Human Trafficking and Transnational Enforcement

By Amanda Ulland for

amanda-ullandHuman trafficking is often considered to be modern day slavery.[1]  Human trafficking, in the transnational sense, is the process in which people are recruited or taken from their country of origin and transported to a destination in a foreign country where they are exploited for the purposes of forced labor, prostitution, domestic servitude, and other forms of exploitation.[2]

The prevalence of human trafficking is difficult to know because estimates range from thousands to several million people trafficked. “[A]ccording to U.S. Government sponsored research completed in 2006, approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders.”[3] In 2012, the International Labour Organization estimated that 21 million people were trafficked worldwide.[4] In 2014, the Walk Free Foundation, an anti-trafficking nongovernmental organization, estimated that 35.8 million people were living in some form of modern slavery.[5] Even though it is difficult to estimate the actual number of victims trafficked worldwide, human trafficking is a noteworthy problem impacting the international community.

Ways Victims Are Trafficked

There are five main ways victims are trafficked. The first way many victims are trafficked is by abduction. Many victims are abducted on their way to school, work, or home. After they are abducted, they are sold into some form of modern slavery.[6]

Second, many victims are trafficked through the use of misleading friendships or relationships. Some traffickers befriend, or enter a romantic relationship with, teens and adults for the purpose of trafficking them. After the trafficker develops trust and a seemingly solid relationship, the trafficker will initiate a weekend vacation only to deceive them into trafficking. [7] This was seen in the movie Human Trafficking when a recruiter started a relationship with Helena and eventually convinced her to take a weekend vacation with him. When they arrived to the “vacation” house they were met by the other traffickers and Helena was forced into trafficking.[8]

Third, some victims are trafficked using false job advertisements. Recruiters will advertise paying jobs, such as a nanny, waitress, model, etc., in a foreign country. After the applicants arrive in the foreign country and are picked up by their supposed boss, their paperwork is often taken from them and they are forced into work conditions vastly different from the job they applied for.[9] This was also seen in Human Trafficking. A young teenager, Nadia, auditioned in the Ukraine for a modeling job in the United States. After arriving in the US, the trafficker took Nadia’s passport and informed her that she would have to work for him, as a prostitute, until she repaid him for getting her to America.[10]

The fourth method of trafficking is very similar to the third. Instead of false advertisements, the victim knows the work they will be doing when they reach the foreign country. What the victim does not know is that upon arrival in the foreign country they will not be free to go.[11] The trafficker will withhold their documentation and use a variety of coercive methods to keep the victim in their control.[12]

Finally, many victims are trafficked through family arrangements. In some cases, a family will be facing difficult financial times and will sell a child for money. These parents are usually promised that their child will be taken care of and given a better life. Oftentimes, however, the child is resold into the trafficking industry.[13]

Challenges Faced by Law Enforcement

Because many human traffickers are associated with international criminal organizations, which are highly clandestine and highly mobile in nature, it is difficult for law enforcement to detect, arrest, and prosecute these traffickers.[14]  Law enforcement officers can face many challenges, in addition to the clandestine and mobile nature, when investigating human trafficking.

Lack of victim cooperation is one major challenge law enforcement faces. Victims who are trafficked to a foreign nation often do not speak the native language of the destination country and they do not have any social network to assist them.[15] Because of this, the victims are often dependent on members of their own ethnic group receiving them in the destination country, even if those members are their traffickers.[16] The language barrier also makes it difficult for the victim to communicate with law enforcement and assist in the investigation.

A victim may also be reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement due to threats from the trafficker(s). Traffickers often use physical violence and threats to control victims.[17] The traffickers often try to instill enough fear into victims so the victim will be too scared to go to, or cooperate with, law enforcement. When trafficking victims do not cooperate with law enforcement it is very difficult for the law enforcement officers to gather enough evidence to convict the traffickers.

Another challenge law enforcement faces is the actual detection of human trafficking. For example, on March 28, 2001, R. Rantsev, a young Russian woman, had been to a local police station in Cyprus where the police were informed of allegations of human trafficking.[18] Even though Ratsev was an alleged victim of human trafficking, the officers sent her home with her alleged trafficker.[19] Later that same day, Rantsev was found dead on the street in Cyprus.[20] Law enforcement officers did not investigate whether she was a trafficking victim, even though the police were informed of trafficking allegations earlier that day. Also, because victims often do not have their documentation, it appears as if they are in the destination country illegally. If the law enforcement officers are not trained to identify potential trafficking victims, they may simply believe that the victim is an illegal immigrant, not a potential trafficking victim. If law enforcement officers are unable to identify trafficking victims, for whatever reasons, they will be unable to conduct a proper investigation. Even when law enforcement officers detect trafficking, they may face challenges due to the international nature of many trafficking organizations. Members of the organization and evidence of trafficking may be located in another country where the law enforcement agency does not have jurisdiction. Therefore, the law enforcement agency may be unable to gather evidence for their investigation.

