Trafficking in Human Beings in Time and Space. A Socioecological Perspective

Push factors

Pull factors

High unemployment

Improved standard and quality of life

Labour market not open to women and gender discrimination

Better access to higher education

Lack of opportunity to improve quality of life

Enforcement of minimum standards and individual rights

Sexual or ethnic discrimination

Better employment opportunities


Demand for cheap labour

Escaping persecution, violence, or abuse

Demand for commercial sexual services

Escaping human rights violations

Higher salaries and better working conditions

Collapse of social infrastructure

Demand for workers within the sex industry and higher earnings

Other environmental conditions, including conflict and war

Established migrant communities/diasporas

Sources: Table contents taken from Europol (2011)

Table by Joana Daniel-Wrabetz and Rita Penedo

Table 1.2
Push and pull factors for potential criminal networks


Push factors

Pull factors

Criminal market research

Increased law enforcement

Increased competition from criminal groups (selection effect)

Mass demand

Access to supply

Lax law enforcement

High impunity/corruption

Proximity to trafficking routes

Porous borders

Presence of brokers and facilitators

Research on ethnic-based criminal groups

Legitimation of group

Increased socioeconomic status

Decreasing cultural marginalisation

Increased enforcement in country of origin or against a specific group

Individualist value system

Legitimation of previous groups (ethnic succession theory)

New opportunities for cross-border crime (e.g., immigrant diasporas in consuming countries, open borders)

Ethnic group’s criminal reputation

Local ties and kinship networks

Research on criminogenic conditions in legitimate settings

Displacement by credible authority

Lax security/enforcement/high impunity

Poorly regulated economic sectors

Overlaps between upper and underworld actors

Low skill trade

Low technology and professionalisation

High number of unemployed disenfranchised workers

Lack of conventional products and services (emergence of black markets and private protection needs)

Source: Contents by Morselli et al. (2010), p. 3–4

Table by Joana Daniel-Wrabetz and Rita Penedo

According to the study of Morselli on The Mobility of Criminal Groups:

  • Criminal groups are the product of offenders’ adaptations to the constraints and opportunities surrounding them. Such groups are self-organizing and emergent in settings where there are considerable vulnerabilities to exploit across a variety of cross-border, cross-market, and cross-industry contexts. (…)

  • Research on the spatial mobility patterns of offenders does not identify push and pull factors per se, but it does guide us in suggesting that criminal groups that do mobilize elsewhere are likely specialized in a given market and should be therefore targeted as such. The combination of these two patterns confirms the challenges facing any criminal group that may be intent toward expanding their criminal activities over a wider geographical range. The bottom line is that achieving such an expansion is much more difficult than often believed in popular circles largely because no single criminal group can realistically do everything and be everywhere all the (Morselli et al. 2010, p. 4).

While clearly important, the classification of pull and push factors alone does not explain it all, especially if established in a single casual meaning, excluding the variables/indicators of their location over time and space.

We support the perspective that placing THB in its context of offence/victimisation will ultimately contribute to a better understanding of THB as a complex phenomenon. A socioecological approach and the usage of a geographical information system, not only to collect and analyse data, but to promote a contextualised understanding of the phenomenon will ultimately advance from a retrospective to a prospective approach and not only improve an early identification of potential THB victims, but ultimately develop strategies at the local level in order to prevent its occurrence.

1.2 The Context Paradigm: The Socioecological Approach

One important premise of the socioecological approach is that some social changes have a high potential for social disjunction within social systems.

Social change is the structural transformation of political, social, cultural and economic systems and institutions during a specific period. Some important factors in modern social change are the expansion of industrial capitalism, urbanisation and demographic growth (Giddens 1992). A social system is a society, community, or subsystem within a society, and social disjunction is the community’s structural (in)ability to maintain self-regulation or social rules/social control.

