In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Human Trafficking

  • Introduction
  • Human Trafficking 101: General Overview/Basic Facts
  • Labor Trafficking
  • Sex Trafficking and Demand Dynamics: Understanding Perpetrators, Buyers, and Exploiters
  • Best Practices: Working with Victims of Human Trafficking
  • Landmark Policy
  • Survivor Centered: First-Person Accounts

Social Work International Human Trafficking
Annalisa Enrile
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0331


A solid introduction to the overall topic of international human trafficking is given in the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) of 2000, known as the Palermo Protocol, which defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by means of 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.” The Palermo Protocol set forth the first internationally agreed-upon language regarding human trafficking, with 179 countries (as of 2021) signing on to support it. The protocol focuses on Four Ps: prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership. The broadest understandings of this definition are practiced to address situations that may cause human trafficking, such as poverty, creating a “coercion” based on economic detriment. Countries have developed their own variations on this definition and policies since then but have adhered to the spirit and overall definition laid out by the protocol. The United States Department of State annually releases the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), which is the most comprehensive resource for governmental anti-trafficking efforts and prevalence of the problem. The reporting countries are then ranked in tiers according to how effective their anti-trafficking efforts are. It is important to note, however, that though it is comprehensive, the TIP Report has received criticism for its level of credibility (as it relies on self-disclosure, there may be inflation of efforts reported) and that tier rankings are used to grant funding for programs (accordingly, those countries who may need funding may not receive it). Human trafficking and modern-day slavery is an epidemic that occurs domestically and internationally. According to the 2021 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery (composed by the International Labour Organization [ILO], Walk Free, and the International Organization for Migration [IOM]), at any given time, there are 50 million people around the world who are trafficked or living in conditions of slavery. Of this number, 27.6 million are victims of forced labor around the world. This reflects the most recent count and agreement of human trafficking and modern slavery statistics of forced labor, sex trafficking, and forced marriage. Of those who are trafficked, 55 percent are women and girls—mostly exploited in sex trafficking. It is estimated that the profit from human trafficking is approximately 150 billion dollars.

Human Trafficking 101: General Overview/Basic Facts

Social workers operate from an ecosystems framework and are essential to providing services from prevention to intervention of human trafficking issues. Therefore, it is important for social workers to understand everything from root causes to innovative solutions—and to draw from different disciplines. All social workers and other human service practitioners need to understand the general overview of the issue of human trafficking, including terminology and definitions related to trafficking (labor, sex, organ, etc.), migration, exploitation, commercial sex, and supply chains through the lens of the Social Work Code of Ethics, especially the commitment to human worth and dignity. Bales 2012 presents a strong foundation of modern slavery operating from the idea of disposable labor, offering an economic background. Enrile 2017 provides a discussion on root causes through a transnational feminist lens and a socioeconomic and political context in four areas of intervention: clinical, policy, activism, and innovation. Burke 2022 is an updated edition that contains multidisciplinary perspectives as well as addressing developing topics in LGBTQ+ studies and BIPOC communities. Since perpetrators of human trafficking pivot and use technology to their advantage to sometimes exponential rates, it is important to stay knowledgeable about the latest situations and trends—the US Department of State and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) websites are the best resources for what is occurring globally.

  • Bales, K. 2012. Disposable people: New slavery in the global economy, updated with a new preface. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520951389

    This is a fundamental book in the human trafficking canon. It is one of the first that uses stories from the global diaspora (India, Thailand, Brazil, etc.) to explain how globalization, privatization, and investment in modern slavery creates a global economy reliant on the exploitation of people’s labor as disposable.

  • Burke, Mary C., ed. 2022. Human trafficking: Interdisciplinary perspectives. 3d ed. New York: Routledge.

    This edited book provides information on human trafficking from the vantage point of various disciplines, including legal, public health, human rights, and psychological issues. This (latest) third edition also incorporates newer areas of inquiry for trafficked LGBTQ+, Native American, and Indigenous populations, as well as issues such as organ trafficking, child soldiers, and racism.

  • Cockbain, E., K. Bowers, and O. Hutt. 2022. Examining the geographies of human trafficking: Methodological challenges in mapping trafficking’s complexities and connectivities. Applied Geography 139:102643.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.apgeog.2022.102643

    Although human trafficking contains the inherent assumption of transportation and movement, and both research and practice are concerned with “receiving” countries and “sending” countries, there has been very little knowledge of the geographies of human trafficking. This article examines labor trafficking using geospatial mapping. It identifies five existing challenges to such a methodology: data integrity, geographic uncertainty, multiple geographies, diversity and disaggregation, and unclear journeys. Novel solutions are offered.

  • Enrile, Annalisa. 2017. Ending human trafficking and modern-day slavery: Freedom’s journey. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    From conceptual, practice, advocacy, and innovation knowledge, this book explores the complexities of human trafficking and modern-day slavery through a global perspective. The text includes a discussion of structural issues and root causes to provide a comprehensive understanding of this phenomenon through a variety of insights, from stakeholders to first responders to anti-trafficking advocates. Each chapter includes a “call to action” designed to have readers practice and implement the material to help disrupt or mitigate human trafficking.

  • Okech, D., Y. J. Choi, J. Elkins, and A. C. Burns. 2018. Seventeen years of human trafficking research in social work: A review of the literature. Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work 15.2: 103–122.

    DOI: 10.1080/23761407.2017.1415177

    It is important to understand the trajectory of human trafficking research within social work as well as the current literature in social work journals. A systematic review using the PRISMA method summarized the literature since 2000. Among other findings, this article discusses a lack of clear definitions and conceptualizations, lack of evidence-informed empirical research to drive decisions at a practice level and significant absence of recommendations for integrating material into social work education.

  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

    UNODC covers a wide swath of areas, and human trafficking and migrant smuggling is located under this office. This website is focused on safeguards for abuse, neglect, exploitation, and death from these crimes. Includes the latest global news of human trafficking as criminal enterprises and the conviction of the main perpetrators.

  • US Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

    The Trafficking in Persons (TIP) office centralizes the US Department of State’s global efforts through the 4Ps of trafficking: prosecution, protection, prevention, partnership(s). This website include the current research, trends, and annual disclosures of country-based TIP Reports. Further, resources, funding, projects, and coordination of federal anti-trafficking policies and agencies are also located here and through this office.

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