Who are Human Traffickers?



Human trafficking is a complicated issue. When explaining it, we often talk about how victims were deceived, and the exploitative situations they were forced into. But there is one key part that is rarely discussed: Just who are the traffickers?


Understanding who human traffickers are and what their motivations are can help us to better grasp the issue. Essentially, anyone who contributes to the trafficking of a person and has the intent of exploiting a victim is considered a trafficker.[1] This definition can apply to a wide array of people such as recruiters, transporters, employers and even sometimes those who provide travel documents or corrupt officials.


Another group that is involved in the process are the intermediaries; these are the people who take care of tasks such as identifying when and where to cross borders, bribing border guards or even keeping watch over the victims. Intermediaries are regarded as traffickers as they assist in the trafficking and exploiting the victim. While traffickers can sometimes be involved in all parts of the trafficking process, they are usually only involved in one step of the process.[2]


People often associate trafficking as a crime that is primarily committed by men, however figures from prosecutions in Asia Pacific show that around 46% of traffickers are women.[3] Women can appear more trustworthy to children and women, which is why they are often the ones who act as recruiters. Traffickers have been known to use belonging to the same ethnic group as a way to garner the trust of their potential victims. Sharing a common language and culture allows traffickers to better understand the motivations and fears of their victims, making it easier to exploit them. While victims from Asia are trafficked globally, the traffickers of these victims commonly come from the same country, province or community.


Human trafficking is one of the most lucrative illegal businesses in the world with estimated annual profits of over US$150 billion a year.[4] In Asia Pacific alone, traffickers make around US$52 billion in profits each year.[5] Clearly, the primary motivator to traffic people is money. Sometimes extreme poverty can lead people to traffic their own family members, such as cousins, sisters or daughters. However, the range of educational and social status of human traffickers is wide.


While some traffickers are uneducated and impoverished, others have an education and a regular income. All kinds of professionals, including lawyers, doctors, policemen, politicians, mechanics and chefs, have been found guilty of people trafficking. Unfortunately even those who were trafficked themselves can turn into traffickers for various reasons. Some former victims become traffickers due to a lack of skills, while others are forced by their exploiters to recruit and traffic more victims. This can blur the lines between traffickers and victims.[6]


To learn more about what human trafficking is and the processes involved, check out our “How to explain human trafficking to your friends and family” blog.

[1] United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). 2009. Training Manual to Fight Trafficking in Children for Labour, Sexual and Other Forms of Exploitation p. 31.

[2] United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). 2009. Training Manual to Fight Trafficking in Children for Labour, Sexual and Other Forms of Exploitation p. 31.

[3] This statistic does not include prosecutions in Central Asia. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). 2014. Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014 p. 77.

[4] International Labour Organization (ILO). 2014. Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour p. 13.

[5] Ibid.

[6] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). 2008. Workshop: Profiling the Traffickers p. 5-6.

Inside IOM X: A Conversation with Tara Dermott

Since launching in late 2014, IOM X has reached close to 200 million people with entertaining and educational content to encourage safe migration and public action against exploitation and human trafficking. But where does a campaign like this come from?

In the case of IOM X, you have to go back to another USAID-funded project, the former MTV EXIT campaign (2006-2014 in Asia). At its peak, MTV EXIT was the world’s largest behaviour change campaign in the fight against human trafficking, applying a Communication for Development (C4D) approach to help change the way young people made migration decisions. When the campaign ended in 2014, IOM and USAID used the best practices acquired over MTV EXIT’s eight-year run to design IOM X.


While its roots are based around the MTV EXIT model, IOM X is in every sense the “new generation”. Access to technology is increasing rapidly, and IOM X has to stay a step ahead of its target audience:

“As soon as they have the capacity to invest in a mobile device, that’s what people are investing in. Even if they’re not already there that’s where they want to be and so that’s where we need to be prepared to communicate with them and to engage with them,” said Tara Dermott, IOM X Program Leader.

Hear more about the origins of IOM X, its focus on technology and innovation, why it takes a sector-specific approach to counter-trafficking, and much more in the latest Terms of Reference podcast, hosted by Stephen Ladek.


Join our #LettersforMigrants Campaign!

Brunei guys

Do you care about migrant worker rights, but aren’t sure what you can do to help? Are you a migrant but feel that no one has heard your story?


