What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery. It involves controlling a person through force, fraud, or coercion to exploit the victim for forced labor, sexual exploitation, or both. Human trafficking strips victims of their freedom and violates our nation’s promise that every person in the United States is guaranteed basic human rights. It is also a crime.

Approximately three out of every 1,000 persons worldwide were in forced labor at any given point in time between 2002 and 2011. Victims of human trafficking include not only men and women lured into forced labor by the promise of a better life in the United States, but also boys and girls who were born and raised here in California.

Victims of human trafficking represent a range of backgrounds in terms of age, nationality, socioeconomic status, and education, but one characteristic that they usually share is some form of vulnerability. They are often isolated from their families and social networks. In some cases, victims are separated from their country of origin, native language, and culture.

Victims who are undocumented immigrants often do not report abuses to the authorities out of distrust of law enforcement, and/or fear of arrest, injury to family members, deportation, or other serious reprisals. Many domestic victims of sex trafficking are underage runaways and/or come from backgrounds of sexual and physical abuse, incest, poverty, or addiction.

Definitions of Human Trafficking


The California Legislature defined human trafficking as "all acts involved in the recruitment, abduction, transport, harboring, transfer, sale or receipt of persons, within national or across international borders, through force, coercion, fraud or deception, to place persons in situations of slavery or slavery-like conditions, forced labor or services, such as forced prostitution or sexual services, domestic servitude, bonded sweatshop labor, or other debt bondage."

As codified in the California Penal Code, anyone who "deprives or violates the personal liberty of another with the intent . . . to obtain forced labor or services" is guilty of human trafficking. Depriving or violating a person's liberty includes "substantial and sustained restriction of another's liberty accomplished through fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to the victim or to another person, under circumstances where the person receiving or apprehending the threat reasonably believes that it is likely that the person making the threat would carry it out."

Forced labor or services include "labor or services that are performed or provided by a person and are obtained or maintained through force, fraud, or coercion, or equivalent conduct that would reasonably overbear the will of the person."


Federal law defines trafficking in persons as "sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age"; or "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery."

International Labour Organization (ILO)

The ILO, an agency of the United Nations, defines human trafficking as the "recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring 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 labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude, or the removal of organs."

Difference between Human Trafficking and Smuggling

Though they are often confused, human trafficking and smuggling are separate and fundamentally different crimes. Human trafficking is a crime against the person whereas smuggling is a crime against the state. Smuggling occurs when a person voluntarily requests or hires a person, known as a smuggler, to transport him or her across a border for a fee.

At least theoretically, a person who is smuggled into the United States is free to leave upon payment of a prearranged fee, while a victim of human trafficking is enslaved to supply labor or services. Unlike smuggling, the crime of human trafficking does not require travel or transportation of the victim across borders. Thus, human trafficking can (and does) occur domestically, with victims who are born and raised in California and other states.

Human Trafficking in the United States

The United States is widely regarded as a destination country for human trafficking. Federal reports estimate that 14,500 to 17,500 victims are trafficked into the United States annually. This does not include the number of victims who are trafficked within the United States each year.

Human Trafficking in California

As a diverse cultural center and popular destination for immigrants with multiple international borders, California is one of the largest sites of human trafficking in the United States. In the two years between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2012, California's task forces initiated 2,552 investigations, identified 1,277 victims of human trafficking, and arrested 1,798 individuals.

Types of Human Trafficking

Sex Trafficking

Sex trafficking is the act of forcing, coercing, or transporting a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act. These crimes are primarily committed against women and children. Sex trafficking can occur in residential brothels, brothels disguised as massage parlors, strip clubs, and via online escort services and street prostitution.