Human trafficking is a global phenomenon asn in order to effectively fight against it, we must first have an accurate picture of where and how the transport and exploitation actually take place. Geography–both physical and political–plays a significant role in the modern day slave trade. Factors frome terrain characteristics to border patrols help determine trafficking routes by either facilitating or impeding the rapid, clandestine movement of people. Additionally, political, social and economic factors within a society or region can either ‘push’ or ‘pull’ victims into a situation of trafficking. The scale and complexities of human trafficking on a global level are too enormous to adequately address here. However, I’ll try to paint a general picture of current geographical trends. And for those who want more information, most of my research for this post came from the UN’s ‘Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns’ report (published April 2006).

IMPORTANT TO NOTE when reading this information:
Due to its clandestine nature, statistics on human trafficking at any level are shaky at best. They tend to be either a)actual number of victims rescued or repatriated (always much lower than the total number of victims) or b) estimates of the total number of trafficked victims based on other factors (educated guesses).

As a recent UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) publication reports, "No country is immune, whether as a source, a distination or a transit point for victims of human trafficking." Under the UN’s system of trafficking research, all countries in the world are rated–‘very low’, ‘low’, ‘medium’, ‘high’, or ‘very high’–in three categories: ‘origin’, ‘transit point’ and ‘destination’. While each case of human trafficking has its own unique characteristics, nearly all follow the same geographic pattern. People are abducted or recreited in the country of origin, transferred through thransit regions and then exploited in the destination country. The UNODC database that records actual instances of trafficking lists 127 countries of origin and 137 countries where exploitation actually has taken place.

The countries which rank the highest in each of the three categories are as follows:

Countries of Origin: Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, China, Lithuania, Nigeria, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russia, Thailand and Ukraine.

Countries of Transit: Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Thailand

Countries of Destination: Belgium, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Thailand, Turkey and the United States.

A quick glance at these lists shows one glaring trend: human trafficking nearly always flows from poor countries to rich countries with transit points falling somewhere in the areas in-between. These poor-to-rich flows occur in similar patterns at the regional level as well, with the poorest regions acting as suppliers to satisfy demand in richer regions, facilitated by the transit regions in the middle.

Regional Breakdown

Africa is overwhelmingly a region of origin with most victims ending up in Western Europe. However, there are also some networks operating solely within Africa, transporting victims from one part of the continent to another. Western Africa is the most documented destination for victims from other parts of Africa. Demand is highest in Benin, Ghana and Morocco. Most reported  African victims originate in Nigeria.

Asia‘s figures seem somewhat misleading at first glance because the origin percentages are almost exactly equal to the destination percentages. The reason behind this trend is that most trafficking in Asia occurs within the region. The main countries of origin are China and Thailand (ranked ‘very high’), followed by Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philipines and Viet Nam (all ranked ‘high’). However, a smaller number of victims also come from the former Soviet Union. The main destination countries in the region are Thailand, Japan, Israel and Turkey (the latter two are both included in the UN’s subregion of ‘Western Asia and Turkey’). Southeast Asia is seen as a key transit point both in and out of the region.

Central and Southeastern Europe is reported as predominantly an origin region. Victims trafficked out of this region mainly end up in Western Europe. However, trafficking within the region is a serious  (and harder-to-trace) problem as well. Central and Southeastern Europe is also reported, although to a lesser extent, as a destination country, with most victims originating in the former Soviet Union. The region as a whole serves as one of the main transit points in the nearly all patterns of trafficking. At a country level, Albania, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Romania are ranked ‘very high’ as origin countries, followed by the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Poland and Slovakia (‘high’).

Western Europe is mainly a destination region. Most victims come from Central and Southeastern Europe; others come from the former Soviet Union, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. The main destination countries in this region are Belgium, Greece, Germany, Italy the Netherlands ( all ‘very high’).

The Former Soviet Union (or Commonwealth of Independent States) is almost entirely a region of origin with most victims ending up in Western Europe or North America. Belarus, Moldova, the Russian Federation and Ukraine rank highest according to the UN’s figures.

Latin American and the Caribbean is primarily an origin region as well. Most victims are taken to Western Europe and North America. In terms of specific countries, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Mexico all rank ‘very high’ as places of origin. Complex (yet inadequately-researched) intra-regional networks exist in Latin America as well, such as the one in and around the ‘Triple Frontera’ (‘Triple Border’) region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. A great article by freelance journalist, Oliver Balch, is available here.

North America is reported almost exclusively as a destination with victims reported to come from all main regions of origin.

Oceania is mainly a destination region. Victims mainly originate in Southeast Asia.

So that’s a short summary of how the UN classifies human trafficking geographically. The US State Department has its own system for ranking countries in terms of trafficking risk and publishes an annual report entitled the ‘Trafficking in Persons (TIP)’ report. Countries are placed into one of three tiers based on the "three P’s"–prevention, protection and prosecution (the 1st tier being the best, 3rd the worst). The most current version is available here. These reports can help provide insight into where and how trafficking is actually taking place. However, as with any government report, the reader must ask himself how that individual publication fits into the government’s larger political agenda. Some critics of the US TIP report have suggested that recent fluctuations in particular countries’ standings may be less a measure of their actual anti-trafficking efforts and more a representation of their current diplomatic status with the US government. I personally find the section entitled "Trafficking and Emerging Muslim Leadership" particularly revealing.

Placing politics aside though, I chose to focus on the UN’s figures because if we really stand a chance to combat human trafficking, it will require global cooperation of the kind the UN was created to foster.

NEXT POST IN THIS SERIES: What actions are currently being taken to combat human trafficking? Who are the main players? What strategies have enjoyed success/ fallen short thus far?