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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 102 (Suppl.), December 2006



Trafficking in human beings, with special attention to women trafficked into prostitution



Ms. Mariette GRANGE

Representative of the International 

Catholic Migration Commission

This paper is based on ICMC’s involvement with the issue of trafficking. As an international Catholic organisation, created in 1951[I]. We assist refugees, migrants, internally displaced persons and advocate for their rights. In doing so, we work on trafficking as it intersects with forced movement of persons. We have counter-trafficking programmes in Indonesia, Lebanon and Albania. We assist governments in reviewing and updating their relevant legislation, train and inform local non-governmental organisations, catholic organisations and congregations, conduct research and set up and operate shelters for trafficked women wanting to exit prostitution. We have build experience in referral systems for these women, and have assisted those wanting to return to their homes. We are grateful to the organizers of this seminar for their invitation and trust that our combined international advocacy and operational know-how can usefully enrich and complement the pastoral work and experience of participants in this area. 

This presentation will first define the contemporary understanding of trafficking; look at some legal and other tools at the international and regional level; provide information and statistical data on the scope and characteristics of trafficking in human beings; look at root causes for trafficking; list facts that feed trafficking; detail violations of the human rights of women trafficked into prostitution and suggest a list of services that can be offered to them. Our objective in doing so is to offer participants in this Seminar a short contextual and action-oriented contribution that might help them shape programmes for a response and accompaniment to women 

1. Trafficking is not new

The term was originally used in the mid-sixteenth century by traders for exchange, without any idea of wrongdoing. In the beginning of the seventeenth century it involved the sale of illicit of disreputable goods such as activities of contraband across borders for profits. By the nineteenth century, it also included human beings, traded as merchandise into a life service and slavery.[II]But we should remember that for centuries, a form of trafficking in human beings, although the term “trafficking” was not used to characterize it, better known as the “triangular trade”, was an established State practice. This is how a number of modern states built large parts of their wealth. Reportedly 11 to 20 million Africans were ruthlessly removed across the Atlantic Ocean from the end of the fifteenth to the nineteenth century to build the Americas and many Western European States. Consequences of this forced migration have left their marks on the economical situation of countries of arrival as well as of origin of enslaved men and women. Nowadays, trafficking is the fastest growing means by which people are forced into new forms of slavery.

Thanks to campaigning and awareness raising about the growing scourge of trafficking, the international community has been looking at ways to counter trafficking, as a criminal activity, and more slowly to protect trafficked persons. The intersection between trafficking, human rights and migration, and the need for government action to protect trafficked persons, came to a slow recognition through the series of United Nations world conferences and summits in the 1990s. This processes brought together government representatives – including the Holy See – United Nations organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and broader civil society organisations and scholars in all world regions. The Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women (1995) focused inter alia[III]on the elimination of trafficking in women and on the assistance to victims of violence due to prostitution and trafficking. The Durban World Conference (2001) against Racism urged States to adopt an integrated approach to broader forms of trafficking leading to servitude and exploitation, debt bondage, slavery, sexual or labour exploitation. The Durban recommendations focus on root causes and prevention, laws against trafficking, protection, legal redress and rehabilitation of victims and penalizing of traffickers.  

2.What is trafficking: some international and regional definitions

The League of Nations as early as 1926, in turn the United Nations as early as 1949 and 1956 and the International Labour Organisation since 1930 adopted a range of human rights and labour instruments on issues of slavery, trafficking in persons and exploitation of the prostitution of others and forced labour. More recently, in 2001, the World Conference against Racism acknowledged that slavery is a crime against humanity. 

Human trafficking involves the movement of persons through violence, deception or coercion for the purpose of forced labour, servitude or slavery-like practices, including the exploitation of the prostitution of others. For working purposes, most United Nations agencies, governments, non-governmental organisations and other actors in civil society commonly utilise the definition of trafficking included in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime[IV]. This definition makes it clear that the initial consent of the persons becomes irrelevant to determine if she/he has been trafficked, if threat or use of force is subsequently employed by the traffickers. The protocol is an international treaty. It has been ratified by 85 countries. This treaty focuses on crime prevention and has been criticized for lacking a human rights approach. The Council of Europe adopted a Convention on action against trafficking in human beings, in May 2005[V]. The aim of this convention is to prevent and combat the trafficking in human beings in all its forms, namely national or international, whether or not it is linked with organised crime. The Convention clearly states in its preamble that “trafficking in human beings constitutes a violation of human rights and an offence to the dignity and the integrity of the human being”. At the level of the European Union, a directive has been adopted on granting of short-term residence permit to victims of trafficking. The Directive should now be transposed into EU member States national legislations[VI].

A Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery has the general responsibility in the United Nations for the study of slavery in all its aspects since 1975.[VII]At its last yearly session, it announced on 10th June 2005 its plan to draft a study on the human rights dimension of prostitution, taking into account the latest developments in this matter. The study would aim at taking stock of the human rights impact of different national responses to this phenomenon, with particular attention to initiatives to emphasize criminalization of demand, or to legalize prostitution in order to regulate it.[VIII]

Other human rights bodies have sought to assist the various stakeholders in defining the issues and making recommendations for the protection of victims. This is the case with the comprehensive and concrete “Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking”[IX] issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2002, which puts human rights at the core of any credible anti-trafficking strategy. Likewise, the Reference Guide for Anti-Trafficking Legislative Review[X]issued by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR) of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) gives specific recommendations for model legislation. 