We’ve all seen disturbing news stories about the abuse of migrant workers. How many left their homes for better lives, only to be exploited, or even trafficked, abroad. It’s a hard life to be sure, but their story shouldn’t stop at abuse.


If we want to make it morally unacceptable to mistreat migrants, we have to change the narrative, to show that we—people like you and me—care about them and are willing to speak out about how they’ve positively impacted our lives. At the same time, we need migrant workers to speak about their lived truths, to fill in the gaps that the media and reports may miss. We need to bring these voices together in solidarity to make real change.


Regardless of what country we live in, we all know migrant workers. Maybe she’s a Filipina who cleans your friend’s house, a Cambodian motorbike driver who takes you to work, a Myanmar woman who waits tables at the restaurant down the street. Maybe she’s your mom. Or maybe she’s you.


With the goal of uniting the voices of migrants and the public, we’ve launched a campaign called #LettersforMigrants. Simply put, we aim to build public support for migrants’ well-being, showing that they’re human beings who deserve to be treated well. Once we’ve collected several letters, we’re going to deliver them to local NGOs across Asia that work with migrant communities.


post card 8


Here’s how YOU can add your voice:


Send your letters to [email protected] and we’ll post them on our Medium page.


Ideas for letters:
1. Personal stories if you have a connection to migration (e.g. a friend or family member who has migrated)
2. An open letter if you just want to express your support to migrant communities
3. If you are a migrant, a letter about your experience or a message to the migrant worker community


To make this more creative, we’re looking for:
• Short letters around 400 words + a photo of yourself holding a white piece of paper that has a short, powerful quote from your letter written on it
• Letters can be in any Asian language (bonus points if you can do this!) or English


And if you’re a superstar:
• An audio recording of you reading your letter OR
• A video recording (can be done with your phone) reading your letter

We all have a role to play in creating social change. Writing a letter of support is a simple, easy action you can do, and you never know how it will brighten someone’s day!

Recognize this Fruit?



Heard of sodium lauryl sulfate? What about stearic acid? Glyceryl?


You might not know what these are, but chances are you’ve used all of them (maybe even today). They’re all other names for palm oil and its derivatives. Just take a look at the list of ingredients in your shampoo, your pack of instant noodles, your lipstick, even your ice cream. It’s not clearly labelled “palm oil”—but make no mistake, it’s in almost everything and it’s the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet.


In recent years, demand for palm oil has skyrocketed and countries across Southeast Asia—where most of the world’s palm oil is grown—have vastly expanded palm plantations. With growth, however, comes challenges. Many concerns have been raised around the environmental impact given the destruction of rainforests and conversion of carbon-rich peatlands to make way for palm plantations.


More recently, we’ve started to see research documenting human rights abuses in the industry, with some companies being implicated in cases of trafficking, forced labour and child labour on plantations. As complex as global supply chains are, that palm fruit picked by a twelve-year old may very well make it into the shampoo you used this morning.


Two of the most vulnerable groups to abuse in the industry are migrant workers and children. Migrant workers—many of them from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, and India—have had their passports held by their employers, an indicator of forced labour according to the International Labour Organization. Without possession of their identity documents, workers effectively have no way to leave if they’re being mistreated. While in some cases companies have claimed they are merely “safeguarding” passports in case workers lose them, in reality this practice violates labour laws.


The presence of child labourers on plantations is a more complex problem, one that is reflective of systemic exploitation of workers. Adult men are tasked with harvesting the palm fruit—each bunch weighing around 15-20 kilograms—to meet a daily individual quota of around 2 tons. If you do the math, that means chopping down more than 100 bunches of fruit per day—an incredibly high quota for one person alone to meet. So what do these men do? They bring their children to work so they can meet their quota, pulling them out of school to do so. Of course, companies don’t hire these children as workers, meaning their labour goes uncounted and unregulated.


You might be thinking “How could this happen?” For one, the journey from palm oil plantation to the supermarket shelf is a long one, and the processing and refining that transforms the massive palm fruit into sodium lauryl sulfate goes through many stages and passes through many hands. Companies buy from large suppliers, who source from multiple mills, who themselves source from multiple plantations across the region. Thus, tracing supply chains down to individual plantations is a complicated task, and it’s one several responsible companies are currently trying to map. After all, it only takes one drop tainted by forced labour or child labour to taint the ocean.


