What Are The Root Causes Of Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking has received increased attention recently, yet much of the problem remains hidden. Learn about the root causes of human trafficking and how you can support community-led approaches to address them.


When people hear the term human trafficking, many might think of a young girl being taken from her suburban home and sold into an organized sex ring. While that certainly can happen, it’s not representative of most human trafficking cases.

The recent public frenzy about human trafficking often centers on the statistic that roughly 420,000 children go missing in the U.S. annually. That figure includes children who are lost, injured, abducted—in most cases by a family member—or have run away from home. Using that statistic in conversations about human trafficking diverts attention from what human trafficking truly looks like and the gaps in social safety nets that allow it to continue.

What is human trafficking?

The use of force, fraud, or coercion to get another person to provide a labor or commercial sex act is considered human trafficking. People often assume this force is always physical. However, traffickers often rely on indirect and psychological tactics, such as deception or threat.

The three most common types of human trafficking are forced labor, debt bondage, and sex trafficking. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 20.9 million people are trapped in forced labor alone. Forced labor is coerced labor, often without pay, that is likely tied to many of the products in your home. Forced labor and debt bondage are notoriously underrepresented issues in the public sphere and in public policy. The ILO estimates that 68% of trafficking occurs in the labor sector, in fields such as agriculture, manufacturing, and domestic servitude.

How many people experience human trafficking each year?

Despite the commonly cited estimation that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across borders each year, the problem’s true scope is much larger. That estimate overlooks people who experience forced labor, debt bondage, or sex trafficking within their country. It also fails to account for unreported cases.

As a result, the experiences of the estimated 40.3 million people who experienced forced labor or domestic servitude in 2016 are left out of conversations about human trafficking. That, coupled with common myths about human trafficking, makes it difficult to understand the problem—let alone the root causes.

What are the root causes of human trafficking?

We cannot solve human trafficking until we understand the conditions that make it possible. For years, experts have studied the factors that increase a person’s likelihood of experiencing human trafficking.

Studies consistently find that race, income, gender identity, sexual orientation, and immigration status all play a considerable role in a person’s susceptibility to being trafficked.

The root causes of human trafficking infographic

The link between human trafficking and climate change in the Sundarbans

The Sundarbans is a former haven of life-sustaining soil, water, and biodiversity in northeastern India and southern Bangladesh. The region is now experiencing a labor crisis after years of deforestation, soil exploitation, and industrial pollution. Climate change has led to more erratic weather events, further depleting the natural environment that local people depend on. The area is also home to many groups that have historically faced discrimination, including religious minorities, undocumented immigrants, and Indigenous people.

Under these circumstances and without alternative livelihoods and legal protections, the situation can feel hopeless. Many families see only one option: selling their homes and assets, taking on debt, and pulling their children out of school to work. Labor recruiters prey on people in these conditions and swoop in with false promises of fair wages and stability just beyond the border. Once there, young workers might spend their entire lifetimes scraping by on little to no pay in exchange for grueling labor.

On the Bangladeshi side of the region, GlobalGiving’s nonprofit partner Bangladesh Environment and Development Society (BEDS) sees firsthand how climate change, lack of job opportunities, and poverty create conditions ripe for exploitation.

“Fishermen of the Sundarbans region live from hand to mouth; they lead their life by catching and selling fish every day. Many students drop out due to financial crises and get involved in catching fish from childhood to support their family,” Saumitro Chakrabarti of Bangladesh Environment and Development Society said. “That’s why the number of fishermen in the Sundarbans region is increasing, and as a result, the aquatic resources of the Sundarbans are under pressure.”

BEDS helps students who have dropped out by training them and their families to raise poultry and livestock, including sheep that can adapt to the region’s changing climate. While that may seem like an unconventional approach to combat human trafficking, offering alternative livelihoods is one of the best ways to reduce a person’s risk of being trafficked.

How can I help end human trafficking?

Emily Pasnak-Lapchick grapples with this question every day as Manager of the End Trafficking Project at UNICEF USA.

“No one asks what they can do to address the root causes of human trafficking—poverty, racism, sexism, discrimination, homophobia. When people first learn about this issue, understandably, our instinct is to want to help ‘rescue’ people from trafficking—to volunteer at a shelter or go on a raid.”
— Emily Pasnak-Lapchick, UNICEF USA

One of the best ways to help end human trafficking is to support organizations working to address why it happens in the first place. A donation to community-led organizations working to fill gaps in housing, education access, poverty, and human rights can help reduce instances of human trafficking.

Here are four ways you can support community-led approaches to end human trafficking:

1. Help women escape the cycle of forced labor in Peru.

More than 850,000 Venezuelan people have fled to Peru after widespread violence, political turmoil, and poverty. Although Peru opened its borders to the Venezuelan people, the government had no real plan or the infrastructure needed to accommodate the massive influx. As a result, the economy collapsed. Most available jobs were in the informal economy, a known hub of abusive hours, abysmally low wages, and poor working conditions. It’s also where forced labor is most likely to occur because of the lack of employee protections and governmental oversight.

Emprendedoras del Hogar is helping Venezuelan women escape this endless cycle through their project Work With Dignity For Venezuelan Women In Peru. The project will support the development of a mobile application to connect women who migrated from Venezuela with permanent job opportunities, decent monthly incomes, and a supportive community where Emprendedoras del Hogar’s team of coaches will link them to tools and career training. Learn more.

2. Heal problems at their root in the Sundarbans.

Besides helping former students find sustainable career opportunities, BEDS is also powering a plethora of local solutions for people to prepare for and cope with climate change and more frequent natural disasters in the Sundarbans. Community-based approaches are especially vital for the region because of a lack of governmental assistance and a focus on tourism development over sustainable development.

In 2016, BEDS established a Cyclone Shelter and Training Center and a community-managed disaster committee. These networks made it possible to install an emergency alert system to prepare communities for disasters, build houses designed to survive the changing climate, provide safety materials for the most at-risk community members, and protect the river barrier with bamboo fencing and mangroves. Learn more.

3. Offer a sense of security to survivors in the United States.

Survivors of human trafficking often return to their exploitative environment, which suggests a huge gap in efforts to provide secure places for them. Another issue is that sometimes the person who is experiencing trafficking doesn’t realize it. They may be free to come and go but are tied by psychological chains.

Restoration Project International works to provide survivors with the psychological and community support they need to avoid returning to these environments. The center helps survivors meet basic needs and access resources, such as phones, internet, transportation, and education programs. Learn more.

4. Help children achieve citizenship in South Africa.

People without citizenship to any nation are considered stateless persons, and they are among the groups most at risk of human trafficking. Citizenship provides not only a sense of belonging and identity, but also access to education, health care, and job opportunities.

Lawyers for Human Rights helps stateless children, particularly those who are living in orphanages, secure citizenship. The nonprofit uses legal representation, DNA testing, litigation training, and outreach to help children get birth certificates. Their workshops for social workers from across South Africa share best practices for assisting children who are undocumented. Learn more.

Support local nonprofits working to address the root causes of human trafficking around the world.


Featured Photo: Provide Shelter for Victims of Human Trafficking by Awareness Against Human Trafficking - HAART Kenya

◊ This article is part of our Big Questions, Better World content series. Click here to tackle more pressing questions about society’s biggest issues. ◊

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