increased, enabling additional human trafficking opportunities. Many assume that sex trafficking is the only major area of concern, but labor trafficking is also a pressing problem due to globalization and corporate expansion. Dr. Annalisa Enrile, clinical associate professor at USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, stated: “When we talk about trafficking, most people assume we are just talking about sex. But there are actually more people enslaved through labor trafficking. Millions more. Impoverished communities, migrant workers and children are all at risk for indentured servitude, forced labor and other forms of labor trafficking” (Fisher, 2017).

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) legally defines human trafficking as the following: 

a. “Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or 

b. The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery (8 U.S.C. § 1101)” (Clawson et al., 2017).

Human Trafficking and the U.S.

The United States is a large consumer of both sex and labor exploitative services yet possesses little domestic or international human trafficking research. “The data and methodologies for estimating the prevalence of human trafficking globally and nationally are not well developed, and therefore estimates have varied widely and changed significantly over time. The U.S. State Department has estimated that approximately 600,000 to 800,000 victims are trafficked annually across international borders worldwide and approximately half of these victims are younger than age 18” (Clawson et al., 2017). Researchers know less about labor trafficking than sex trafficking, but an International Labor Organization study found that “girls are more likely to be trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and domestic services, and boys tend to be trafficked for forced labor in commercial farming, petty crimes, and the drug trade” (Clawson et al., 2017)

The current Trump Administration has made a notable effort to recognize and address human trafficking. The issue, however, has become convoluted with immigration agendas. Domestic tensions have erupted over tightened border policies, and immigrants have been at the forefront of the disputes. Many conservatives depict immigrants in a negative light and blame them for violence and trafficking issues while many liberals view migrants as an important part of the economy. While there is a non-exclusive link between immigration and human trafficking, it is the lack of human trafficking research has resulted in a poor understanding and naïve assumptions about the topic. In the midst of the immigration debate, trafficking victims have been pulled into political agendas, lumped into immigration statistics, and often dismissed and deported as immigrants.

Where Human Trafficking and Migration Meet

Globalization has factored into the nexus between migration and trafficking, while international financial gaps create the need for migrants to seek higher wages outside their home countries. “The wealth disparities created by our globalized economy have fed increased intra- and transnational labor migration as livelihood options disappear in less wealthy countries and communities” (Chuang, 2006, pg. 140). Not only are better job opportunities a motivator for migrants, but many are also escaping life-threatening social, political, and economic conditions in their countries. People who are migrating from conflict areas can easily fall into human trafficking traps. Some people are promised jobs in the United States, and traffickers later confiscate passports and exploit them for sex or labor work. Kate Kennedy, managing director of the Freedom Fund, states, “The reasons for human trafficking are complicated. Three of the main factors include: 1) the economic demand for extremely cheap labor, 2) lack of individual liberty or marginalization and 3) weak rule of law. And until those are addressed, we will not see improvement” (Fisher, 2017).

Human Trafficking Research

In order to better understand how migration and human trafficking intersect, it is important to gain more research on human trafficking. Unfortunately, a United Nations Office on Drug and Crime report reveals that countries do not have a firm grip or understanding on human trafficking issues. The UNODC recently collected data from 155 countries, and it was the “first global assessment of the scope of human trafficking” presenting an “overview of trafficking patterns” (UNODC, 2009). The report found that many countries refuse to even recognize the problem of human trafficking. Antonio Maria Costa, the former Executive Director of UNODC, stated: “Many governments are still in denial. There is even neglect when it comes to either reporting on, or prosecuting cases of human trafficking” (UNODC, 2009). Two out of every five countries researched in the report had not documented any convictions, even though human trafficking convictions are shown to be rising.

A 2003 U.N. Commission report revealed similar findings in relevance to the Balkans’ human trafficking policies. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in counter-trafficking efforts, including contributions from the United States that amounted to $96 million within just one year. However, “there was no evidence of a significant decrease in trafficking or increase in the number of assisted victims or number of traffickers punished” (Chuang, 2006, pg. 157). More research is needed around human trafficking while the current studies challenge the effectiveness of traditional counter-trafficking policies.

