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Human Trafficking Glossary

Trafficking Versus Smuggling

According to the United Nations, trafficking in persons and human smuggling are two of the fastest growing areas of international criminal activity. These often involve a number of different crimes, spanning several countries and involving an increasing number of victims. Estimates of the number of persons trafficked each year into the sex trade and labor enslavement vary widely. For example, one source states that from the 2.4 million trafficked victims, 32 percent are trafficked for labor exploitation, 43 percent are trafficked for sexual exploitation, and 25 percent for a mixture of both (International Labour Organization, 2008).

Even though there are significant differences between human trafficking and human smuggling, the underlying issues that give rise to these illegal activities are often similar. Generally, extreme poverty, lack of economic opportunities, low societal status of women and girls, lax border checks, and the collusion of law enforcement contribute to an environment that encourages human smuggling and trafficking in persons.

Making the Distinction

Trafficking in persons involves the exploitation of people through force, coercion, threat, or deception and includes human rights abuses such as debt bondage, deprivation of liberty, or lack of control over freedom and labor. Trafficking can be for purposes of sexual or labor exploitation. It is important to note, however, that while sexual violence can occur in the context of trafficking and smuggling situations, some persons, but not all, who are smuggled into the United States become victims of trafficking (Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center, 2005).

Human trafficking can be compared to a modern day form of slavery, and human smuggling is the facilitation, transportation, attempted transportation, or illegal entry of persons across an international border, in violation of one or more of the countries’ laws, either clandestinely or through deception (e.g., using fraudulent documents).

Often, human smuggling is conducted to obtain a financial or other material benefit for the smuggler, although financial gain or material benefits are not necessarily elements of the crime. For instance, sometimes people engage in smuggling to reunite their families. Human smuggling is generally with the consent of the persons being smuggled, who often pay large sums of money. Once in the country of their final destination, they will generally be left to their own devices.

The vast majority of people who are assisted in illegally entering the United States are smuggled, rather than trafficked. It is important to make a distinction in Spanish between human smuggling ("tráfico de personas") and human trafficking ("trata de personas"), which is the internationally recognized term by Latin American countries, the United Nations, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center, 2005, Distinctions Between Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center.

International Labour Organization, 2008,ILO Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations, International Labour Organization.

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