3.Facts and figures about trafficking in human beings

It is impossible to know the full extent of trafficking and statistics are difficult to obtain because it is an underground activity. A United States Government publication, the 2004 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Reportestimated that 600,000-800,000 people worldwide are trafficked across borders each year[XI. This figure does not include those who are trafficked internally. For instance,children are reportedly trafficked internally (and across borders) in Central and South America and in West and Central Africa for exploitation in domestic service. Trafficking in human being is to be found within large countries, for instance ICMC has been operating programmes on trafficking in women and children within Indonesia.[XII]

The International Labour Organization (ILO) — the United Nations (UN) agency charged with addressing labour standards, employment, and social protection issues — estimates that there are 12.3 million people enslaved in forced labour and bonded labour. The study estimates a minimum of 2.4 million to be victims of humantrafficking[XIII]. Therefore, about 20 per cent of all forced labour is an outcome of trafficking. 

However, there are important geographical variations. The numbers imply that in Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion of trafficked victims is fewer than 20 per cent of all forced labour. In industrialized countries, transition countries and the Middle East and North Africa region, however, trafficking accounts for more than 75 per cent of forced labour. In these parts of the world, trafficking is thus the main route into forced labour. According to gender disaggregated data in the report, forced economic exploitation includes 44% of men and boys, while women and girls make up 98% in forced commercial sexual exploitation. A precise breakdown of the results by age was not possible, as the exact age of victims is seldom reported in the sources. Many sources refer to the trafficking of young people without specifying their age. ILO nevertheless estimates that children represent between 40 and 50 per cent of all victims. Most people are trafficked into forced labour for commercial sexual exploitation (43 per cent) but many are also trafficked for economic exploitation (32 per cent). The remainder are trafficked for mixed or undetermined reasons (25 per cent).  

The ILO report also provides the first global estimate of the profits generated by the exploitation of trafficked women, children and men - US $ 32 billion each year. The data of the UN experts suggest that at present the revenues of criminal groupings from trafficking in people for sexual exploitation amount to US $ 10 billion a year, being slightly lower that the revenues from drug trafficking and already exceeding profits from weapon sales. The enormous profits criminal gangs and individuals derive from the exploitation of prostitution explain the extreme dangers women in prostitution face when trying to escape from their traffickers. 

4. Root causes luring women and men into trafficking

Desperate people do desperate things. And desperate people who want to migrate are easy prey to criminal gangs for whom trafficking in human beings means larger profits, with less risk, than trafficking in arms or drugs. Persons who decide to migrate, especially with no prospect but to embark on their journey without legal documents, persons who flee from violent conflicts and persecution, who find themselves stranded for years if not decades in forgotten refugee camps with no access to self-sufficiency nor prospects of durable solutions are especially at risk. Amongst these groups, women and children clearly are at higher risk. Root causes of structural, socio-economic and legal nature include:

  • Poverty
  • Gender based violence
  • Gender discrimination within the family and the community, patriarchal models
  • Illiteracy, low level of education
  • Unemployment, lack of “decent work “opportunities[XIV]
  • Lack of social services
  • Single parenthood
  • “Sexual tourism”
  • Lack of information about the realities and dangers of trafficking
  • Racism, xenophobia and discrimination
  • Absence of legal immigration channels
  • Breakdown of social and cultural values
  • Breakdown of communities

5. What further feeds trafficking?

  • Easy profits made from exploitation
  • Involvement of transnational organized criminal networks
  • Lack of appropriate legislation 
  • Lack of implementation of existing legislation : impunity
  • Insufficient penalties against traffickers 
  • Lack of political will to tackle trafficking
  • Criminalization of victims 
  • Demand[XV]
  • “Commodification of women, consumerism
  • Correlation between large military presences including peace keeping forces and increased risk of trafficking for prostitution (e.g. Vietnam, Balkans, DRC)[xvi]
  • Lack of acknowledgement by States that migrants have rights, including irregular migrants
  • Underdevelopment (and corresponding low levels of overseas development assistance) 
  • Globalization, the lure of Western affluence
  • Inheritance laws that exclude women
  • Lack of disciplining and legal action against corrupt police, customs and immigration officials
  • Large sectors of unregulated work (including domestic work and prostitution, cabarets, nightclubs, massage parlours, modelling etc.)

6. Human rights violations of women trafficked into prostitution and their consequences 

HR violations


Torture, violence, ill-treatment

Psychological and physical trauma, loss of life

Confinement, restriction to freedom of movement

Isolation, vulnerability, denial of private life and right to family life

Withholding or destruction of documents

Insecurity, vulnerability, risk of expulsion

Rape, sexual abuse

Sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, forced pregnancies            

Slavery, forced servitude

Denial of labour rights (salary, working hours, social benefits, right to rest etc.)