The concepts of social disorganisation and anomie (Durkheim 1897; Merton 1957; Sampson and Groves 1989; Shaw and McKay 1942) are thus of relevance. A social system can be “(…) described as socially organized and integrated if there is an internal consensus on its norms and values, a strong cohesion exists among its members, and social interaction proceeds in an orderly way. Conversely, the system is described as disorganized or anomic if there is a disruption in its social cohesion or integration, a breakdown in social control, or malalignment among its elements” (Akers and Sellers 2004, p. 159).

Social systems must therefore be analysed in its contexts i.e., an interdependent system characterised by social interactions (geographical, social, cultural, political, economic opportunities and/or constraints) between people and their environment over a period of time. In this context, the notions of system resistance and system resilience are fundamental: the first refers to the coping capacity of the system prior to an event—combination of all the strengths, and the second to the degree to which a system is capable to return to its normal conditions afterwards (Rashed et al. 2007).

Despite the fact that a socioecological approach to crime is not a novelty,13 “crime has an inherent geographical quality and is not randomly distributed – thus, spatial in nature, studied in its underlying spatial processes and therefore, mapped (Chainey 2011)”14, so far it has not been applied to the THB phenomenon.

In this “kind-of-places explanations theories” (Silva 2004) that gather theoretical contributes from sociology (e.g., structuralism, functionalism, symbolic interaction, and the Chicago school), human geography, and social psychology, the sustainable human development perspective is also to be considered as it is important to structure anti-trafficking policies (Laczko and Danailova-Trainor 2009). Through the dimensions of social justice and economic development, welfare, access to knowledge, empowerment, sustainability, human rights (and, within these, civil, political, social, economic and environmental rights), and safety regarding crime and violence, the nonfulfilment of human development, in all its dimensions, can exacerbate the risk of emergence of deviant and criminal behaviours and the vulnerability of certain social groups.

According to the World Development Report 2011, multiple stresses raise the risks of violence: “Economic, political, and security factors can all exacerbate the risks of violence. Some of these factors are domestic, such as low incomes, high unemployment, and inequality of different sorts. Some factors may originate outside the state, such as external economic shocks or the infiltration of international drug cartels or foreign fighters” (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank 2011, p. 73).

This Report refers to these triggers of violence as “security, economic, and justice stresses”15 (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank 2011, p. 73). Often related, they rarely exist in isolation.

The socioecological approach does not declare that social disruption caused by social changes has a direct link to the existence of crime, but that a particular context may show a set of socioecological indicators that can explain the occurrence and/or prevalence of certain phenomena, such as crime.

As a multifaceted phenomenon, THB can be explained in a variety of perspectives. A literature review shows us that THB tends to be analysed as a matter of:

  • transnational organised crime/national security (Bruckert and Parent 2002),

  • human rights (Gallagher 2008),

  • globalisation (Belser and Danailova-Trainor 2006),

  • gender discrimination (Goodey 2004),

  • (forced) labour (Plant 2004),

  • (illegal) migration and border issues (Tailby 2001 16; Aronowitz 2011).

Applying a geographic-determined knowledge to the study of THB vulnerability will allow the detection of profiles based on socioecological indicators, that is to say, profiles arise from the nexus between the individual social and symbolic interactions (perpetrators, victims, and witnesses) and their ecological environment (Machado 2010). These will demonstrate why THB “(…) occur[s] more frequently (with greater probability) in certain social and physical contexts than in others, because the former possess characteristics which, under various conditions, can be regarded as congruent with or premise – or even predictive – of this criminality” (Machado 2010, p. 14).

Looking at offenders, Taylor and Harrell discuss the influence of physical environmental features on crime. Reflecting on social structures and action, the authors discuss how these features “(…) affect potential offenders’ perceptions about a possible crime site, their evaluations of the circumstances surrounding a potential crime site, and the availability and visibility of one or more natural guardians at or near a site” (Taylor and Harrell 1996, p. 9). Consequently, it is a matter of an opportunity context where an evaluation is made regarding the possibilities provided by a real or perceived assessment (rational choice perspective) that involves evaluations of effort, risk and rewards: