Louise Shelley


On her book Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective

Cover Interview of April 10, 2011

The wide angle

Human smuggling and trafficking have been among the fastest growing forms of transnational crime—because current world conditions have created increased imbalances of demand and supply.  In addition, migration flows are enormous and this illicit trade is hidden within the massive movement of people.

The supply of people that are trafficked exists because globalization has caused increasing economic and demographic disparities between the developing and developed world, along with the feminization of poverty and the marginalization of many rural communities. Globalized corruption has stripped many developing countries of much of their national treasuries, depriving citizens of education and social benefits and development capital.

Trafficking has expanded because the transportation infrastructure is there and transportation costs have declined.  The tremendous growth of tourism has also enabled pedophiles to travel and many to engage in sex tourism.

The end of the Cold War resulted in the rise of regional conflicts and the decline of borders, leading to an increased number of economic and political refugees.  Furthermore, many rebel groups turned to illicit activity, including human trafficking, to fund their military actions and obtain soldiers.  Demand has also increased as producers depend more on trafficked and exploited labor to stay competitive in a global economy in which consumers seek cheap goods and services, including easily available and accessible sexual services.

Imbalances of supply and demand have created a flourishing business for traffickers.

Traffickers choose to trade in humans because there are low start-up costs, minimal risks, high profits, and large demand. For organized crime groups, human beings have one added advantage over drugs: they can be sold repeatedly.  In drug trafficking organizations, profits flow to the top of the organization.  With the small-scale entrepreneurship that characterizes much of human trafficking, however, more profits go to individual criminals making this trade more attractive for all involved.

Human smugglers and traffickers are not always motivated exclusively by profit.  Some consciously engage in this activity to fund a terrorist group, a guerilla movement, or an insurgency.  Others trade in people to provide suicide bombers.

Everywhere in the world, the consequences of trafficking are devastating for its victims and larger communities.  Those victimized in this open slave market were not only the young women destined for sexual slavery. All of society suffers from such victimization.  Other casualties include the principles of a democratic society, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.  The degradation of the women in full view of the public deals a direct blow to the rights of women and to gender equality. The full costs of human trafficking, however, will be evident only in coming decades.

Transnational crime was once synonymous with the drug trade.  Yet trafficking in persons is now perpetrated on such a large scale that it is a prime activity of many transnational crime groups.  According to 2005 data of the International Labour Organization, 12.3 million people worldwide are in forced bonded labor, child labor, and sexual servitude.