This is not to say that the palm oil industry is wholly bad or that you need to start boycotting your favourite ice cream brand. As abuses come to light, there are companies that are acting to fully trace their supply chains and enforce sustainable palm oil sourcing commitments that address both environmental and human rights concerns. It’s up to you, as a responsible consumer, to do your homework.

My Poem, My Voice

By Robina Navato

Robina 400px


I have been working here in Singapore for almost 21 years. And I can say that I am blessed enough to have worked with very good families. From my local employer of 11 years who treated me like a part of their family, to my amazing American employers. Life was not easy at first but I managed to adjust.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy for many other domestic workers here. It breaks my heart to know their situation, how they are abused.

Seeing how many of my fellow migrant workers are mistreated motivated me to become a volunteer at HOME (Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics). I am part of the Help Desk, where I give advice to distressed domestic workers and help them solve problems with their employers. It is really easy for me to put myself in their shoes, to imagine what they go through. Sometimes, I get affected too, especially when I see them cry.

Witnessing our struggles, I turned to poetry to speak out against abuse. My poems became my voice. I wanted our voices to be heard.

When I started writing my first poem, “Cry of the Hidden”, it took less than a day. It is a poem about the lives of two domestic workers I’ve known. From there I wrote “Sacrifice,” which reflects my own experience. I dedicate it to all the migrant mothers who left their families with the hope of providing a better life for their children. As it turned out, this wasn’t as easy as we thought.

Life is tough for migrant domestic workers. We made a huge sacrifice in leaving our families, especially our children and we wish our employers—especially those who are parents themselves—would empathize with what we go through. We move thousands of miles away from home because we want to provide for our families too. Respect our rights.


Respect poem


Changing perceptions about migration

Global Migration Film Festival-52

By Dana Graber Ladek

No matter how you look at it, migration is a journey, and this is a good time of year to think about migratory journeys, as many of us – particularly foreigners like me – have made long journeys back home to visit loved ones.

International Migrants’ Day is marked on 18 December each year because on that day in 1990, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

This is a particularly special time for IOM to be celebrating migration with you. On 19 September, we became a United Nations agency, and on 5 December we celebrated our 65th birthday. In addition, 2016 marked 30 years since Thailand became an IOM member state.

To mark this important year and International Migrants Day, IOM held a Global Migration Film Festival in December. This festival aimed to change negative perceptions and attitudes towards refugees and migrants, and to strengthen the social contract between host countries and communities, and refugees and migrants.

Changing perceptions about migration is an extremely important aim, and I would like to look at what is happening in our world right now to explain why.

We are peering into a world in tumult and crises. The effects of climate change, the increasing frequency of disasters, and the emergence and reemergence of killer diseases are constant threats. Society at large seems to be reacting by voting in a different sort of leadership, one that promises tough, firm action, at the expense of migrants.

So now more than ever it is important to embrace, rather than resist, the inevitability of migration. We need to change the perception of migrants among our public and better integrate migrants in our societies. Most migrants simply want an opportunity to improve the lives of their families back home.

IOM, the UN Migration Agency, today calculates that one in every seven people on our planet is a migrant – someone living, working and starting a family somewhere other than his or her habitual place of residence. And, even though so many are just trying to live, too many are dying on their migration journey.

IOM’s Missing Migrants Project attempts to identify every dead, missing or “disappeared” migrant in the 165 countries where we operate. In 2016, for the third straight year, the Missing Migrants tally will top 5,000 fatalities.

Think about that: every day for the past three years, a dozen migrants have died, on average, or one man, woman or child every two hours.

And these are only the fatalities that we know about. Many more deaths go unrecorded by any official government or humanitarian aid agency.

Along with our sorrow and our shock at these deaths, we must recognize that migration is the mega-trend of our time. It’s a mega-trend which has pushed migration into the public’s consciousness and to the top of every government’s agenda. It is also a trend that contributes greatly to society – migrants promote economic development. They build the apartments we live in, they take care of our children and elderly, they pick the fruit we eat, they sew the clothes we wear.

With the right support, those migrants who stay will contribute to whatever society they settle in, whether it is economically or culturally. Therefore, it is important that partnerships are built between migrants, host communities and governments to nurture the benefits of their presence in the country.

As we commemorate International Migrants Day, let us recognize that we have enough opportunity for all – we need only to share it.

Dana Graber Ladek is Chief of Mission of IOM Thailand. She has spent most of her adult life living and working outside of her home country, the U.S.