Trafficking: Slaves on the Move

Millions trapped in foreign lands, forced to work under the threat of violence

Anita Sharma Bhattarai, a Nepali woman, had faced a difficult life: Her husband mistreated her and the children and when she separated from him, selling produce was one of the few ways she could support herself. These burdens, however, seem light compared to what she experienced next. At age 27, on a bus ride to work, a man gave her medicine to cure a headache. Anita immediately fell unconscious. The man, a slave trader, sold her to a brothel in India, an unfamiliar land where she knew neither the people nor the language. Anita’s Nepali owner, her “madame,” told her that she had spent a lot of money to purchase her. In order to, Anita had to pay off as debt the amount that the madame paid. But Anita was never told the amount. To make money to pay off her debt, Anita was forced to prostitute herself. When she insisted that she wanted to leave, Anita was beaten repeatedly, sometimes with iron rods. A large metal gate kept her locked inside the brothel1.

Unfortunately, Anita’s case is not unique. The State Department reports that, “over the past year, at least 700,000, and possibly as many as four million men women and children worldwide were bought, sold, transported and held against their will in slave-like conditions”2. Various means are used to trap victims: violence or threat of violence, abuse of authority or dominant position, destruction of travel and identification documents, debt-bondage, or deception are used to trap victims. The victims are mostly women and girls from developing countries, but can sometimes be men and boys, as well. They are enslaved for purposes of prostitution, domestive servitude, street begging, camel jockeying, sweatshop labor, construction work, pornography, forced marriage, false adoption, and other criminal activities.

What is Trafficking?

As defined by the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, trafficking in persons is the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the 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.”3 Although trafficking in and of itself is not a form of slavery, it is a vehicle for leading unwilling victims into slavery. By illegaly transporting victims to foreign lands, traffickers make them especially vulnerable to enslavers’ demands. Across borders, victims are unfamiliar with the surroundings and culture and may not speak the language. They are without their support network of friends and family and may either lack immigration documents or have fraudulent papers provided by the traffickers.

Once the victims arrive at their destinations, traffickers sell them to captors, who often force the victims to work in slave-like conditions until they have paid off debts. The amount of the debt is usually the cost of travel and/or the purchase price that the captors paid to buy the victims. However, victims may never be able to pay off the debts because captors determine the wages, charge high interst rates, control the bookkeeping, and claim additional expenses. Furthermore, when victims are close to paying off the debts, captors often resell them, beginning anwer the debt-bondage process4.

Trafficking is a not a new problem. In 1904, the first Convention on Trafficking was held in Paris when European leaders became concerned about the trafficking of European and Asian women5. During World War II, the Nazis trafficked gypsies, Jews, homosexuals, and resistors to labor camps, and the Japanese trafficked Asian women for sexual slavery in military camps. Today, trafficking is a multi-billion dollar, international industry. Trafficking generates $6 billion per year by selling women for the purposes of commericial sex alone6. As Gary A. Haugen, the president of International Justice Mission, said, traffickers “operate without fear of effective criminal sanction … A vast and brutal industry is able to operate only because it is tolerated by the civil authorities of the country”7.

Trafficking has many victims — as many as four million are trapped in foreign lands and forced to work under the threat of violence. But the scope of trafficking continues to escalate: Poverty, wars, demand for female flesh in the sex industry, and harmful views of women help to create new victims each year. Madeline Albright, former Secretary of State, reports that the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world is human trafficking8.

Trafficking in a Global Context

Although many people do not know much about contemporary slavery, trafficking is a global and transnational problem, with a significant presence in nearly all parts of the world, even in the United States. It is difficult to montinor because traffickers use different countries as sources, transits, and destinations.

Why does Trafficking Happen?

A person can become a victim due to many factors:

Globalization: The emphasis on a global economy has encouraged political elites in many countries to focus on the requirements of global financial institutions instead of on the needs of peasants. As Kevin Bales writes, “the forced shift from subsistence to cash-crop agriculture, the loss of common land, and government policies that suppress farm income in favor of cheap food for the cities have all helped bankrupt millions of peasants and drive them from their land – sometimes into slavery”9. At the same time, globalization continues to exacerbate the widening gap between the world’s rich and poor. Images of industrial abundance projected around the globe tempt the world’s poorer citizens to travel abroad in search of promising job opportunities. Traffickers can easily trick their victims into believing that legitimate, paying jobs await them in foreign lands.

Demand: Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of women and children have been trafficked from their homes for the purposes of pornography, prostitution, exotic dancing, and sex tourism. Many sex tourism companies have sprung up with customers willing to pay thousands of dollars to go to southeast Asia and Latin America to prey upon vulnerable girls, some as young as eight. According to World Vision, 45% of Cambodian travel agents have seen tour guides lead foreign visitors to child prostitutes10. Many global, internet based companies prosper because they have found that there are many people who will pay about $30 a month to see child pornography. Before officials conducted searches, Landslide Productions Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas made $1.4 million from selling child pornography to 250,000 subscribers11.

