What is human trafficking? With so many mentions in the media nowadays one would think the meaning of the human trafficking should be clear. This is not the case however. The term is often used even when it is apparent that what is being described is not human trafficking at all. Indeed the term has led to so much confusion that there is sometimes a tendency among those advocating for the rights of its victims not to use it. Knowing the confusion caused by the term many have reverted to calling it by its older name. Quite simply human trafficking is slavery.
To distinguish it from its historical form today’s slavery is more often referred to as modern-day slavery. This raises the obvious question about just how different the slavery of the past is to the slavery of the present. Surprisingly it is not all that different, with the most marked difference being how historical slavery was often a state-sanctioned activity, something modern-day slavery could never be in today’s world.
Violence is a critical part of human trafficking. This violence takes many forms, but for the purposes of a simple informal definition one could understand human trafficking or modern-day slavery as: the use of force, deception or coercion to exploit human beings as commodities. This exploitation is sometimes motivated by greed for money, and at other times it is motivated by greed of a different variety. A much more elaborate definition is given in international law, under what is known as the Palermo Protocol. What is conspicuous by its absence from the simple informal definition provided is any reference to movement. This is because trafficking does not mean movement. It means trade, and historically when the term was used, as in the traffic in human beings, it meant the trade in human beings and not their movement. That trade can be domestic or trans-national.
Amidst the many reports on the current tragedy of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean are references to human traffickers and human trafficking. Interspersed with these references are others referring to human smugglers and to human smuggling. These reports are often inaccurate for several reasons. Human trafficking is not human smuggling, and the smuggling of human beings does not make one a human trafficker. Smuggling is often exploitative, while human trafficking is always exploitative, but even so they are exploitative in different ways. On one hand, the smuggler may take advantage of the migrant’s predicament to extract whatever monies she or he has available. The smuggler may also exploit the migrant by not fulfilling his end of the bargain in arranging movement. For the trafficker, on the other hand, movement may never feature in his exploitation of his victim. If it does feature, it is only a step in a much larger process directed towards his victim’s future exploitation as a slave. Consequently the reports on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean are often only partly right. Often what they describe is human smuggling, and not human trafficking.
Nonetheless caution is needed. While human smuggling is not human trafficking, that is not to say that those who are exploited by smugglers will not later be exploited by human traffickers. The vulnerability that meant one needed to be smuggled in the first place often creates an opportunity for human traffickers to exploit later on. Indeed it is a damning indictment of the current predicament surrounding migrants that many thousands of children, once smuggled into Europe to escape calamity at home, have disappeared into Europe's sex trade through the efforts of human traffickers.
With more than 40 million people now estimated to be victims of modern-day slavery worldwide understanding is important. Awareness has certainly improved over the course of the past decade. Comprehension however remains quite impoverished. Nowhere is this more evident than in media reports which mistake human smuggling for human trafficking.