New Internationalist

Sex trafficking – the facts

Issue 404

Trafficking for sexual exploitation has become an epidemic in the past decade.

What is it?

The UN defines human trafficking as:

‘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 for the purpose of exploitation.’

UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime


Human trafficking affects virtually every region of the world. People from 127 countries are exploited in 137 countries.1

An estimated 2.4 million people are currently in forced labour – including sexual exploitation – as a result of trafficking. This is around a fifth of the total number of people in forced labour worldwide.2

Some experts estimate that sex trafficking accounts for 80% of all trafficking.1 Other estimates put it at around 40% – on the basis that other forms of slavery are even less reported.2

Trafficked forced labour by form2
According to the International Labour Organization


Women and girls are more vulnerable to trafficking of all kinds – but especially that involving sex – than men and boys.2

Trafficking victims tend to be the poorest and most vulnerable people coming from poor countries.

A medical study of women and girls entering care after having been trafficked found that:
95% reported physical and/or sexual violence.
56% suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.
57% had 12-23 concurrent physical health problems.
60% suffered pelvic pain, vaginal discharge and gynaecological infection.
38% had suicidal thoughts, 95% depression – most showing little reduction after 90 days in care.


The US Government estimates that between 600,000-800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year.1


The profits from trafficked forced labour are estimated at $32 billion a year. Of this about $10 billion is derived from the initial ‘sale’ of individuals with the remainder representing the estimated profits from their exploitation.2


Generally the people who buy sex are male and married or in long-term partnerships. They cross all social and economic boundaries.


  • Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings adopted on 16 May 2005. The aim of the convention is to prevent and combat the trafficking in human beings. Of the 46 members of the Council of Europe, 36 have signed the convention and 7 have ratified it.
  • The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime came into force in December 2003. It is supplemented by the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. By 2004, it had been signed by 117 countries.
  • The UN Global Programme against Trafficking in Human Beings (GPAT) was designed by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in collaboration with the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) and launched in March 1999.

  1. UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Trafficking In Persons, Global Patterns, 2006.
  2. UN International Labour Organization, A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour, 2005.
  3. Cathy Zimmerman, Stolen Smiles: a summary report on the physical and psychological health consequences of women and adolescents trafficked in Europe, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, 2006.
  4. Donna M Hughes, Sex Trafficking Supply and Demand, Carolina Women’s Center, 2006.
  5. Rita Chaikin, Isha L’Isha, in Trafficking and the Global Sex Industry, ed Karen Beeks and Delia Amir, Lexington Books, 2006.
  6. Dr Teela Sanders, University of Leeds, 2006, except for the UK figure which is from UK Network of Sex Workers Project, 2004.
  7. Françoise Legros, A literature review of the sexual health needs of commercial sex workers and their clients, DHIVERSE, 2005.
  8. UK Home Office, 2003.

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This article was originally published in issue 404

New Internationalist Magazine issue 404
Issue 404

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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