Need for Transnational Enforcement

While human trafficking often occurs transnationally, there is no international crime of human trafficking. There is the United Nations protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, also known as the Palermo Protocol. However, the Palermo Protocol does not itself criminalize human trafficking. It simply requires that signatory nations criminalize trafficking in all forms and provide assistance and protection to victims.[21] Therefore, each nation has, and enforces, its own crime of human trafficking, which can differ. However, due to the transnational nature of many human trafficking organizations, some type of transnational enforcement is necessary to effectively detect, arrest, and prosecute human traffickers.

There are three main ways transnational enforcement could be accomplished. First, there could be international cooperation of local law enforcement agencies. For example, if a US law enforcement agency was investing a possible case of human trafficking with ties to Russia, the Russian agency could agree to cooperate with the US agency. This method of transnational enforcement is problematic because there would be no guarantee that the law enforcement agencies would agree to cooperate. If the Russian agency did not want to cooperate with the US agency, the US agency would not be able to do anything to force cooperation. There are some legitimate reasons an agency would not agree to cooperate with a foreign law enforcement agency, such as protecting confidential sources. A responsible agency may be unwilling to share secret sources to prevent the information from ending up in the wrong hands. However, there are also illegitimate reasons an agency would be unwilling to cooperate with an agency from another country. A rogue agency may be complicit in the trafficking operation themselves. Because of their involvement the rogue agency may refuse to cooperate to protect the operation and the agency.

The second way transnational enforcement could be accomplished would be to create an international enforcement agency. The main problem with this method is that there is no enforceable international law criminalizing human trafficking. Even though many nations are signatories to the Palermo Protocol, they would probably be unwilling to make the Palermo Protocol an enforceable criminalization of human trafficking. The Lotus principle, usually considered a foundation of international law, says that sovereign nations may act in any way they wish so long as they do not contravene an explicit prohibition.[22] Sovereign nations are unlikely to want to abrogate their sovereignty to allow an international enforcement agency to enforce an international law within their borders. A nation, which is complicit in trafficking, that has evidence, victims, or traffickers within its borders may be profiting from the revenue of the trafficking. Therefore, in order to continue profiting the complicit nation may be unwilling to abrogate their sovereignty and allow an international enforcement agency to have jurisdiction within its borders.

The third way transnational enforcement could be accomplished is most likely to be effective, while still being relatively easy to implement in the near future. This third way is to create an international task force comprised of agencies from various nations. A task force would allow for better cooperation among agencies from different nations. Because the task force would be comprised of agencies from various nations it would be relatively easy to enforce the law of the nation the task force is acting in. For example, if the task force were following a lead in Ukraine, Ukraine’s laws would be the appropriate law to be implemented. One problem with an international task force would the willingness of each agency to share information. For the task force to be effective the agencies comprising the task force would need to be willing to share information with each other.

“Cooperation among countries and international law enforcement agencies is essential for investigating the extent and forms of trafficking and documenting activities of international criminal organizations.”[23]

Amanda Ulland is a 2017 JD candidate at the University of Utah SJ Quinney College of Law. Prior to attending law school, Amanda graduated cum laude from American University, in Washington DC, where she majored in Justice and Law with a Criminology concentration. She has interned with the Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic where she worked with, and advocated for a variety of crime victims. Throughout her studies, Amanda has taken an interest in international criminal law matters, human trafficking in particular. Amanda is planning on pursuing a career in criminal prosecution and victim advocacy, both domestically and internationally.



[1] See e.g. Human Trafficking, Polaris, (last visited May 4, 2016); Leif Coorlim & Dana Ford, Sex trafficking: The new American slavery CNN (2015), (last visited May 4, 2016); Michel Martin, Human Trafficking: Slavery of the Modern Era NPR (2008), (last visited May 4, 2016).

[2] Megumi Makisaka, Human Trafficking: A Brief Overview, Social Development Notes: Conflict, Crime and Violence 1–16, 1-16 (2009), (last visited Apr 15, 2016) (hereinafter Megumi).

[3] Wayne McCormack, International Criminal Law Cases and Materials, 40 (2015) (quoting U.S. State Department 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report).


[5] Walk Free Foundation, The Global Slavery Index 2014, (last visited May 3, 2016).

[6] The A21 Campaign, (last visited Apr 15, 2016). (hereinafter A21 Campaign).

[7] The A21 Campaign; see also Christian Duguay, Human Trafficking (2005).

[8] Christian Duguay, Human Trafficking (2005).

[9] The A21 Campaign; see also Christian Duguay, Human Trafficking (2005).

[10] Christian Duguay, Human Trafficking (2005).

[11] Megumi at 2.

[12] The A21 Campaign; Megumi at 2.

[13] The A21 Campaign; see also Christian Duguay, Human Trafficking (2005).

[14] | Combat Trafficking: Prosecution, (last visited Apr 15, 2016).

[15] Megumi at 3.

[16] Megumi at 3.

[17] Megumi at 3.

[18] Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia, App. No. 25965/04 (Eur. Ct. H.R. 2010).

[19] Id at 5.

[20] Id at 6.

[21] United Nations. Office on Drugs and Crime. “United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols Thereto”. 2004. Convention/TOCebook-e.pdf.

[22] The Case of the S.S. Lotus [France v. Turkey], 1927 P.C.I.J. (ser. A) No. 10 (1927).

[23] | Combat Trafficking: Prosecution, (last visited Apr 15, 2016).