Human Trafficking: Risk Factors and Ethical Responsibilities

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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (USDHS, n.d.) defines human trafficking as “modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act” (p.1). Millions of people are said to suffer from being in forced labor. (Zimmerman and Kiss, 2017, p. 1) It is found that child workers, migrants, and minorities are more at risk of being trafficked. (Zimmerman and Kiss, 2017, p. 7)

One protective factor for people is the Palermo Protocol which has several methods enacted: prosecute traffickers, programs for prevention, and protection of victims. (Orme and Sheriff, 2015, p. 289) The National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics (NASW, 2015) says that “social workers pursue change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people” to challenge social injustices (p. 5). Human trafficking is a huge problem that social workers can work on and hopefully change for the better.

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Keywords: human trafficking, forced labor, risk factors, protective factors


Human Trafficking Around the World

Millions of people all over the world suffer from a social justice problem that is not thought about often enough, human trafficking. Anyone is at risk of being trafficked; it affects every race, gender, class, or age.

Almost anyone can agree that any child or adult being forced into something against their will is horrible. But oftentimes, it’s people that won’t be missed or at least for a long period of time. Because of this, the traffickers are able to take them and use them for whatever they want. This is a horrendous aggrievance that all countries need to unite and fix.

Definition and Statistics

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (USDHS, n.d.) defines human trafficking as “modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act” (p.1). Human trafficking is reportedly earning more than 31 billion United States dollars. (Alvarez and Alessi, 2012, p. 142) It encompasses more than just sex work, which is what most assume. While that is a big part of the industry, there are other things people are used for. Victims are taken and used in industries such as coffee, cocoa, and gems. (Alvarez and Alessi, 2012, p. 143)

In fact, according to the Journal of Women and social work, “more than half the trafficked adults in the United Kingdom who were referred for post-trafficking services from April 2009 to June 2011 were forced to work in industries other than sex work”. (p. 143) Because of the strict focus on sex and prostitution exploitation, it can affect those in the other industries from being acknowledged and helped, especially boys and men. (Alvarez and Alessi, 2012, p. 143)

There are numerous myths thought about human trafficking. Some of them, according to DHS, are: human trafficking is only sex trafficking; it does not occur in the United States; only in foreign countries; people must be forced into commercial sex acts, victims will attempt to seek help in public, and human trafficking and smuggling are the same. Human trafficking exists all over the world and can happen in every country. People do not have to be forced into an act to be considered a victim. Victims will not always come forward when away from a trafficker, either from fear for themselves from the abuser or fear for their family or they could be from another country. Smuggling is moving someone to another location with a person’s consent to avoid laws. Trafficking is against someone’s will and does not have to include another location.

In 2017 the latest numbers were that 40.3 million people around the world were impacted, with 29.4 million considered to be in a forced labor situation. (Zimmerman and Kiss, 2017, p. 1) In the United States, the National Human Trafficking Hotline says there were around 5,147 trafficking cases reported in 2018. (NHTH, 2018) Most cases come from California, with 760. (NHTH, 2018) The highest type of trafficking was sex trafficking. But we must remember that other industries are underreported. (NHTH, 2018) Females were the top gender involved. US citizens and foreign nationals (based on citizenship) were almost tied, which says a lot. (NHTH, 2018) These numbers are down from 2017, with 8,524 cases reported in the US. (NHTH, 2017) All the other things remained number one in their category. (NHTH, 2017)

Risk and Protective Factors

Human trafficking can be a risk for anyone in any country. But there are certain things that have been identified as higher risks for people. According to Zimmerman and Kiss reports that child workers, minorities, and irregular migrants have a particularly higher chance of being trafficked. (p. 7) Minorities and marginalized populations are found to be in some of the most dangerous labors, like leather tanning. (Zimmerman and Kiss, 2017, p.7) Different areas of trafficking are at more risk for certain genders, like females are recruited more for sex, marriage, and domestic work. Where males are used more for trade work. (Zimmerman and Kiss, 2017, p.7)

There are several demographic factors that can increase someone’s risk of being trafficked. The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE, 2019) says lack of personal safety, isolation, homelessness, poverty, substance abuse, child sexual abuse, and mental health are just some of the few. Homeless youth are at extremely high risk of trafficking. (NCSSLE, 2019) Research shows between 33 and 90% of commercial child exploitation have experienced some type of abuse previously. (NCSSLE, 2019)

For human trafficking, there are several programs and organizations in place to help protect people. One is the Palermo Protocol which was adopted by the United Nations in 2000. “This protocol established three primary methods of fighting trafficking, known as the three P’s: (1) prosecution of traffickers, (2) prevention programming, and (3) protection of trafficking victims,” says Orme and Sheriff (2015). (p. 289) Another is the prohibitionist approach.

This makes prostitution illegal, and it is used in 39 countries. (Orme and Sheriff, 2015, p. 289) But, the enforcement of these laws is not always done, and places let it slide. A third is the actual legalization of prostitution. (Orme and Sheriff, 2015, p. 289) Advocates say that sexual violence is often lowered or stopped when women and men can stand up for themselves in an industry that is legal. It is legal in 49 countries. (Orme and Sheriff, 2015, p. 289)


The NASW Code of Ethics says that “social workers pursue change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people” to challenge social injustices (p. 5). We, as social workers, have a responsibility to stand up for people when they aren’t able to do it for themselves. Human Trafficking is a horrible injustice that is happening all over the world. Social workers have a voice and opportunity to implement and use laws and organizations to prevent and stop trafficking.


Human Trafficking is a humongous problem all over in so many countries. People are at risk due to non-demographic and demographic reasons, either due to their race or living in poverty, among dozens of other things. With millions of people being victims of this tragedy, social workers and others need to stand up and do what they can to save the human race.


  1. Alvarez, M. B., & Alessi, E. J. (2012). Human trafficking is more than sex trafficking and prostitution: Implications for social work. AFFILIATE: Journal of Women and Social Work, 27(2), 142–152.
  2. Department of Homeland Security. (2019). What is Human Trafficking? Retrieved from
  3. National Association of Social Workers (2015). Code of ethics of the national association of social workers. Retrieved from:
  4. National Center of Safe Supportive Learning Environments. (2019). Risk Factors and Indicators | Safe Supportive Learning. Retrieved from
  5. National Human Trafficking Hotline. (2018). Hotline Statistics. Retrieved from
  6. Orme, J., & Ross-Sheriff, F. (2015). Sex trafficking: Policies, programs, and services. Social Work60(4), 287–294.
  7. Zimmerman, C., & Kiss, L. (2017, November 22). Human trafficking and exploitation: A global health concern. Retrieved from

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Human Trafficking: Risk Factors and Ethical Responsibilities. (2023, Aug 15). Retrieved from

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