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Trafficking in human beings is a form of modern slavery. It is a crime that should not have a place in today’s society. It destroys the lives of individuals by depriving them of their dignity, freedom and fundamental rights. It is often a violent crime committed by organised crime networks.

The concept of trafficking in human beings is defined by its various manifestations, which change over time, so there is no uniform definition of trafficking. It is a phenomenon detected through most of human history and most often occurs as the abuse of an individual for the purpose of prostitution, slavery, removal of organs for the purpose of illegal transplantation and forced commission of criminal offences. Sexual abuse, especially of women and children, is a regular feature of trafficking in human beings, while in recent years, labour exploitation, servitude, begging and other forms of modern-day slavery, as well as organ, human tissue and blood trafficking, have been increasingly common.

The Protocol supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime defines trafficking in human beings as: "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".

Causes of trafficking in human beings

The root causes of trafficking in human beings are poverty, unemployment, social exclusion, poor economic conditions in the countries of origin of the victims, lack of access to education, various forms of discrimination and marginalisation, gender gaps and violence against women, the spread of crime and corruption, armed conflicts and the situation thereafter. What they all have in common is an increasing demand for services provided by victims of trafficking. 

General factors enabling the expansion of trafficking in human beings:

  • Globalisation has facilitated the movement of people, capital and business across national borders, which is also reflected in increased migration and the rise in transnational crime;
  • Economic and political change exacerbates the gap between rich and poor;
  • Global feminisation of poverty is causing feminisation of migration;
  • Expansion of the sex industry and activities associated with it (tourism, gambling);
  • Trafficking in human beings is becoming a structural component of certain economic sectors (construction, agriculture, textile and food industries).

The difference between smuggling and trafficking in human beings

In smuggling, the perpetrator and the migrant, as a rule, enter into an agreement for a single reason. Usually, a migrant searches for a smuggler and both consciously agree that the smuggler will take them from one country to another for a certain fee. Once the agreed obligations have been fulfilled, the relationship between the smuggler and the migrant ends. 

Trafficking in human beings takes place in three stages: obtaining a victim (often by deception, abuse, coercion), transportation and accommodation, followed by exploitation of the victim. The victim’s dependence on the perpetrators does not end with the victim's arrival at the promised or agreed upon place, as the exploitation only begins then.


Most victims of trafficking come from the poorest parts of the world or regions and the poorest sections of the population; children, adolescents, women, the unemployed, migrant workers and refugees are the most vulnerable. In fact, anyone who finds himself or herself in a situation that makes him or her vulnerable at a certain point in time or life can become a victim. Many victims of human trafficking are legally resident in the country and are legally employed.

More than half of the victims of trafficking in human beings in the EU are EU citizens, and many are victims of trafficking within their own country. In the recent period, the situation described has been changing, with a noticeable increase in victims coming from areas outside the EU. The majority of victims in the EU are women and girls trafficked mainly for sexual exploitation.

About one in five victims of trafficking in human beings in the EU is a child.

The most common forms of trafficking in human beings in the EU are sexual exploitation and labour exploitation.

Victims are often trapped in debt dependency – through their work and earnings they have to pay off the imaginary "debt", created when traders (often with the support of job brokering agencies and employers), "charge" them for excessively high costs of employment, transport, accommodation and the like. The perpetrators constantly maintain and increase the imaginary "debt" as it serves them as an effective tool of subjugation. The victims are practically unable to repay it within a reasonable time and free themselves.

Victims of human trafficking are also often sold several times. They suffer the worst forms of physical and psychological abuse, are frightened, often do not recognise themselves as victims and believe that they themselves are to blame for what is happening to them. They are forced to persevere in a difficult situation due to severe economic, social and personal hardships. 

Victims who manage to tear themselves out of the traffickers' hands need to be protected and reintegrated, otherwise they are at great risk of finding themselves in an exploitative relationship again.


The majority of traffickers in the EU are EU citizens and almost three quarters of the perpetrators are men. Criminal groups increasingly involve women in individual stages of trafficking. The perpetrators may also be family members, friends or acquaintances of the victim.

Some operate independently, but most are part of international organised crime operations which control all stages from recruitment through transportation and exploitation. Individual stages are carried out by traffickers and/or criminal associations through networks at local level. A criminal association is usually made up of local traffickers, who obtain victims, and traffickers abroad, who exploit these victims. Traffickers on both sides are usually nationals of the countries in which they operate.

This crime brings huge profits to criminals and has enormous human, social and economic consequences. Trafficking in human beings is often linked to other forms of organised crime, such as migrant smuggling, drug trafficking, extortion, money laundering, document fraud, payment card fraud, property-related crime, cybercrime and more.

