Human Trafficking, Security Implications and Challenges to Effective Solutions



    1. Human trafficking is progressively being recognised as an international problem and counter-trafficking efforts have improved significantly. However, these initiatives have largely failed to disrupt trafficking supply chains through prevention of trafficking activities, prosecution of traffickers or protection of victims.

    2. Several inherent characteristics of human trafficking and general pathologies within the security sector act as obstacles to effective counter-trafficking.  These include the transnational nature of the crime, facilitation of trafficking through globalisation, the covert nature of crime networks, poor communication, information sharing and understanding within the security sector, and lack of resources allocated to counter-trafficking.

    3. Human trafficking is a direct and indirect threat to national and international security, through its associations with corruption, transnational criminal organisations, terrorism and unregulated migration. Efforts must be made to improve current counter-trafficking initiatives, or the security implications and humanitarian costs will increase considerably.

    4. Intelligence is a potential solution to overcoming the challenges of human trafficking and improving current approaches. Intelligence can reduce the self-facilitation of human trafficking as it is the prerequisite to effective prevention, protection and prosecution, whilst also contributing prediction abilities.


    Since the mid-1990s the trafficking of human beings has gradually ascended the international security agenda. In 2000 the UN implemented the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children with the purpose of protecting victims and encouraging international collaboration against human trafficking. Significant efforts have been made to address this problem accordingly through the development of counter-trafficking strategies and the amendment and creation of trafficking legislation.

    Despite the introduction of numerous preventive and retributive actions, the scale, severity and pervasiveness of human trafficking are becoming increasingly concerning. Human trafficking is recognised by the UN as a national and international threat to security in its own right, and through its associations with related issues such as terrorism and unregulated migration. It is important that we improve our efforts to understand the security risks and implications associated with human trafficking, and how this can be overcome. It is hoped that stimulating discussion in this area will improve understanding of the potential consequences of human trafficking, whilst inspiring creative and imaginative approaches to counter-trafficking efforts, thereby improving the value of contributions to this cause.


    * Terrorism

    Human trafficking does not present a conventional threat to security, as many of the impacts in question are indirectly linked to trafficking activities. However, neglecting to tackle the trade of human beings can increase the abilities of groups that do pose a direct threat to security. A trafficker’s main motivation is economic, and thus open to exploitation by terrorist groups. It is already known that terrorist networks profit from this lucrative trade and is thus, in some cases, directly related to the success and capabilities of terrorist activities.

    Although trafficking in persons is generally responsible for a relatively low percentage of terrorist revenue, trafficking still provides a consistent and reliable source of funding and grants easy access across borders. Terrorist groups have also been known to work in collusion with organised crime networks, transporting resources including money and people across international borders.  The development of relationships between criminal networks increases their capability, flexibility, international reach and sophistication.

    * Corruption

    Allowing trafficking networks to flourish, and their activities to continue unabated is corrosive to many of the security measures put in place within and between nations, and across borders. The more established and powerful these groups become, the greater their ability to undermine security, exploiting corruption and becoming part of the fabric of society. In this sense, the seriousness of the human trafficking problem is delicately intertwined with social security consequences. The openness of modern Western societies is an inherent weakness due to general public awareness of the types of investigative methods used by security services and law enforcement, as well as the laws they are constrained by.

    Established criminal organisations ensure a detailed understanding of law enforcement, judicial systems and tax systems of the countries in which they operate. Consequently, organised crime networks can develop symbiotically with state structure, sculpted by legal loopholes to avoid detection. This, in turn, can be used as leverage to exploit weaknesses in state security through corruption and political gain. This provides an added layer of security from the state by gaining control over security structures, negatively impacting a state’s capacity to successfully enforce the law at all levels. 

    The more symbiotic a criminal organisation and state security structure become, the more challenging they are to overcome, as such, human trafficking is at risk of becoming a self-facilitating vicious cycle of crime. The stronger, richer and more capable trafficking groups and their associates become, the more challenging the trafficking problem will be to overcome.

    * Transnational Organised Crimes

    Democracies aim to overcome these potential threats to security but are constricted by bureaucratic inflexibilities and legal limitations. Human trafficking networks are complex and flexible ensuring they are difficult and costly to investigate as they have distinct advantages over hierarchically organised governments. By their very nature, organised crime networks can waive law in favour of questionable, illegitimate methods. Although the state arguably possesses greater technical capabilities, this power asymmetry is reduced by the superior flexibility of trafficking networks.

    Organised crime networks can create a cross-border relationship with ease by transcending physical, social and cultural borders, and must be confronted with an intensive response. The security sector is forced to employ a vastly disproportionate amount of time and resources in order to combat transnational crime, considering their relative sizes and capabilities. The profile of these trafficking groups can take many forms, ranging in size and sophistication, therefore a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution is unlikely. As a consequence of increasingly effective border control and stringent immigration laws, the organised crime networks capable of overcoming these challenges are required to demonstrate a degree of versatility, organisation and access to resources to survive.

    The security measures states have put in place have given rise to an increasingly sophisticated type of criminal and crime network. One would one expect larger networks to be more conspicuous, but the relative abundance of their resources allows them to conceal and safeguard their activities more successfully. As larger networks are more difficult and costly to eliminate, the challenges associated with investigating sophisticated networks can act as a deterrent.