“The problem of trafficking begins not with the traffickers themselves, but with the conditions that caused their victims to migrate under circumstances rendering them vulnerable to exploitation. Human trafficking is but ‘an opportunistic response’ to the tension between the economic necessity to migrate, on the one hand, and the politically motivated restrictions on migration, on the other” (Chuang, 2006, pg. 140). Barbara Limanowska, Senior Gender Mainstreaming Expert at the European Institute for Gender Equality, conducted a study on trafficking prevention and relief efforts in southeastern Europe (SEE). Her findings revealed that SEE countries had “a tendency to adopt ‘repressive’ prevention strategies. They ‘focus on suppressing the negative (or perceived as negative) phenomena related to trafficking, such as [undocumented migration] . . . illegal and forced labor, prostitution, child labor or organized crime.’ Common strategies include bar raids, computerized border checks and databases that register the names of undocumented migrants, and public awareness campaigns that broadcast to the general public the risks of trafficking” (Chuang, 2006, pg. 154). Limanowska concluded “there is no comprehensive long-term prevention strategy for the region, nor any clear understanding of what such a strategy should include” (Chuang, 2006, pg. 154).

President Trump has not only created certain narratives around immigration, but he has also placed a large emphasis on policies that have stirred major domestic controversy. Between a U.S.–Mexico border wall, separation of families, and asylum protocols, there has been much debate over the Administration’s strict immigration policies. Critics say that recent changes to the immigration systems are immoral, unethical, unlawful, and compromise the safety of immigrants and asylum seekers. The Administration argues that tightening immigration laws are just and intended to deter people from entering the southern border.

In the midst of these immigration debates, human trafficking relief efforts often get caught in the crosshairs. In October of 2019, the Trump Administration announced it would delay human-trafficking funds that could support U.S. citizens andmigrants. “The Trump administration abruptly delayed a $13.5 million grant to house human trafficking victims just five days after saying that ‘non-citizens’ could be served by the program. The program's funds, which were approved two years ago by multiple federal agencies, are now in limbo with no indication when money will be distributed and no public explanation for the change” (Khimm & Strickler, 2019). The budget had been allocated towards victim housing, emergency shelters, and mental and emotional health services. The delay was followed by the President’s commitment to leverage “every resource we have to confront this threat, to support the victims and survivors, and to hold traffickers accountable for their heinous crimes” (The White House, 2019). The President’s decision to postpone funding, however, doesn’t align with his statement and penalizes the organizations and victims who have been relying on the budget.

Current U.S. Policy

When analyzing the relationship between human trafficking and migration, research shows that restrictive immigration policies can potentially be harmful to human trafficking victims. Intensified U.S. immigration policies are law and order oriented and not necessarily victim-focused. They can often deprive trafficking victims of justice measures and hinder the prosecution of traffickers. Sarah Mehta, a human rights researcher for the ACLU, explained, “Heightened immigration enforcement will push people underground and create a significant chilling effect on reporting labour abuses…There are consequences for all workers, including US citizens, when the ability to organise and report abuses is thwarted by the threat of deportation” (Hodal, 2017).

Global risk analysts Verisk Maplecroft released a 2017 report that echoed Mehta’s concern: “Undocumented migrant labourers in the US will become more vulnerable to human rights abuses due to White House immigration policies that will push them ‘under the radar’… a US-Mexico border wall would increase criminal trafficking fees, leaving migrants more deeply mired in debt and vulnerable to exploitation” (Verisk Maplecroft, 2017). The report explained that many undocumented immigrants are already hard to account for, and pushing them off the radar (due to fear of deportation) would compromise voluntary and mandatory company reporting. Furthermore, when companies can’t account for immigrant members of their workforce, those workers become at risk for modern slavery.

Strict U.S. immigration policies can also potentially support criminal traffickers. Many traffickers will confiscate immigrant passports and use the threat of deportation as leverage over workers. “In addition, some aliens have had their immigration documents confiscated by the traffickers as a form of control. The lack of immigration status may prevent victims from seeking help, and may interfere with the ability of the victim to provide testimony during a criminal trial” (Siskin & Wyler, 2013).

