Illegal Human Trafficking Profits Skyrocket

April 24, 2024

Human trafficking is big business. The United Nations (UN) just released an updated report that reveals traffickers are raking in record illegal profits. Meanwhile, the inherently valuable people whom traffickers exploit are left economically disadvantaged, with deep emotional and physical scars.

The UN’s report, Profits and poverty: The economics of forced labour, includes within its methodology both sex and labour trafficking. Depending on the legal context, these crimes can be grouped under the terms “modern slavery,” “trafficking in persons,” or “human trafficking.” Each of these category terms focuses on traffickers who compel people to work or to engage in commercial sex acts. Here are several significant findings from the UN’s updated report published in March 2024.

Trafficking Pays

The saying “crime doesn’t pay” may be true in some contexts, but it does not apply to human trafficking. The UN report shows a dramatic increase in traffickers’ annual profits since 2014, when it estimated traffickers’ annual profits at $172 billion. This new estimate increased by $64 billion to a staggering $236 billion [p 14]. For context, the UN’s estimate means that human traffickers’ annual illegal profits exceed the annual profits of Walmart, Visa, Amazon, Google, and Apple combined.

Sex Trafficking Dominates Profits

Although most victims are labour trafficking victims, sex trafficking is far more profitable. Sex trafficking accounts for only 27 percent of the 27.6 million estimated trafficking victims, yet sex traffickers reap 73 percent of all the human trafficking profits. Traffickers rake in $173 billion from sex buyers, while they treat sex trafficking victims as disposable commodities [p 15]. This illegal conduct is universally condemned with rhetoric; however, it flourishes in the current atmosphere of governmental apathy and indifference to men, women, and children who suffer.

State-sanctioned Trafficking Not Included

The UN’s estimate did not include the economic windfall received by governments that traffic people. In 2023, the U.S. State Department found evidence that 11 governments engaged in a “pattern or practice” of trafficking people. These include Afghanistan, Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, and Turkmenistan. In its March 2024 report, the UN estimates that 3.9 million people are victims of state-imposed forced labour [p 3]. It is important to note that these victims are uniquely vulnerable because they cannot avail themselves of traditional criminal justice remedies. This odious practice not only results in violations of human rights but also generates significant national security concerns, as seen in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, North Korean overseas workers, and Cuba’s Pan American Health Organization [p 176].

Trafficker Accountability is an Urgent Need

In the conclusion of its Report, the UN highlights the pressing need to hold traffickers accountable:

“Urgent investment is needed in enforcement measures that stem the profits from forced labour and bring perpetrators to justice. Currently, prosecutions for the crime of forced labour remain very low in most jurisdictions, meaning perpetrators are able to profit from their actions with impunity” [22].

The U.S. Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report) supports the UN’s concerns about declining accountability. In 2023, the TIP Report revealed a 41 percent drop in global human trafficking convictions since 2019 [Global Law Enforcement Data Chart]. Whether the traffickers are operating as individuals, criminal syndicates, or through corporations, the impunity they enjoy means that human trafficking is a low-risk, high-reward crime.

The UN’s Profits and Poverty Report should shock communities and governments and draw attention to the crescendo of exploitation generated by human traffickers. The massive scope of modern slavery should motivate people to prioritize freedom for all urgently. Governments must live up to their commitments to hold traffickers accountable and support trauma-informed care for victims. Dismantling the big business of human trafficking requires a united and resourced front.

Read the original article in the Oxford Human Rights Hub here.

Original article written by Ambassador John Richmond, Chief Impact Officer at Atlas Free.