Media and Trafficking in Human Beings Guidelines was authored by the Ethical Journalism Network as part of a project funded by the European Union and implemented by an international consortium led by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD). © 2017. Republished with permission. 


Credible journalism requires reporters and editors to know and understand what they are talking about. The words and terminology we use to discuss human trafficking often have clear legal definitions. Journalists should use them carefully and with precision.

Human trafficking exploits people for profit and violates their human rights. Traffickers target people as individuals. They are usually linked to criminal networks organising forced labour, domestic servitude, sexual exploitation, slavery, removal of organs. People are vulnerable to trafficking if they do not have permission to travel from their country of origin, or are not registered to live and work in their country of destination.

Human Trafficking Checklist:

  • It is a crime against the person.
  • It is non-consensual or without the validated consent of the person involved.
  • It is part of a longer-term, exploitative relationship
  • It involves profits from exploitation
  • It may be internal or international

The main international and legal instruments related to human trafficking are the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (2000)and the Protocols thereto, particularly the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (also known as the Palermo Protocol); Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (2005); also EU Directive 2011/36 on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims (2011).

Migrant smuggling is the business of helping people make irregular journeys avoiding official procedures that govern movement from one country to another. This is a crime against national laws, rather than against the person. In many cases smugglers may also violate the human rights of migrants, but their role is principally to provide services that migrants or refugees look for when these are not provided by regular, organised migration.

According to the United Nations smuggling is: “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident.”1

Migrant Smuggling Checklist:

  • It is a crime against the State
  • It involves consent of the person involved
  • It is usually a one-off, commercial relationship
  • It involves payment for facilitating irregular migration
  • It involves crossing a border

National Referral Mechanism is a concept of a framework within which state institutions and civil society organisations cooperate to identify victims of human trafficking or slavery and ensure they receive support. Such mechanisms exist in the form of national offices or sometimes also as de facto cooperation practices between mandated state institutions and civil society actors. They were established in line with the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. At the core of every country’s referral mechanism is the process of locating and identifying potential victims.

Transnational Referral Mechanism is a co-operative agreement for the cross-border comprehensive assistance and/or transfer of identified or potential trafficked persons. It links all stages of the referral process from initial screening, through formal identification and assistance, to voluntary assisted return, social inclusion, and civil and criminal proceedings. It is based on co-operation between governmental institutions, intergovernmental agencies and non-governmental organisations of countries of origin, transit and destination of the assisted trafficked persons in different countries to fulfil their obligations to promote and protect their human rights.

Photo courtesy of Flickr CC: Rob Waddington, 2014

Photo courtesy of Flickr CC: Rob Waddington, 2014

Undocumented or irregular migrants are often misleadingly referred to as“illegals.” This is clearly a prejudicial term, but some migration is illegal when people choose to violate the law by migrating illegally. The use of the terms “irregular” and “undocumented”are preferable but they should not obscure the illegality of smuggling and trafficking. Not all irregular migrant sare vulnerable to trafficking, but they are at risk of exploitation and human rights abuse, particularly when they use services of smugglers. Having irregular immigration status inside a destination country can lead to exploitation of fearful individuals by organisers of forced labour and slavery.

Slavery or Modern Slavery is a general umbrella term covering various forms of coercion and exploitation whereby a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, deception and/or abuse of power. Slavery is specifically banned in international human rights law. It also covers other issues such as such as forced marriage, forced labour,or trafficking in human beings. In measuring the extent of slavery international organisations focus on the numbers of people working as forced labour orthose living in forced marriage.

Sex Trafficking is when an adult engages in a commercial sex act, such as prostitution, as a result of force, fraud,threat, or coercion;

Child sex trafficking differs from adult sex trafficking in that children can never be considered to have consented to the sale of sex acts. The term child prostitution is an often-used but sanitised way of describing the commercial sexualexploitation of children. Child prostitution is generally a form of organised crime run by criminal networks, and often supported by human traffickers.

Forced Marriage arises when a woman or girl, or occasionally a man or boy,has been forced into marriage against his or her will. The girl may be sold by her family, given to repay a family debt,or given to restore the girl’s “honour;”

Domestic Servitude is when domestic staff are not permitted to leave the household in which they work; they typically receive little or no pay and are frequently abused.

Remember: Slavery isn’t just a curious and shameful part of human history. In 2016, according to the International Labour Organisation it is estimated that around 40.3 million men, women and children from every part of the globe were victims of modern slavery. Of these, some 25 million were engaged in forced labour and a further 15 million were living with forced marriage.2 And it’s in the news today. 3

Forced labour is defined by the ILO international convention as when people are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities. Most situations of slavery or human trafficking involve forced labour.

Bonded Labour involves a person accepting a loan that they are expected to repay through work, but which, in fact,is a debt that grows in time and can never be repaid;

Contract Slavery is when a worker is deceived into slavery through the use of a false employment contract. People are lured with promises of employment,yet once they arrive at the workplace they are forced to work for no pay and cannot escape.

Child labour is defined in international law. It refers to work performed by a child that subjects them to economic exploitation, or that is likely to be hazardous, interferes with the child’s education,or is otherwise harmful to their physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. Remember, not all work performed by children is child labour, but if it puts their well-being at risk, deprives them of a healthy childhood or denies them their right to go to school it is almost certainly an abuse of their rights.

Worst Forms of Child Labour is an international term to describe situations in which children are held in forced labour, engage in prostitution or pornography, or participate in illicit activities. The main international and legal instruments related to child labour are the Conventions of the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.4 5 In addition, the trafficking of children is specifically covered in the United Nations Trafficking in Persons Protocol and applies to anyone aged under 18 years.6

Global Target: Elimination of child labour, forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking are all part of the global strategy for development adopted by the United Nations in 2015. The Sustainable Development Goals, and specifically target 8. 7, includes a commitment to the elimination of the worst forms of child labour by 2025. It’s a very optimistic target


1. See smug_eng.pdf

2. See: pdf

3. See:


5. See–en/index.htm

6. See

Main image: cover images courtesy of Flickr CC: Peter Haden (2014), US Department of Agriculture (2013), Rob Waddington (2014), Esther Vargas (2012)


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