Human trafficking is a global plague, including in Pakistan. Photo: iStock
Human trafficking is a global plague, but it is a mistake to treat all cases of 'illegal migration' the same. Photo: iStock

Further discussion on human trafficking as a global menace would be quite topical and appropriate in our time; part of the reason is that recently, the world celebrated 20 years of progress since the first legislation on human trafficking was enacted by the United Nations.

More recently, ending human trafficking has appeared as an important agenda for discussion concerning its relevance and proximity to some of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), notably decent work and economic growth (Goal 8), and promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies (Goal 16).

Human trafficking has multifarious effects at both individual and societal levels. It encompasses many issues, and in consideration of these perspectives, it is important to narrow down the concept.

Every year human trafficking affects many people around the globe, sometimes fatally. People lose their lives while resorting to illegal methods to migrate to developed countries.

The punishment for such heinous activities is supposed to be rigorous. Many countries have promulgated laws against human trafficking punishable by years or even life imprisonment. But in practice, some may not be particularly aggrieved when they see news reports about non-payment of workers, or confiscation of passports by employers in some countries, because these activities, while inhumane, might not be life-threatening.

Such unlawful activities are therefore punished less harshly than human trafficking.

Simply put, human trafficking is the trade of human beings for the purpose of exploitation in the form of forced labor, sex slavery, or involuntary servitude. There is no universal definition of the concept – although there has been a consensus as regards its Western origin.

The oft-quoted Trafficking in Persons Protocol (TPP) of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime outlines the following elements of human trafficking:

  • Act: Recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring, receipt of persons;
  • Means: Threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, giving payments or benefit; and
  • Purpose: Exploitation including prostitution, sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery or similar practices, removal of organs, or other types of exploitation.

Regarding the first element, practical experience shows that there might be cases where recruitment was not intended to exploit the workers but at some point, they have fallen prey to exploitation in the forms of, for example, non-payment of service benefits or involuntary labor.

Therefore, the time has come to reconsider the categorization of recruitment intended to exploitation and recruitment not intended for exploitation as similar types of human trafficking.

We are shocked when migrants who place themselves in the hands of human traffickers die while crossing international borders or seas illegally. But problems related to the failure to provide decent work conditions should also worry us. However, the depth of these two types of problems and their consequences are not the same. That is why many countries have passed legislation to combat human trafficking while addressing workers’ grievances through different sets of rules and regulations. 

Human trafficking might occur through the whole process of migration or only partially, in the countries of origin and destination. In consideration of the above, we propose categorizing human trafficking on two different levels, namely “hard” or “soft.”

“Hard” (or extreme) migration is seen in cases when some Asian, African or Latin American nationals try to relocate to Europe or North America via illegal methods. Meanwhile “soft” trafficking is carried out by broadly legal means, but not in conformity with the basic principles of migration – that is, some fraudulent activities are visible either in the country of origin or in the destination country. 

A careful analysis of some of the reports published globally reveals that some countries with records of human trafficking have been treated uniformly, whether such cases fall into the “hard” or “soft” category. We feel a more subtle and precise differentiation and categorization may be useful for the management of, and response to, the global phenomenon of human trafficking.

In order to address “hard” human trafficking, a sharper and clearer focus and targeting of such situations – and the countries where it occurs – are called for, by narrowing the relevant targets and using specific filters. This way we would not deflate the severity of such cases by equating them with the relatively “soft” ones.

Accordingly, we suggest that the world should adopt this two-tier system and take stern measures to address the more harmful cases, thus saving many valuable souls.

Muhammad Mustafizur Rahaman is a counselor (labor) at the Embassy of Bangladesh to the State of Qatar. He holds a PhD in international public policy from Osaka University, Japan. He was also an international research fellow at Kyoto University for two years (2014-16).

Niaz Ahmed Khan is a professor and former chairman of the Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka. He was also senior academic adviser of the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development and National Defense College, Dhaka.