General violence and oppression

Loss of self-esteem, drug addiction resulting in severe health consequences


Trafficking also may result in loss of family support and the breakdown of family structures. It can lead to fundamental questioning about the meaning of life and even to suicide. In addition to specific violations of the human rights of women trafficked into prostitution, they often find themselves in de facto situations of “irregular migrants”, and are often detained and/or forcibly returned to their countries of origins. This detention adds to their situation of vulnerability and the forced returns put them at risk. The combined manifestations and consequences of these human rights violations are further aggravated in the case of minors.  

The extent of suffering and trauma experienced by women trafficked into prostitution makes sustained reintegration particularly difficult. Contrary to other victims of grave violations of human rights, reinsertion is further aggravated by a general low level of respect, understanding and compassion among societies, local authorities and communities for women who have been in prostitution. It is important for those assisting women and girls in prostitution to be non-judgmental, and help them become aware and self-assertive about their rights: including their right to say “no”.  

7. What type of services can be offered to victims of trafficking

  • Shelter, housing
  • Referrals
  • Health care
  • Telephone “hotlines”
  • Legal assistance
  • Counselling
  • Vocational training, education
  • Substance rehabilitation 
  • Advocacy and information campaigns
  • Protection against harassment and threats, including death threats
  • Linking with family
  • Assistance for voluntary returns
  • Assistance for reintegration in country of origin
  • Assistance in obtaining visa to remain in country of exploitation when return is impossible

8. Related issues and further references

Women trafficked into prostitution run high risks when trying to escape, including risks related to telling their stories and approaching others about their situation. The World Health Organisation has issued ahelpful guide. According to it, “interviewing a woman who has been trafficked raises a number of ethical questions and safety concerns for the woman, others close to her, and for the interviewer. Having a sound understanding of the risks, ethical considerations, and the practical realities related to trafficking can help minimize the dangers and increase the likelihood that a woman will disclose relevant and accurate information. These recommendations are intended primarily for use by researchers, members of the media, and service providers unfamiliar with the situation of trafficked women”[XVII].

An international network of Christian organisations against trafficking in women has been created in 2002. Entitled Coatnet, it was initiated by Caritas organisations in Europe in cooperation with CCME (Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe). It currently consists of Christian organizations in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom and is based on national anti-trafficking networks in these countries. "Coatnet" members implement prevention and awareness raising activities in countries of origin, transit and destination, assist trafficked women and support their re-integration; they do advocacy work and networking in their countries[XVIII]

Concluding remarks

It should be recalled that not all prostitution results from trafficking: this paper explores the link between the two, based on ICMC’s specificity in working with forcibly uprooted persons, and the related intersection between trafficking in human beings when it leads to prostitution. As detailed above, women and girls trafficked into prostitution are often exposed to brutal, inhuman and degrading treatments, resulting in acute suffering. Reaching out to them, listening and jointly devising means to alleviate this suffering is a complex and demanding enterprise. By unpacking these criminal practices, their roots, characteristics and consequences, we hope to assist participants in this seminar in further defining existing or possible areas of interventions. 

[I] In 1951, German, Italian, and American laity and clergy, as well as Secretary of State, Archbishop Montini (the future Pope Paul VI), and Cardinal Joseph Frings of Germany, initiated the creation of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC). The following year, Pope Pius XII, in his papal letter, Exsul Familia, focused the attention of Catholics on the needs of migrants and refugees, and formally introduced ICMC to the world. He wrote: “Very recently, we approved the International Catholic Migration Commission, whose function is to unite and organize existing Catholic associations and committees, and to promote, reinforce and coordinate their projects and activities in behalf of migrants and refugees.” IXT/ ENG 2011/ _ _P2.HTM

[II]Trafficking in Human Beings: New Approaches to Combating the Problem, Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, ILO, May 2003,


[III]See Fourth World Conference on Women website:

[IV] Â“Trafficking in persons shall mean the 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”

Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime


[VI] Council Directive 2004/81/EC on the residence permit issued to third-country nationals who are victims of trafficking in human beings or who have been the subject of an action to facilitate illegal immigration, who cooperate with the competent authorities.

[VII] See OHCHR website:

[VIII] For more information on the work of the Working Group and how to get involved with it, see Franciscans International: http://www.

[IX]  See OHCHR website:

[X]  See OSCE website:


[XII] See: Trafficking of Women and Children in Indonesia, published in 2003 by the International Catholic Migration Commission and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity

[XIII] A global alliance against forced labour,Global Report under the Follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, 2005, International Labour Office,Geneva. bureau/inf/pr/2005/22.htm#1

[XIV] Within the ILO, the following characteristics have been attributed to the “decent work” concept: it is productive and secure work, it ensures respect of labour rights, it provides an adequate income, it offers social protection, it includes social dialogue, union freedom, collective bargaining and participation.

[XV] See IOM publication: Is Trafficking in Human Beings Demand Driven: A Multi-Country Pilot Study


[XVI] See NATO ‘s Policy on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, and its training module for Military Commanders and Civilian Leaders on Trafficking in Human Being, a Threat to Security and Stability,


[XVII]Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Interviewing Trafficked Women, WHO, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine/Daphne Programme of the European Commission, 2003