Geography Human Trafficking
Sallie Yea
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0246


Human trafficking is an urgent contemporary human and labor rights issue. It is prevalent in a wide range of sectors, from the commercial sex sector to the construction industry to begging. Human trafficking also (increasingly) occurs in situations where the body is rendered ‘divisible,’ such as in cases of organ trafficking. The ratification of the United Nations Protocol on Human Trafficking (formally known as the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children) in December 2003 has led to a proliferation of legislative and policy responses by states, interventions by international and nongovernmental organizations, and scholarly and third-sector research on the subject. International organizations, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), have also become important players in the field of counter-trafficking, including through the publication of numerous guidelines and manuals, research publications, and other resources. With ‘human trafficking’ defined by the UN Protocol as involving the three linked elements of recruitment, movement, and exploitation, responses have centered on what are commonly labeled the ‘3 Ps’; prevention of trafficking, protection of victims, and prosecution of offenders. By nature a clandestine and illicit activity, human trafficking has proven both challenging to study and, as a transnational crime, difficult to investigate and prosecute. Research with victims and survivors is often not undertaken well because trafficked persons are viewed as a ‘hidden population’ and because of a range of ethical challenges. As a result, published research on human trafficking is often largely bereft of victims’ voices; is overly reliant on information provided primarily by key stakeholders; and exhibits a bias toward estimates, mapping the problem, and criminal justice responses. In 2022, almost twenty years after the Trafficking Protocol came into international force, critical scholarly work evaluating the achievements, shortcomings, and effects of the UN Protocol has produced a robust engagement not only with human trafficking as an important subject, but also with counter-trafficking responses as a corpus of knowledge and practice, with its own attendant institutional and political infrastructures. Geographical scholarship on the subject is, in large part, motivated by these concerns for critical and progressive engagements with the ways human trafficking and counter-trafficking responses impact the rights and dignity of victims. This focus has directed much scholarly engagement by both geographers and those in cognate disciplines, such as anthropology and gender studies, to interrelated modes of human exploitation through modern-day slavery, forced labor, and precarious work.

Research, Ethics & Evidence

Several scholarly publications, including the solid overviews Anderson and Ruhs 2010 and Tyldum and Brunovskis 2005, emphasize the logistical and ethical difficulties associated with researching trafficked persons as a ‘hidden population.’ Kelly 2005 argues that research design for research with victims of trafficking must be rigorous and not driven by bias or sensationalist frames. Tyldum 2010 provides an excellent critical discussion on the problems related to identifying victim participants for research. Zimmerman and Watts 2003 is the first set of comprehensive guidelines for conducting research with trafficked persons produced under the World Health Organization. Subsequently Siegel and de Wildt 2018, an excellent set of papers on different aspects of ethics in human trafficking research, was published; that edited volume is divided into four parts, each elaborating on ethical issues related to a different type of human trafficking: sex trafficking, labor trafficking, trafficking of children, and organ trafficking. A different strand of scholarship on researching human trafficking focuses less on methodological and ethical issues and instead advances debates about data and evidence. Weitzer 2014 raises key concerns over claims about the scale and scope of human trafficking which are neither verifiable nor evidence based. Building on this important paper are two notable journal issues, each of which builds on the themes introduced by Weitzer, with the editor introductions Cockbain and Kleemans 2017 and Yea 2017. These two issues provide an excellent orientation to key challenges in generating meaningful data on human trafficking, and innovations in methodology and approach to studying trafficking. Finally, a recent contribution Cockbain, et al. 2022 develops a call for greater use of a quantitative geographical approach to the geographies of human trafficking. They emphasize the importance of making better use of datasets, including victim interviews.

  • Anderson, B., and M. Ruhs. “Guest Editorial: Researching Illegality and Labour Migration.” Population, Space and Place 16.3 (2010): 175–179.

    DOI: 10.1002/psp.594

    Gives a sketch of key challenges in conducting research on human trafficking and related forms of exploitation, focusing particularly on challenges associated with the ‘hidden’ nature of these populations.

  • Cockbain, E., K. Bowers, and O. Hutt. “Examining the Geographies of Human Trafficking: Methodological Challenges in Mapping Trafficking’s Complexities and Connectivities.” Applied Geography 139 (2022): 102643.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.apgeog.2022.102643

    Argues for the importance of a quantitative geographical approach to the geographies of human trafficking, suggesting that many datasets, including victim interviews, are a rich source of unanalysed geographical data on human trafficking.

  • Cockbain, E., and E. R. Kleemans, eds. “Innovations in Empirical Research on Human Trafficking: Introduction to the Special Edition.” Crime, Law and Social Change 72.1–7 (2017): 1–19.

    Addresses innovative ways of conducting research on human trafficking, especially with victims and survivors, responding to some of the challenges addressed by several of the other papers cited here.

  • Kelly, L. “‘You can find anything you want’: A Critical Reflection on Research on Trafficking in Persons within and into Europe.” International Migration 43.1–2 (2005): 235–265.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0020-7985.2005.00319.x

    Critically reflects on the ways research design can shape findings and data, particularly addressing the ways bias can enter trafficking research findings.

  • Siegel, D., and R. De Wildt, eds. Ethical Concerns in Research on Human Trafficking. New York: Springer, 2018.

    A comprehensive volume of papers which address diverse ethical issues, challenges, and methodological considerations in researching human trafficking, including case studies from a range of regions.

  • Tyldum, G. “Limits in Research on Human Trafficking.” International Migration 48.5 (2010): 1–13.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2435.2009.00597.x

    Examines the limits to researching human trafficking through a discussion of the limited (and repeated) foci of much research, whilst highlighting several areas where greater research could contribute to better understandings of the issue.

  • Tyldum, G., and A. Brunovskis. “Describing the Unobserved: Methodological Challenges in Empirical Studies on Human Trafficking.” International Migration 43.1–2 (2005): 17– 34.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0020-7985.2005.00310.x

    Discusses the production of various types of data on human trafficking, and suggests methods for improving data collection and developing new methodologies.

  • Weitzer, R. “New Directions in Researching Human Trafficking.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 653.1 (2014): 6–24.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716214521562

    Provides a critical discussion of some of the limits of grand claims about human trafficking, including statistics, and argues for the need for more grounded, micro-scale studies of human trafficking as an important way to address these limits.

  • Yea, S. “The Politics of Evidence, Data and Research in Anti-Trafficking Work.” Anti-Trafficking Review 8 (2017): 1–13.

    DOI: 10.14197/atr.20121781

    Argues that some of the main problems with policy and practice in human trafficking is that interventions are based on a lack of robust evidence base, suggesting that good research could redress some of these concerns. Introduces other papers in the issue.

  • Zimmerman, C., and C. Watts. WHO Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Interviewing Trafficked Women. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organisation, 2003.

    Provides foundational guidelines for ethical considerations in conducting research with trafficked persons and similar groups.

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