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Technology: a double edged sword in the global human trafficking crisis

Technology’s use by human traffickers has only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and global digitalisation, but it can also be used by the AML sector to eliminate the scourge.

Napier AI
August 4, 2022
"An empowered survivor makes traffickers vulnerable.”

- Malaika Oringo, founder of Footprint to Freedom, human trafficking survivor from Uganda.

In the shadow of World Day against Trafficking in Persons, the grim truth is that, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, 49,032 victims of human trafficking were detected in 2018. With 135 lives damaged and upended per day, it is a heavy butcher’s bill that victims and society pay for perpetrators of this insidious crime.

We know technology is the key tool used by traffickers to ply their trade. It was also the theme for World Day against Trafficking in Persons 2022, which focussed on the role of technology as a tool that can both enable and impede human trafficking.

It is with this in mind, and as a tech company, that we have summarised some of the findings from UNODC's 2018 report on trafficking, including the scale of the problem, who is being trafficked, and the methods employed by the perpetrators. We hope that by doing this, we can highlight not only seriousness of the problem, but also how technology can help to identify trails of dirty money associated with trafficking and eliminate the scourge.

What is human trafficking?

“[Human trafficking is] the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, or deception for the purpose of exploitation."

Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons

The scale of human trafficking

The scale of the problem is, by its nature, difficult to quantify. However, the problem is rife, and global, as UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly poignantly said:

“Although found in every country and every region, trafficking in persons remains a hidden crime, with perpetrators operating in the dark corners of the internet and the underbelly of the global economy to entrap victims for sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude, and other forms of exploitation.”

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on human trafficking

“The initial measures to contain the health crisis have not always considered those most vulnerable and affected by violence and exploitation.”

- UNODC (June 2021)

Overall, the outlook remained bleak as traffickers were quick to adapt their business models to the ‘new normal’ by targeting more potential victims online.

In areas slow to recover from the ravages of the pandemic, traffickers took advantage of larger pools of the poor. This was exacerbated by the lack of intervention from law enforcement agencies (LEAs), judiciaries, and aid organisations who were hampered by restricted movement and diminishing funding.

Profile of trafficking victims

Females still bear the brunt of this atrocity, making up 65% of victims detected in 2018 of whom 46% were women and 19% were girls.  

35% of victims detected in 2018 were male, of whom 20% were men, and 15% were boys.

Trends have shifted over time. Fewer women and more men are trafficked, while the percentage of trafficked children detected in 2018 has increased by 21% to 34% since 2004.

Trends in age and sex profiles of detected trafficking victims, 2004-2018 (GLOTiP2020, page 16)

Some of the major factors that contribute to vulnerability to trafficking include:

  • 51% - economic necessity
  • 20% - children with troubled home lives
  • 13% - victims duped by lovers
  • 10% - persons with mental illness
  • 10% - uncertain migration status

Forms of exploitation

  • 50% of detected victims were trafficked to be sexually exploited (down 28% from 79% in 2006),  
  • 38% forced into poorly paid or unpaid labour (up 20% from 18% in 2006),  
  • 12% (up from 9% from 3% in 2006) to be exploited in other ways.

Forced labour often targets industries which involve a level of anonymity, such as fishing, where victims can be isolated from intervention for long periods at a time while at sea; or domestic work, where victims can be hidden in an environment where they have no control.

The criminals behind human trafficking

Business-type organised crime groups (OCGs), with three or more traffickers working together, were responsible for 57% of victims reported. When OCGs are involved, there were more victims trafficked, for longer periods and over larger distances, with higher levels of violence.

‘Governance-type OCGs’, with more affiliates, usually controlling a territory or community through intimidation, trafficked 18% of the victims. They also had the highest number of traffickers operating with higher numbers of victims and abused their victims for the longest average period of 45 months.

When adult victims were recruited, it was most often through deception with minimal violence inflicted. However, once recruited, the use of violence rose sharply, and victims suffered threats and various methods of control.

The impact of technology on human trafficking

Underscoring the “use and abuse of technology” theme for the observance day, UNODC stated that “the crime of human trafficking has conquered cyber space” through two commonly used strategies:


The trafficker actively pursues potential victims, often on social media, by striking up friendships and developing relationships which, over time, become more abusive, culminating in demands and threats, such as persuading a female to expose herself online and livestreaming the images to buyers worldwide.


The trafficker advertises on social media and/or websites and waits for potential victims to respond. Requesting explicit images from females for so-called modelling jobs, and then threatening to blackmail them is one such example.

Long-term trends in human trafficking

From 2004-2018 the overall number of victims reported has increased, but the victim profile has changed: more men, boys, and girls are being detected, while the number of women has dropped to less than 50% of the total for the first time.

The report also stated that sexual exploitation remains the main reason for trafficking despite having dropped by 29%; while trafficking for enforced labour has slightly more than doubled to 38%.

The global response to human trafficking

Since inception, nearly 90% of UN Member States have designated human trafficking as a crime.

Encouragingly, the overall conviction rate of traffickers has almost tripled in since 2004 although there has been some stagnation in European countries’ conviction rates in recent years.

The future of combatting human trafficking and the role of technology  

“Future success in eradicating human trafficking will depend on how law enforcement, the criminal justice systems and others can leverage technology in their responses, including by aiding investigations to shed light on the modus operandi of trafficking networks; enhancing prosecutions through digital evidence to alleviate the situation of victims in criminal proceedings; and providing support services to survivors.”

World Day against trafficking in Persons (30th July 2022)

How does Napier help you fight human trafficking?

Napier is passionate about combating human trafficking and is concerned by the rise in detected child victims, particularly online, an issue we have touched on elsewhere. We believe we can help you and your business combat this modern-day scourge, and that embracing technology is the first step towards eliminating it entirely.

Contact us to join us in fighting human trafficking, or request a demo to see how we can help you contribute.

Photo by Rangi Siebert on Unsplash

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