Economic Collapse: The economic and political turmoil from the collapse of the Soviet Union combined with a reduction in the opportunities for legal immigration to the West have made sex trafficking a major problem. Once well guarded borders are more open, and young women, who dream of better lives in the West, have turned for opportunities to the sex trafficking network12. In southeast Asia, the economic crisis of 1997 has thrown many into desperate situations. In Thailand, a 10% decrease in school enrollment at primary school level suggests that more children than ever are turning to the sex market instead of attending school13.

Law Enforcement: Trafficking is profitable because there is low risk — traffickers have little fear that governments will fine or imprison them, and they are confident that their victims will get little or no help from the local law enforcement. In Japan, the largest Asian market for sex, with some 150,000 non-Japanese women, the police are reported to sell back the women to traffickers if they attempt to escape14. In Greece, law enforcement imprisons, deports, and prohibits victims from re-entry into the country. In Macedonia, police are reluctant to raid brothels because of fear of ruining the uneasy peace between the Slavs and the Albanian minority. When the police decide to raid, brothel owners are usually informed by corrupt policemen beforehand so they can hide themselves and their prostitutes though secret exits15. Even when the local law enforcement is supportive of victims, victims may not know that they can turn to the police for help. They may believe the captors’ lies that seeking help will only bring more trouble.

Wars and Oppression: Many around the globe are desperate to flee persecution, yet persecutors at home may try to prevent escape, and neighboring countries may not want the refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that, “human trafficking is the only excape route for many genuine refugees who flee persecution in Europe”16. The UNHCR also reports that although Europe treats Afghans and Iraqis as illegal migrants, these people are Europe’s most smuggled and trafficked nationalities. In the Balkans, threats of civil war breaking out between the Slavs and Albanians in Macedonia have decreased tourism, and the economy is growing worse. Meanwhile, selling women’s bodies for cheap sex remains a steady, lucrative business for the captors and pimps17.

Fear of Disease: Traffickers capture young girls in order to feed the demand for sex with virgins. Fearing HIV/AIDS, predators want sex with younger girls who may have had fewer sexual encounters. About 30 percent of females who are trafficked for prostitution are under age 1818. Furthermore, in many Central Asian countries, it is commonly believed that HIV/AIDS can be cured by having sex with virgins.

Profit: Hard numbers on how much traffickers make are hard to come by. However, it is known that trafficking is the third largest source of profit for crime organizations, just behind the sale of guns and drugs19. The resellability and reusability of humans and the low risk associated with the sale of humans make trafficking extremely profitable. Not only do traffickers make money through trafficking fees, but they can also gain economically through the labor of the victims. As Amy O’Neill Richards of the CIA reports, “Whereas alien smuggling usually involves short-term monetary profit, trafficking usually involves long-term exploitation for economic gain… In some cases, the traffickers may profit even further by using the trafficked persons as ‘manpower’ for other criminal purposes, such as selling drugs”20.

Social Dysfunction: In many developing countries, lack of money is not the only problem. People may also face sexism, oppressive caste systems, domestic abuse, and lack of opportunities. Kamala, an 18 year-old Nepali woman, is a survivor of sex trafficking who is now at a shelter for former victims. When asked to draw, she drew a picture of a girl locked in a box. Her drawing reinforces the fact that oppressive social structures in Nepal are a major reason why women are vulnerable to trafficking. She explained that her drawing is a message about society and family: “A ten-year-old child is shown in this picture; she is required to marry a man of 35 to 40. The square around the figure symbolically represents the nation of Nepal, the people of the village, and their customs and traditions. The girl is always restricted and kept inside, deprived of everything.” Downtrodden by oppressive village social structures, women such as Kamala and Anita are easy prey for traffickers. Thinking that anything is better than life at home, many are all too ready to believe the traffickers’ false promises.

The world’s population is now 6 billion, and it continues to increase rapidly. Most of the increase occurs in the poorest countries21. Poverty combined with over-population means there is an abundance of potential slaves. Traffickers find that recruiting victims is cheaper and easier than ever before.

How Does One Become a Trafficking Victim?

Various methods include but are not limited to the following:

Deception: Various sources, ranging from false advertising to trusted acquaintances, promise legitimate, well-paying jobs to lure the victims. Seba, a newly freed slave trafficked from Mali to Paris, told her story to an investigator: “I was raised by my grandmother in Mali, and when I was still a little girl a woman my family knew came and asked her if she could take me to Paris to care for her children. She told my grandmother that she would put me in school and that I would learn French. But when I came to Paris, I was not sent to school, I had to work every day. In their house I did all the work; I cleaned the house, cooked the meals, cared for the children, and washed and fed the baby. Everyday I started work before 7 A,M. and finished about 11 P.M.; I never had a day off”22.