Forms of trafficking in human beings

Forced prostitution and other forms of sexual abuse

In Europe, this is still the most frequently identified form of trafficking in human beings. The vast majority of victims are women and children from developing countries or from vulnerable parts of society in developed countries. For the purpose of prostitution or sexual abuse, they are solicited in different ways, the most common of which are various job offers. The victims are then forced into a debt relationship and coerced to provide sexual services that take place under inhuman conditions and constant fear. The mode of coercion changes over time: from the prevailing physical violence in the past which continues to persist, to other ways of coercion, such as psychological pressure, various forms of addiction and similar, which are increasingly emerging. The most important factor in human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is the demand for such services.

Forced labour and labour exploitation

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), forced labour is the most common purpose for trafficking in human beings in the world. 

At first, the victim may agree voluntarily to work. However, this is followed by labour exploitation and even forced labour, with the use of threats and punishments. Coercion not only involves physical violence and threats; employers also take advantage of the economic and social vulnerability of workers. 

In addition to basic human rights (freedom, dignity, etc.), the fundamental rights of workers are violated or threatened as well. This is mainly reflected in the fact that employers or intermediaries do not pay part or full wages for several months, deregister workers from insurance, do not pay contributions for health and pension insurance, and do not pay sick leave, holiday allowance and the like. In many (including European) countries, minimum international labour standards are not complied with in some labour sectors. This is reflected in the unequal protection of workers in terms of minimum wages, working hours, rest periods, annual leave, overtime and social security. The more precarious the worker's position, the greater their dependence on the employer and thus their vulnerability to exploitation. 

Migrant workers are particularly exposed to forced labour and labour exploitation. They are more vulnerable due to their social and economic weakness, subsistence dependency, lack of legal knowledge and poor social network of migrant workers. 

The most frequent violations are in labour-intensive industries such as construction, catering, transport, trade, forestry, agriculture, textile industry, food industry, logistics, and so on. 

Forced participation in criminal acts

The victims of this form of human trafficking are forced to engage in drug dealing, pickpocketing, petty theft, etc. This involves a relatively new purpose of trafficking in human beings, whose victims are mostly children. Too often these victims are identified and treated as perpetrators of these so-called minor criminal offences and not as victims of trafficking. 

Forced begging

Children especially are forced into begging; however, adults, in particular people with disabilities, are also forced to participate in this form of exploitation. All the "earnings" are collected by the person controlling them and not by those who beg. In Europe, the victims of forced begging are mainly Roma children who are controlled by their parents, relatives or guardians. However, there are also cases of kidnapping and more organised forms of child trafficking for this purpose. 


One of the forms of forced labour exploitation is what is called domestic servitude. Victims are forced to work in private households trapped in exploitative situations, generally working for little or no pay. Exploitation takes place in an informal working environment where there is no supervision, which makes such exploitation even easier. In particular, migrants and people from less developed environments or countries are at risk, with the vast majority of victims being women. Unlike workers working in other industries, the victims are completely unprotected. 

Trade in human organs, tissue and blood

Trafficking for the purpose of illegal transplantation of human organs is included in international documents in the definition of trafficking in human beings, like any other form or purpose of exploitation. Due to the high demand for organs, this form of trafficking is on the rise, as in many countries there are long queues for transplantation and traffickers abuse the distress of donors. Organs are also often removed by deception and without the victim’s consent. All organs suitable for transplantation are sold. Organs travel from the poor to the rich, from the global south to the north.

As a rule, trafficking in organs, tissues and cells does not contain all three elements that characterise trafficking in human beings (recruitment, transport, exploitation). The international professional community has not yet agreed on the definition and intertwined nature of the two phenomena, i.e. human trafficking for the purpose of organ transplantation and illegal trafficking in human organs, tissue and cells. In the case of illegal trafficking in human organs, tissue and cells, these are the subject of criminal offences, while in the case of trafficking in human beings, human beings are the subject of trafficking for the purpose of organ transplantation. Trafficking in organs, tissue and cells does not in itself involve exploitation, but it takes place on the black market, is not subject to standardised medical controls and poses a threat to public health. Both phenomena are in the domain of well-organised criminal networks involving persons who recruit victims, travel agencies, private clinics, healthcare professionals and others.

Trafficking in children

Sexual exploitation of children

Child sexual abuse is violence in which an adult uses their power and influence over the child to induce or compel them to engage in sexual activity, taking advantage of his or her trust and respect. Children cannot freely dispose of their sexual integrity due to their developmental immaturity, are not ready to engage in sexual activity and are unable to give their consent. Sexual acts with children are prohibited in themselves, regardless of whether the act involves coercion, force, threat, or abuse of a confidential relationship, authority or influence over the child.