    * Poverty & Globalisation

    Although counter-trafficking initiatives have been improved several inherent features of human trafficking prevent it from being eliminated fully. Human trafficking continues to operate at endemic levels as the supply and demand for trafficked individuals are facilitated by the sustained existence of conditions that are far out of the control of law enforcement and arguably any branch of the security sector. Widespread inescapable poverty coupled with lack of legal migration and employment opportunities perceived notions of greater prospects through migration, gender-based discrimination and violence produce vast numbers of potential victims that are both willing and easy to exploit.

    Supply is consistent and sustainable, and the demand for low-paid, unregulated, foreign workers continues to rise. Meanwhile, modern developments such as globalisation and technological advancements, including the rise of the global internet, and social media have increased international interconnectivity and the entrepreneurialism of criminals. These developments have made it increasingly simple for traffickers to outsource trafficking and disguise activities through money laundering.

    In turn, this has exposed modern states to novel vulnerabilities and improved the capabilities of non-state actors operating transnationally to exploit these vulnerabilities. As a consequence of globalisation, transnational organised crime has increased in profitability, geographic scope and capacity. For human trafficking specifically, globalisation has eased the transportation of victims, and the dark web has proven to be an indispensable tool in the migration and sale of trafficked humans.

    * Treatment of Victims

    Trafficking victims are controlled by fear of punishment by their captors or law enforcement. Although the Palermo Protocol stresses that victims of trafficking should not be held accountable for their immigration offences, this is not always upheld and many fear further punishment or deportation. Inappropriate treatment of trafficking victims by the authorities contributes to a distrust of law enforcement and disinterest in cooperation with the police. Although awareness and understanding are improving and anti-trafficking programmes are being implemented, most organisations are inexperienced, unable to recognise the signs of trafficking and remain unequipped to deal with this problem.

    In turn, this prevents traffickers from being detected and lowers risks associated with trafficking, further fuelled by low convictions rates. Additional human trafficking laws have not been enough to act as a deterrent, as the economic benefits of exploiting illegal workers hugely outweigh the relatively empty threat of punishment. It is difficult to prosecute transnational crimes, as they often occur across jurisdictions, resulting in diffusion of responsibility, bureaucratic blockades, resource discrepancies, corruption and conflicting laws and practices. Chances of successful prosecution are increased if the entire international channel of activities is presented in conjunction, requiring complex cooperation across a wide variety of countries and organisations, thus far this is rarely accomplished.  


    Trafficking victims are perhaps the most valuable unexploited resource in the fight against trafficking; unlike other smuggled cargo trafficking, victims can provide rich qualitative detailed intelligence, if their relationship with law enforcement officials can be improved.  The overwhelming majority of academic discussion into counter-trafficking efforts is preoccupied with legal and judicial proceedings, neglecting to discuss the utility of intelligence in any great detail. Intelligence may be the key to overcoming a number of the inherent challenges of human trafficking as it is the prerequisite to effective prevention, protection and prosecution, whilst also contributing prediction abilities.

    If combined with improved cooperation between states it is possible this can reduce enough pressure to permit the development of a more victim-centred approach, thus reducing the self-facilitation of human trafficking by increasing victim trust in law enforcement, increasing risk to traffickers thereby reducing supply and demand for victims of trafficking. Conversely, if low prosecution rates are maintained the economic benefits of trafficking will continue to outweigh the cost of potential law enforcement involvement.

    Trafficking is commonly conceptualised under the umbrella of transnational organised crime. As human trafficking is evaluated under the same theoretical framework as a weapon and drug trafficking it is assumed that the same initiatives can be applied to human trafficking with the same effectiveness.  The success of intelligence-led methodologies against other transnational organised crimes provides a sound evidential basis on which to assume intelligence can also be successfully applied to human trafficking.

    Although lessons can be learned from other organised crimes, human trafficking is a unique challenge that requires a unique response. A general focus on organised crime often overlooks these unique requirements. However, criminal networks often offer numerous complementary criminal services, such as weapons smuggling, money laundering and human trafficking. Considering this, efforts to combat other transnational organised crimes may directly or indirectly contribute to efforts against human trafficking and circumvent its unique challenges.


    In the 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, the International Labour Organisation estimated over 40 million people had become victims of modern slavery, generating $150 billion per year, making it the second most profitable criminal activity behind drugs. Human trafficking is an abhorrent violation of human rights that maintains the potential to undermine international security through its associations with corruption, terrorism and organised crime. Although efforts against human trafficking are commendable it is clear the effectiveness of current methods leave much to be desired. At the most basic level, the humanitarian costs are indefensible and improvements must be made. Although human trafficking poses a larger direct threat to the security of smaller, unstable nations than developed nations, the transnational nature of the crime ensures that the consequences are felt internationally.

    Human trafficking is a complex global crime that requires a complex solution and effective transnational communication and collaboration. Opportunities to target traffickers arise at origin, transit and destination, failure to establish a workable alliance along this chain of events is a waste of a valuable and essential opportunity. If we can improve the effectiveness of information sharing, develop a more victim-centred approach and raise awareness of the potential utility of intelligence, we can reduce the threat human trafficking poses to society.

    Insider Expert
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    Insider experts are active in the intelligence, law enforcement and military. Most of these individuals have security clearances and choose to write anonymous. We believe that these individuals offer unique perspectives and insights and have chosen to honour their choices.

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