Human Trafficking and People Smuggling: The Distinction

In recent months the news has been filled with stories of people fleeing war and unrest in the Middle East to seek better, safer lives for themselves and their families in Europe.

But since European countries impose limits on the number of people they will allow, many people are resorting to crossing borders illegally – often paying smugglers to transport them by boat or lorry. These trips are dangerous and put people at risk, as numerous tragic losses of life have shown.

The news stories describing these events often refer to the smugglers paid to take people across borders as ‘human traffickers’ – but in fact, human trafficking and people smuggling are two very different things.

The distinction between human trafficking and people smuggling can get blurry – and reporters using the two terms interchangeably doesn’t help.

Knowledge is one of our primary tools in protecting vulnerable people from being exploited at the hands of human traffickers, so it’s important to understand why human trafficking and people smuggling are different.

Human trafficking and people smuggling: what’s the difference?

Human trafficking involves people being bought and sold for profit. They are taken involuntarily from their communities by force or deception and are moved to a different place, where they are forced into street crime, domestic servitude, labour and other activities.

The key difference between people smuggling and human trafficking is that those who are being taken across borders by smugglers are doing so voluntarily. Smuggling is a transaction between people who are paying to be taken somewhere and the smugglers who are paid to take them. People are not deceived or taken by force but ‘employ’ smugglers to take them across borders without detection.

Traffickers take people against their will and exploit them for profit; smugglers are paid to take people across borders – this, in principle, is the difference between human trafficking and people smuggling. But there are also some ways in which the two converge – people who pay to be transported across borders put themselves in a situation where they are vulnerable to being trafficked.

People smuggling and the threat of trafficking

Paying to be taken across borders by a smuggler is a desperate measure. The means of transport are crowded and unsafe – thousands of people have lost their lives trying to reach their destination at sea or by land. People put themselves entirely at the mercy of the smugglers who are responsible for transporting them, which can lead to them being taken advantage of. It is in situations like this where the line between people smuggling and human trafficking becomes less clear.

In principle, the relationship between the smuggler and the people being taken across borders should end when they reach their destination – this is what people believe when they pay to be taken across borders. But in practice, this may not be the case.

Smugglers often keep people in their power even once they have reached their destination – they can force people to work for years in illegal industries in order to pay off their debts to the smuggler. Further, smugglers are even able to take people to destinations they did not want to end up at. In entering into agreements with smugglers, people give smugglers a power over them that can be abused.

Even if people manage to safely cross borders, their illegal status can make it difficult for them to find work to support themselves. This means that they are especially at risk of being targeted by traffickers. Traffickers prey on people who are in desperate situations by making false offers of well-paying jobs and a better life – but the traffickers’ true aim is to exploit people for their own gain.


Why we need to protect refugees from the threat of trafficking

At STOP THE TRAFFIK we work to stop people being bought and sold, exploited for profit by others and treated as products rather than human beings. In principle people smuggling doesn’t involve any of this. Although people smuggling is an illegal and dangerous practice that puts peoples’ lives at risk, these people are voluntarily committing to being smuggled across borders.

But we must be aware that when people are in precarious circumstances – like having to cross borders in search of safety from war – they are particularly at risk from human traffickers. Regardless of our views about immigration, those of us who are committed to stopping human trafficking need to look out for people who are in situations where they can be targeted by human traffickers.

It’s only by working together to offer protection to the most vulnerable members of our global society that we can prevent human trafficking from taking place.

(Photo: Christopher Jahn/IFRC)


One thought on “Human Trafficking and People Smuggling: The Distinction

  1. Luis Melgoza

    I beg to differ.

    Regrettably, people smuggling and human trafficking are one and the same oftentimes.

    For example, thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans are smuggled into the United States every year, in exchange for individual fees ranging up to $6,000.00 USD, money that these immigrants don’t have (if they had that kind of money they would stay in their countries).

    They are smuggled anyway, and sent to work for up to three years to payback the smugglers fees. However, the employers pay the smugglers directly and keep the immigrants in indentured servitude, only providing them what can pass for meals and housing until the “debt” is paid. Once the debt has been paid, the employers turn these workers over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and they are deported, just to be smuggled back and the vicious circle starts over.

    As a volunteer Human and Civil Rights Emergency Representative with the Mexican Embassy to the United States of America during the time I lived in the US, I consistently encountered situations of indentured servitude (which, to me, are equal to slavery). Fortunately I was able to rescue several men and women thus enslaved.

    Folks are lured to a mirage of good wages and benefits by smugglers, just to end up as indentured servants / temporary slaves. These people are, for all intents and purposes leased, if not sold to unscrupulous employers. These smugglers are, unequivocally, human traffickers.

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