Sexual abuse also includes the sexual exploitation of children for the purpose of prostitution. According to the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, sexual exploitation is "the fact of using a child for sexual activities where money or any other form of remuneration or consideration is given or promised as payment, regardless if this payment, promise or consideration is made to the child or to a third person". "The following are criminal offences of sexual exploitation of children for the purpose of prostitution: recruiting a child for prostitution or causing the child to participate in prostitution; forcing a child into prostitution, exploitation or other exploitation of the child for these purposes; and resort to child prostitution". Responsibility for the sexual exploitation of a child is always on the part of the perpetrator.

Photos and recordings of child sexual abuse show the sexual activities of minors or intimate body parts of children. Child sexual abuse material often involves victims of child trafficking.

Forms of sexual exploitation of children also include traveling for the purpose of sexual exploitation of children. Perpetrators travelling for the purpose of sexual exploitation and violent abuse of children may travel within the country or internationally. The most common destinations are countries where child sexual exploitation is not criminalised or where such crimes are not strictly prosecuted.

Forced labour and labour exploitation of children

Children are forced to work in unacceptable and dangerous working environments and under socially unacceptable and also mostly illegal working conditions. Most children have to work for their own survival and for the survival of their family, they are involved in the most difficult forms of forced labour, and they are exposed to extremely dangerous work such as working in hazardous mines and in workplaces harmful to health. The majority of forced labour among children is found in poorer countries.

Exploitation of children for minor offences

Children are forced to beg, pickpocket or carry out petty theft, distribute drugs and so forth.

Forced marriage of children

The issue of forced marriages arises when minor/underage girls are forced into marriage without having a choice in their partner. Marriage does not necessarily mean that it is an officially concluded and registered marriage, it may be unregistered as an arrangement between families. Forced marriages include varying degrees of coercion or deception ranging from emotional pressure on the part of the family (if children defy the family, they risk being ostracised from the community) to physical, economic and sexual violence. Forced marriages mostly occur in rural environments that are at risk of poverty. Girls get married very young, as a rule they drop out of school and accordingly have very little opportunity to make any progress and lead an independent life. Boys are also victims of forced marriages, but to a lesser extent than girls.

Trade in children’s organs, tissues and blood

Children are also victims of organ trafficking. In order to sell their organs, children can be kidnapped, killed or sold. Victims of trafficking in human beings for the purpose of organ harvesting are mainly children in developing countries. However, even in Europe, some children end up in the black market for organs. 

Illegal adoptions, which may also be linked to child abductions

Illegal adoptions may involve child trafficking, child abduction, the sale of children and other illegal acts against children. Illegal adoptions include adoptions on the black market and adoptions unlawfully handled by adoption agencies. Illegal adoptions can also be the result of poor safeguarding and control mechanisms, and errors committed by adoption agencies, courts or poorly informed future parents. In cases where prospective parents have to pay large sums of money to the child’s biological mother or intermediary in order to adopt a child, there is a strong suspicion of fraud or illegal adoption. In legal adoptions, parents are obliged to pay only the cost of documentation and transportation. 

The number of illegal international adoptions is increasing. Particular attention should be paid to adoptions from countries where surrogacy is permitted.

Exploitation of children for service in the military or armed groups

Children are illegally recruited by deception or coercion into the military or armed groups in conflict zones. Many recruited children are kidnapped, they are forced to fight in conflict areas, engage in forced labour, and at the same time, they are often victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. Children are used as soldiers in all parts of the world and in almost every country where there is war. They are recruited both by government forces as well as paramilitary organisations or rebel groups. UNICEF estimates that children account for almost 10% of all soldiers fighting in conflicts.

Some facts and figures

In the world

According to the United Nations, 51,675 victims of trafficking were identified worldwide in 2020 in 166 countries, of which:

  • 42 % were women, 18 % girls, 23 % men and 17 % boys,
  • 39 % were victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation, 39 % for forced labour, 10 % for the purpose of crime commission and 10 % for other forms of exploitation,
  • among the sexually exploited victims, 64 % were women and 27 % girls,
  • among the victims exploited for forced labour, 56 % were men and 12 % boys.

In the European Union

According to the report from the European Commission, 7,115 victims of human trafficking were identified by EU countries in 2021, of which:

  • 68 % were women and girls,
  • 22 % were children,
  • 56 % were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, 29 % for forced labour and 15 % for other purposes such as begging, organ harvesting or servitude,
  • 44 % were EU citizens.

In Slovenia

In 2022, the Police identified 5 victims of trafficking in human beings, of which:

  • all the victims were women, from Slovenia, Colombia and Venezuela,
  • have been sexually exploited or forcibly married

25 suspects were dealt with, including 14 men, 11 women.

For more information, see the Report of the National Working Group on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings.