The Fragilities of Human Trafficking Victims

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Maria João Guia (ed.)The Illegal Business of Human Trafficking10.1007/978-3-319-09441-0_2

2. The Fragilities of Human Trafficking Victims

Joana Ruivo 

Brazilian Consulate, Lisbon, Portugal



Joana Ruivo


Human trafficking is a phenomenon that can affect all of us, but vulnerable groups like migrants, women, and children are more likely to become victims of this crime.

Trafficking of human beings is a complex crime with an enormous capacity for adapting to changing circumstances. This chapter raises questions such as what we can do to keep up with the new ways and methods of the criminals and what needs to be done to combat human trafficking. But one thing is sure, governments, civil society, and universities—they all have responsibilities in terms of prevention as well as in supporting of the victims.

2.1 Introduction

It should be understood that human trafficking constitutes a crime in the majority of countries. It is a transnational phenomenon with a number of features and occurring in a variety of situations. The complexity of this crime is stated in its several definitions.

However, and despite its complexity, we will state the most complete and widely accepted definition set out in the Palermo Protocol. According to the United Nations protocol, human trafficking 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. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs (UN 2000, p. 2).

Human trafficking is a phenomenon that can affect all of us. Traffickers and recruiters take advantage of the social and economic fragilities of countries, seeking their victims among those with financial difficulties in countries with high rates of unemployment and poverty, as well as lower levels of education. Very often they lure their potential victims with the promise of an improved social status resulting from well-paid jobs in foreign countries (Jorge-Birol nd).

Vulnerable groups like migrants, women, and children are more likely to become victims of this crime. Many countries with developed economies (such as European countries) are dependent on migrant labour. However, a number of these countries do not have specific integrative policies for immigrants, which pushes them into becoming undocumented. The lack of integrative policies makes immigrants even more likely to become victims of human trafficking.

Regarding the victim’s gender and age, in 2006, 66 % of the identified human trafficking victims were women and 22 % were children (UNODC 2009). The data presented in this UN report underlines what was written in 1989 in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). The enormous vulnerability of children was clearly recognised, as well as their inalienable right to protection from any form of abuse, violence, or neglect.

Despite the complexity of this phenomenon, human trafficking continues to be largely associated with sexual exploitation. According to the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons from UNODC (2009), sexual exploitation is considered to be the most common form of exploitation (79 %). Even though we can produce statistical reports on this matter, we know that it is almost impossible to fully understand this situation. According to the same report, only 18 % of human trafficking victims were exploited for their labour. The authors themselves stress that this data may be a misrepresentation because “forced labour is less frequently detected and reported than trafficking for sexual exploitation” (UNODC 2009, p. 51).

In fact, the International Labour Office (ILO) claims that over the past few years, the most common form of exploitation was actually labour (ILO 2009). They estimated that for each victim of sexual exploitation, there were nine victims of labour servitude.

As far as statistics are concerned, it is very hard to have full access to information. This difficulty increases if we take into account that very often—if not in the majority of situations—victims do not perceive themselves as victims and they do not realise that they are being subjected to human trafficking. Regardless of all the good work developed by governments, NGOs, police forces, and academic researchers, we still lack a global understanding of this human rights violation.

2.2 Human Trafficking: The Economic Impact

After drug and gun trafficking, human trafficking is the third most lucrative crime worldwide and is the fastest growing economic crime. In 2008, the ILO indicated that human trafficking had annual profits of US$32 billion (ILO 2008). And unlike drug and gun trafficking, human trafficking is relatively safe for the traffickers themselves, since the trafficked merchandise is not a product and therefore it is more difficult for authorities to spot what is happening.

This criminal economy is no different from other forms of business and is particularly easy to run within the European Union and, more specifically, in the Schengen zone. For obvious reasons, this situation constitutes such a major concern to the Member States that in the Stockholm Programme we can find the following statement:

The Union must reduce the number of opportunities available to organised crime as a result of a globalised economy, in particular during a crisis that is exacerbating the vulnerability of the financial system, and allocate appropriate resources to meet these challenges effectively. (European Council 2009, p. 48)

Like in any other organisation, the nonexistent border controls, the good road access, as well as good communication lines, provide human traffickers with the means to spread their business and therefore raise their profits.

In Portugal, human trafficking victims are mainly immigrants that fall into these organised networks when seeking better living conditions. According to the ILO (2007), the economic sectors in Portugal that make more profits through labour exploitation are construction, domestic service, and restaurant business. These three economic areas are the most likely to receive victims since the hiring mechanisms are too informal, making it more difficult for the authorities to recognise a trafficking situation (ILO 2007; Peixoto 2007).