The impossibility of combatting Human trafficking: Definitions of human trafficking

Source : Informa Africa

The lure of a better life elsewhere and the rising in political instability in the Global South countries as well as Europe and the Middle East has led to the increase in trafficked human beings. The re-emergence of slavery has caused the author to strongly suggest that the end to human trafficking or the smuggling of migrants is not near. Defining human trafficking and smuggled migrants has proved to hinder efforts of combatting human trafficking.


Human trafficking has become one of the greatest threats to global human security and human rights of our time (Danailova-Trainor and Belser 2006). (Salt 2000, Graycar 1999). The usual point of departure for trafficking is that migrants are driven into vulnerable situations that push them to seek the services of traffickers. Another view is that of deception; victims are persuaded to believe that the traffickers can give them a better life due to their current home conditions. Trafficking has also been assumed to be a business run for profit maximisation and its commodity being humans.(Salt 2000, Horne 2011, Dey et al. 2013,). Regardless of either explanation to trafficking what is clear is that there is an emerging market for irregular migration services in which the intricacies are still relatively unknown and in turn, the consequence is the impossibility of combatting trafficking. Nonetheless, this is only one example of the multifaceted activity that is human trafficking. Existing literature on trafficking provides broad support for the above framework as well as other frameworks; many of the mechanisms used in the trafficking process and empirical knowledge of the effects of trafficking are still in the power of informed speculation. Consequently, this reveals that little has been done since trafficking’s re-emergence[1]

What is revealed in this essay is that the immense interest and concern for trafficking in the international, governmental, inter-governmental, non-governmental institutions, in the media, in social media and popular opinions is advancing quicker that theoretical understanding, empirical and statistical evidence. Gozdziak (2008) found that within academia 77% of 255 journal articles reviewed were not based on empirical research but relied heavily on overviews and commentaries. Further, the research on human trafficking is hindered by unverified statistics and estimates (Wong 2005). This further supports the idea that combatting trafficking is not possible as policy measures designed to stop trafficking are significantly undermined by insufficient evidence and instead may have unintended side effects.

Definitions of human trafficking hinder universal efforts to combat trafficking.

The Palermo Protocols (2000) outlines the international legal definitions of human trafficking and human smuggling for nation states to adopt in their national legislation against human trafficking and smuggling. Using the legal system to prosecute traffickers is often considered as a way to combat human trafficking. However, scholarly debate presents that this is not entirely effective due to the lack of a clear identification of the elements of human trafficking that constitute trafficking as unlawful regardless of the fact more than 90% of the world have legislation criminalising human trafficking (UNODC 2014). It is often believed that reviewing international conventions and protocol relating to human trafficking before reviewing national legislation and understanding each national situation is the best way to combat human trafficking globally. However, this essay rejects this and argues in favour of Dey et al.’s (2013) claim that international legislation is flawed and anti-trafficking intervention efforts have not been successful but instead have been damaging.

The protocolsdefinition such as coercion, exploitation, transportation, and the exercise of control over another (David 2008). Trafficking is defined to as violating human rights through exploitation (UNODC 2000). Moreover, distinctions between consensual or coerced work are often unclear, especially when taking into account the concept of cross-border transportation. The distinction between trafficking and smuggling is unclear and many aspects of each concept overlap. Smuggling is commonly defined as violating states rights through illegal border crossing (UNODC 2000). Thus, the differences in dealing with trafficking depend on how terms are used as several scholars argue that there is no distinction between the two concepts of smuggling and trafficking as trafficking may occur through the same mechanisms as smuggling (Aronowitz 2001, Vayrynen 2005, Budapest Group 1996). Van Zyl and Horne (2009) confirm that the current definitions of human trafficking are very broad and not distinctive and entail several factors for a person to be considered a victim of trafficking.

Nonetheless, due to the definitions of the protocols trafficking has now been largely associated with exploitative work complemented by human rights violations. Further, it is also at large described as a migration issue (Massey 2015). However, the failure in a clear definition of trafficking hinders governments, inter-governmental, non-governmental legislative and judicial frameworks to combat trafficking in international and national levels. Deeming combating trafficking impossible until there are a clear analysis and agreed statement of the definition and the concepts within the definitions.

This piece has identified the fundamental problems of human trafficking entrenched in its definition. The definitional uncertainties of trafficking allow each national country to adopt the Palermo protocol to best suit the current trafficking problems of the nations thus differentiating a trafficked human being from one country to another. A key example would be the trafficking of sex work in children, in the United Kingdom a 16year old can consent to have sex and this is not illegal whereas in India a 16-year-old is considered a child and it is against the law to have sex with a minor     (Dey et al. 2013). The dichotomy is in what is regarded as a child and what is the adult age. Such a dichotomy may hinder combatting child trafficking in sex work.

[1] Scholars have argued that trafficking is not a new phenomenon but has been a part of human existence for a long time and is as old as the concept of supply and demand (Bravo 2007, Feingold 2005). It has now reemerged because it has re-entered public consciousness and academia importance.



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