When the United States does not address human trafficking from a socioeconomic standpoint and focuses primarily on criminal justice solutions, it can exasperate these issues. “The tension between economic reality and political expedience thus fosters conditions that enable and promote human trafficking. In reducing the opportunities for regular migration, these policies provide greater opportunities for traffickers, who are ‘fishing in the stream of migration,’ to take advantage of the confluence of survival migrants’ need for jobs, on the one hand, and the unrelenting market demand for cheap labor, on the other” (Chuang, 2006, pg. 154).

Potential Solutions

Understanding that human trafficking and migration can be intrinsically linked is the first step in addressing trafficking issues. Policymakers need to recognize root causes and craft laws from a victim-oriented, human rights standpoint. “Although there is a growing awareness of a need for stronger protection of trafficked persons’ human rights, current models of protection continue to

prioritize the needs of law enforcement over the rights of trafficked persons” (Chuang, 2006, pg. 152). Additional research and the following policies could help combat human trafficking practices and further support victims:

1. Provide funding and support for domestic and international organizations that work directly with human trafficking victims and challenges.

2. Decriminalize commercial, consensual sex between adults. Implement the “Nordic model” that Sweden first adopted in 1999: “This is a set of laws that penalizes the demand for commercial sex while simultaneously decriminalizing individuals in prostitution” (Equality Now, 2019).

3. Provide “immunity from prosecution and protection from deportation for those who are trafficked could lead to extensive evidence and testimony against organized crime figures” (Balaam and Dillman, 2014, pg. 401).

4. Create more “guest worker” programs for migrants. “Labor migration is an inherent part of globalization, and states can reduce illicit flows by simply allowing more legal flows. Labor-importing countries would gain valuable, young, low-cost workers, and labor exporters would boost remittance flows to their economies (Balaam and Dillman, 2014, pg. 401).


The United States is a top consumer for illegal sex and labor services, and it has the potential to lead the way in human trafficking research. With little information on trafficking practices, it is difficult to create effective policies. Furthermore, many current trafficking policies are being challenged by the existing studies and research. It is important to take into consideration how migration intersects with human trafficking, and lawmakers must understand how immigration laws affect trafficking victims. Understanding the complexities of trafficking and how it is affected by migration can help create comprehensive policies, ones that more effectively address the massive scope of human trafficking and those who bear the burden of the industry.


Citation Index

Balaam, David N., and Bradford Dillman. Introduction to International Political Economy. Boston: Pearson, 2014.

Chuang, Janie. “Beyond a Snapshot: Preventing Human Trafficking in the Global Economy.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, January 1, 2006.

Clawson, Heather J., Nicole Dutch, Amy Solomon, and Lisa Goldblatt Grace. “Human Trafficking Into and Within the United States: A Review of the Literature.” ASPE, February 21, 2017.

Fisher, Nicole. “Human Trafficking Is In Plain Sight. Are You Supporting It Without Knowing?” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, September 28, 2017.

Hodal, Kate. “'A Gift to Human Traffickers': Report Warns of Dangers of Trump Immigration Policy.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, March 10, 2017.

Khimm, Suzy, and Laura Strickler. “Trump Admin Delays Funds for Human-Trafficking Victims That Would Help Non-Citizens.” NBCUniversal News Group, October 4, 2019.

“President Donald J. Trump Has Made It a Priority to Combat the Heinous Crime of Human Trafficking.” The White House. The United States Government, 2019.

Ragnhild.johansen. “United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.” Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, February 2009.

Scott, Eugene. “Analysis | Trump's Most Insulting - and Violent - Language Is Often Reserved for Immigrants.” The Washington Post. WP Company, October 2, 2019.

Siskin, Alison Sun, and Liana Sun Wyler. “Trafficking in Persons: U.S. Policy and Issues for Congress.” Trafficking in Persons: U.S. Policy and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2013.

“ Website Modernization - United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, 2005.

“US Migrant Clampdown and Slavery Are Top Human Rights Risks.” Verisk Maplecroft, March 9, 2017.

United States Department of State, Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center. (2006). Fact sheet: Distinctions between human smuggling & human trafficking. Retrieved from

“What Is Sex Trafficking?” Equality Now, 2019.

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