Kidnapping: In the last decade, the Chinese police discovered several human smuggling rings that have abducted thousands of women and girls between 13 to 24 years-old and forced them into slavery23. Mostly members of the Tai or Akha tribes in southern China, the women and girls have been trafficked though the Burmese mountains and forced into prostitution in Thailand24. Mae Sai, a victim rescued by the Thai police and the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok, was sold for 10,000 baht (U.S. $400). On one afternoon, two people in the village offered to take her on a ride in their car and to a picnic. Mai Sai accepted their offer because she had never ridden in a car before, and revolutions in the area have interrupted her schooling and left her ignorant of the ways of the world. Only when it was too late, Mae Sai realized that she had been sold to the Vieng Thon Hotel, which services Malaysian men with girls under age 1525.

Sale: According to Anti-Slavery International, 19,000 young boys have been sold by their desperate families to camel jockey in the United Arab Emirates. Although it is illegal to use child jockeys in the Gulf states, the practice is widespread because children are light on camels’ backs. Sadam, a scrawny 6-year-old Pakistani boy, was sold by his father to a wealthy sheik in the United Arab Emirates. Trafficking agents obtained false immigration documents, and the sheik taught him how to handle the camels. Sadam has won many times, but he was not fed properly so that his weight stays low26.

Flight: Fleeing from the brutal Burmese military regime, thousands of ethnic minorities in Burma become trafficking victims in order to avoid persecution. In Thailand alone, there are as many as 40,000 Burmese women who have been trafficked for sex27. One Burmese woman in Bangledesh told an investigator, “We have come all the way here, not just because we were trying to escape poverty and find a way to earn a better living like the Bangladeshis, but because it was our only option to save our lives”28.

Victims of sex trafficking are mostly women and children from developing countries. Trafficking in females younger than 18 years old — mostly for prosititution — accounts for about 30 percent of total trafficking29.

Life as a Trafficking Victim

Unknown and Isolated

To keep the victims isolated and unable to seek help, traffickers often move them to unfamiliar locations, such as to other countries or to other locations far away from home. Without contact with friends and family, the victims lack support systems and have no-one to turn to for help, even the police. In many cases, victims have fraudulent immigration documents provided by the traffickers or no documentation at all. Without proper documentation, they may fear that the law enforcement will only deport or jail them instead of help.

Traffickers often choose to move the victims to another country also because the language barrier will help to isolate them. Furthermore, traffickers often allow the victims no contact except with other victims, the captors, and the clients. Sometimes, victims are mingled with women who have chosen to become prostitutes in order to make it seem that they have freely chosen to be prostitutes. But otherwise, victims are kept from talking to strangers and from making relationships. Victims may be frequently moved in order to prevent establishment of firmer links in the area.


To render new recruits into submission, captors rape, beat, and humiliate the victims until they no longer have the will to resist. MSNBC reported that one woman was forced to clean a dirty toilet with her tongue while her captor laughed.

Debt Bondage

Debt bondage is frequently used to keep victims from freedom. For example, traffickers offer women in Thailand immigration to Japan, and then tell the women that they must repay the costs that have incurred through months or years of unpaid labor as prostitutes. Captors usually lie to the victims about the costs, telling them the costs are exponentially greater than the costs that have actually incurred. The victims may never get out of debt bondage because the captors may The debt bondage places the women under highly-controlled circumstances and keeps the women from changing their decisions.


Threats are the main way captors discourage their slaves from attempt to escape. As warnings, those who try to escape and get caught are killed cruelly in front of the other prostitutes. Sometimes, traffickers are on good terms with the slaves’ families, and use threats against family members to keep the victims from attempting to escape.

Locked in a Cage

In Velesta, Macedonia, victims are kept in the locked back rooms of “kafane,” or café-bars that are also brothels. When clients come, the victims are paraded in skimpy lingerie so that the clients can choose whoever pleases them.

Ms. magazine reports that in the Falkland district of Calcutta, minors from Nepal and Bangladesh are kept in cages, and men go up and down the street to pick those they want. About sex slaves in Bangkok, Ms. states, “some are in brothels sealed up so tight, they never have fresh air.”30

Physical Abuse

Most victims are forced to have sex with several people per day. Sex is often unprotected, and they are vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and to unwanted pregnancy. When victims become pregnant, the captors may force abortions by using a bamboo whisk or other methods. If the victims get STD’s, the brothel expels them. If they refuse to meet the quota on clients, their captors severely beat them. Those who attempt to escape also get beaten.

Vulnerable to the whims of the clients, victims also get beaten or bitten by the clients. Many victims refer to clients who only have sex as “good clients” because of the high frequency at which clients physically hurt them.

