Understanding Modern Slavery


Modern Slavery is a human rights crisis. More than 20 million people around the world are entrapped in some form of forced labor or sexual exploitation. Yet public understanding of this quickly growing criminal enterprise—and the actions and resources needed to stop it—remains limited.

By examining six real-life cases of human trafficking in the United States, Human Rights First illustrates how this largely undetected and underreported crime operates, tracing the process by which victims are recruited, transported, and ultimately exploited for labor and sex work. The resources throughout these pages explain this modern slavery network in detail, providing vital information for leaders in government, business, law enforcement, and civil society to develop common-sense solutions to improve detection and prevention of this shockingly common crime.


Human trafficking doesn’t have to include the transport or displacement of a victim to be a crime. It all boils down to the exploitation of a person through force, fraud, or coercion.

Under U.S. law, human trafficking is defined as either sexual exploitation, where “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person inducted to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age,” or forced labor—“the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” To break it down, the umbrella legal term of human trafficking encompasses several acts:

  1. Commercial sexual exploitation of an adult through the use of force, fraud, or coercion
  2. Commercial sexual exploitation of a minorregardless of whether force, fraud, or coercion is used
  3. Any other form of forced labor, or the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of exploiting him or her for labor

Human Trafficking Tools of Power and Control Pie Chart; By Human Rights First


Enacted in 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) establishes human trafficking—including both sexual exploitation and forced labor—as a federal crime with severe penalties for perpetrators and mandatory restitution (that is, compensation) for victims. It’s the foundational legislation for combating human trafficking in the United States today.

The TVPA prohibits the following forms of force, fraud, and coercion as a means of obtaining labor or services:

  1. force, threats of force, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint,
  2. serious harm or threats of serious harm
  3. a scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause the person to believe that s/he or another (such as a victim’s family member) would suffer serious harm (physical or non-physical) or physical restraint if s/he did not perform such services
  4. the abuse or threatened abuse of law or legal process.

In other words, human trafficking happens whenever someone inflicts physical or non-physical harm, or threatens to inflict physical or non-physical harm, on someone in order to coerce the victim into providing forced labor or sexual services. Threats do not need to be explicit, but can be implied through intimidation or withholding of information.

From 2005 to 2014, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices prosecuted 1129 defendants in 468 human trafficking cases, and secured 758 convictions. The penalties are severe. Perpetrators can receive life sentences for trafficking activity resulting in death, or involving attempted killing, attempted kidnapping, or attempted sexual abuse.

As of 2015 all 50 states have passed laws criminalizing human trafficking, and there are other federal laws besides the TVPA applicable as well. Yet despite law enforcement efforts and the growing body of law defining and prohibiting human trafficking, the crime continues to occur throughout the United States.


Human Trafficking in the United States

Who are the victims, and where do they come from? What are the risk factors that put certain victims in danger, and who would commit the crime of human trafficking?


How are victims lured into forced labor and sexual exploitation? How are foreign victims brought into the United States, and what tactics do traffickers use to recruit American victims?

Force, Fraud and Coercion

What methods and strategies do traffickers use to control victims, both involving and not involving physical force?


In what ways are victims exploited across different business sectors? In which industries is human trafficking more likely to occur? What is the role of the private sector in preventing and detecting human trafficking?

Intervention and Victim Recovery

How often do most victims interact with third-party bystanders? What are the warning signs of human trafficking, and how can an onlooker intervene if he or she suspects that someone is being exploited for sex or labor? Once victims are identified, what type of treatment do they usually receive from law enforcement and service providers? What types of services do they actually require?

Arrest and Prosecution

How often are traffickers brought to justice? What investigative tools are used by law enforcement in cases where human trafficking is suspected? What obstacles do prosecutors face in handling sex and labor trafficking cases?


Published on May 1, 2016


Seeking asylum?

If you do not already have legal representation, cannot afford an attorney, and need help with a claim for asylum or other protection-based form of immigration status, we can help.