Human trafficking is arguably one of the most profitable transnational crimes today. According to Farr (2005), the sale of human beings is believed to be a $7 to $12 billion industry and ranks third, after the sale of drugs and arms, as the most lucrative international and illegal enterprise. There are some scholars who contend, however, that human trafficking may eventually surpass the net profits yielded from the sale of drugs and weapons (Farr, 2005; Shelley, 2005). Because drugs and weapons have a finite usage while humans can be sold multiple times, profits for the sale of humans accrue seemingly infinitely depending on how many occasions a sale is made.
The sale of humans is also one of the most deplorable crimes. Yet, it is not only a 21st-century phenomenon. The exploitation of humans, including the mass transportation of people from Africa to the Americas during the 18th century, has a rich history in the United States (Bales, 2005; Gozdziak & Collett, 2005).
Although slavery was abolished in the United States with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, the practice of selling and exploiting the will of humans continues to occur (Bales, 2005). In fact, the United States is ranked among the top five countries where human slaves are sold and exploited for labor or sexual purposes (Mizus, Moody, Privado, & Douglas, 2003). In 2000, the United States enacted legislation to stop the sale and exploitation of human beings. The law (Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000) prohibits both sex trafficking and labor trafficking.
Sex trafficking involves the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act (e.g., a transaction where money or other items of value are exchanged for sexual services) in which the act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person forced to perform such an act is under the age of 18.
In contrast, labor trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery (U.S. Department of State, 2008). While sex trafficking usually involves the forced prostitution of men, women, or children, labor trafficking can include situations where men, women, or children are forced into servitude in virtually any type of occupation such as domestic service (e.g., maids), restaurant work, janitorial work, sweatshop or factory work, and agricultural work. In simple terms, human trafficking is the sale and enslavement of human beings where, after being bought and sold multiple times, they are forced to labor against their will.
Globally, 4 million people are believed to be victims of this crime each year (Farr, 2005). Nationally, the U.S. Department of State (2008) estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked into the United States annually. The size and scope of this worldwide concern is difficult to truly estimate. Trafficking in humans is generally a clandestine crime that tends to remain hidden from police authorities. Thus, scholars reason that more victims fall prey to this crime than is estimated by official government statistics (Laczko & Gozdziak, 2005). However, there is enough information to confirm that men, women, and children become vulnerable victims of this crime every day in virtually every country across the world.
There are many factors that contribute to this large-scale and covert problem, most of which are felt across the globe, such as economic and political instability, massive worldwide poverty, and the disenfranchisement of groups of individuals (Bales, 2005; Farr, 2005; Scully, 2001; Shelley, 2005). However, individual motivation to engage in a highly lucrative criminal enterprise coupled with law enforcement’s difficulty in identifying victims and offenders make this crime very appealing to criminals who contemplate tax-free rewards and the likelihood of apprehension. The purpose of this research paper is to present a historical and contemporary assessment of human trafficking as well as discuss ways in which victims are recruited by those who make it their livelihood to sell and enslave human beings. Factors that contribute to modern-day trafficking of humans as well as offender, victim, and consumer/customer characteristics will be identified. Finally, the difficulty in identifying victims of this crime will also be explored along with the criminal justice system’s response to human trafficking.