Unless the client orders food, victims are fed the same low-nutrition food every day. One woman who was trafficked for sex in Macedonia reported that she was only given macaroni.


Frequently, owners have “favorites,” whom they force fewer clients upon and shower with gifts. These “favorites” are usually the owners’ lovers. In order to survive and become the “favorite,” slaves often inform on each other when anyone plots to escape.

No Help

Once the victims arrive at the destination, their passports or travel documents are taken from them or burned. Often they do not know what country they are in or the language of the country. Even if they escape, without a passport they find themselves in trouble with the authorities and are even returned to the pimp or madam. When governments discover international victims of sex trafficking, they often punish them for entering the country without papers.

In Japan, the police are reported to sell back the women to traffickers if they attempt to escape. In Greece, law enforcement imprisons, deports, and prohibits victims from re-entry into the country. In Macedonia, police are reluctant to raid brothels because of fear of ruining the uneasy peace between the Slavs and the Albanian minority. Even when the police decide to raid, brothel owners are usually informed by corrupt policemen beforehand. Before victims can be rescued, pimps hide themselves and their prostitutes though secret exits. Many other countries also lack laws to keep traffickers in prison.

In 1996, the Indian government rounded up Nepali women and girls who were captives in Indian brothels. These women had HIV, and they were not welcome in India. Two plane loads of women and girls were sent back to Nepal. The Nepali government would not let them land and sent them back. This action mobilized NGOs, which eventually arranged for the women and girls’ return. Read more on how different countries respond to trafficking.

Returning Home

Once victims become too old, do not make enough money or get diseases, brothels expel them. Victims are usually without any money and means to make money. Many women have neither family nor country to which to return. Even if they have places to go back to, families consider them objects of shame and often do not take them back.

Their untreated illness often cannot be reversed. Feeling ashamed, the few who return to their village will not talk about their experiences. Younger girls see women returning from the big city and may imagine they have experienced a better life, one for which to strive.

Sometimes, recruiting others is the only way a victim can escape slavery. A victim may return to her hometown and tell the younger girls promises of well-paid work.

Return to Slavery In Depth


  1. United States House of Representatives, “Testimony of Anita Sharma Bhattarai before the Committee on International Relations,” September 14, 1999
  2. United States Department of State, “Trafficking in Persons Report,” June 2002
  3. UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, 2000
  4. Human Rights Watch, “International Trafficking of Women and Children,” February 22, 2000
  5. Refugee Reports, “Trafficking in Women and Children: A Contemporary Manifestation of Slavery,” Summer 2000
  6. L. Shelley, as quoted by Hughes in “The Internet and Sex Industries”
  7. U.S. House of Representatives, “Testimony of Gary A. Haugen,” September 14, 1999
  8. Refugee Reports, “Trafficking in Women and Children: A Contemporary Manifestation of Slavery,” Summer 2000
  9. Kevin Bales, “Disposable People,” London: University of California Press, 1999
  10. ECPAT, “Child Sex Tourism in Cambodia,” June 2001
  11. ECPAT, “Child Pornography Ring Busted,” September 2001
  12. Congressional Research Service, “Trafficking in Women and Children: The U.S. and International Response,” May 10, 2000
  13. ECPAT, “Impact of the Asian Economic Crisis on Child Prostitution,” May 1999
  14. Human Rights Watch, “Owed Justice: Thai Women Trafficked into Debt Bondage in Japan,” September 2000
  15. MSNBC, “One Night in Velesta,” May 1, 2002
  16. UNHCR, “Trafficking and Smuggling of Refugees: The End game of European Asylum Policy?,” July 2000
  17. UNICEF, “Trafficking in Human Beings in Southeastern Europe,” June 2002
  18. Gender Matters Quarterly, Fall 1999
  19. U.S. Department of State, “U.S. Pressing Forward to Stop Trafficking in Women and Children,” March 1, 2000
  20. Central Intelligence Agency, “International Trafficking in Women to the United States: A Contemporary Manifestation of Slavery and Organized Crime,” November 1999
  21. UN Population Fund, “Fast Facts,” August 2002
  22. Kevin Bales, “Disposable People,” London: University of California Press, 2000
  23. ECPAT, “Child Traffickers in China Are Having a Hard Time,” June 2000
  24. Child Workers in Asia, “Serving Affluent Businessmen and Visitors,” September 1997
  25. Ron Grady, “The Child and the Tourist,” Bangkok, Thailand: ECPAT, 1992
  26. National Post, “‘Camel Kids: The New Slaves,” June 15, 2002
  27. Burma Project, “Women,” August 2002
  28. Images Asia, “Trafficked from Hell to Hades,” November 1999
  29. Gender Matters Quarterly, Fall 1999
  30. Ms. Magazine, October 1999, page 47