In 2000, countries around the world signed on to the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, a landmark agreement that defined the crime of human trafficking and required states to criminalize it. That same year, the United States passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a groundbreaking law that provided the U.S. government with a new arsenal of tools to tackle human trafficking; governments all over the world soon followed suit and adopted similar laws.

But two decades later, the scourge of human trafficking persists. An estimated 25 million people worldwide are victims of forced labor and forced sexual exploitation. The majority of victims are women and girls. Human trafficking is a truly global phenomenon; it occurs in almost every country, including the United States, fueled by poverty, social marginalization, and weak criminal justice systems. The scale of the problem is only growing, exacerbated by the upheavals of migration and conflict and by the economic desperation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Policymakers often overlook human trafficking as ancillary to major challenges. But trafficking is more than a mere crime. Moreover, it is not just an effect of significant global problems but also a cause: it bolsters abusive regimes and criminal, terrorist, and armed groups; weakens global supply chains; fuels corruption; and undermines good governance. The United States needs to see trafficking for the systemic threat that it is and act accordingly.


Human trafficking threatens U.S. national security in myriad ways. Trafficking helps bankroll the operations of transnational syndicates and extremist groups. (The so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and Boko Haram in West Africa, for example, used human trafficking not just to make money and seize forced labor but also as a strategic tool to subjugate civilians and even coerce them into perpetrating suicide attacks.) The practice earns its perpetrators an estimated $150 billion annually, making it one of the world’s most lucrative crimes. Traffickers consider their trade to be a low-risk and high-profit enterprise, with cheap labor and sex work constantly in demand and law enforcement efforts in many countries, including the United States, insufficient. Some repressive governments use human trafficking to circumvent sanctions; in 2019, for example, the United States estimated that the North Korean government was generating more than $500 million each year by sending almost 100,000 forced laborers to work abroad, primarily in China and Russia—and thereby undermining the effects of economic sanctions imposed on Pyongyang.

Human trafficking also hurts global economic growth by undervaluing labor and erodes financial systems by buttressing illegal and unregulated markets. In 2009, the International Labor Organization estimated that the global economy lost as much as $21 billion through the coercion of workers, including more than $19 billion in lost income due to unpaid wages—figures that do not include sex-trafficking victims, who are routinely robbed of their earnings. States suffer, too, since they can’t collect taxes on unpaid work. The challenge is immense: as of 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor listed 155 goods from 77 countries that it suspected were produced with the use of child or forced labor.

The profits of human trafficking are privatized, but the costs are spread across society.

The profits of human trafficking are privatized, but the costs are spread across society: one study has shown that every human-trafficking case in the United Kingdom costs around 330,000 pounds ($467,000) in health-care, law enforcement, and other expenses. The pervasiveness of human trafficking disincentivizes enterprises from combating it when so many of their rivals gain a competitive advantage by ignoring labor standards.

In middle- and low-income countries, trafficking impedes sustainable development by destabilizing communities and vitiating human potential. Trafficking can impoverish the families of its victims, compounding illiteracy and poor health and nutrition and perpetuating poverty across generations. Fear of trafficking fuels displacement; migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle region, for instance, have frequently reported that gang violence—including violence related to human trafficking—contributed to their decisions to leave. In addition, human traffickers encourage the erosion of democratic institutions, notably by buying the assistance of corrupt police officers, customs officials, and prosecutors.

Policymakers must start seeing human trafficking as more than a crime against a particular individual. In truth, it is a systemic challenge to U.S. national security, economic, and development interests. Washington should place this issue higher on its international agenda—and pursue necessary reforms to curb this scourge once and for all.


Over the past two decades, multilateral institutions and governments around the world—including the U.S. government—have enacted a number of policies and programs to combat human trafficking. These have focused on stopping the individuals and networks responsible for trafficking, strengthening criminal penalties, and addressing the factors that make people vulnerable to traffickers in the first place. Today, almost every country has ratified the Palermo Protocol and passed legislation to combat human trafficking. The UN Security Council has recognized that human trafficking both stems from and fuels conflict, instability, and terrorism. The global movement for socially responsible business conduct has brought attention to the private sector’s role in preventing trafficking, and governments increasingly freeze the assets of traffickers and mandate that financial institutions report activity that suggests trafficking.

Despite these salutary developments, human trafficking hasn’t declined. A 2020 report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime noted that “over the last 15 years, the number of detected victims has increased for both females and males.” The vast majority of cases go undetected. Insufficient coordination among relevant authorities, weak enforcement of laws, limited investment, and inadequate data have undermined antitrafficking efforts.

The U.S. government’s own initiatives have also fallen short, as Washington continues to treat this issue as separate from broader foreign policy concerns. Officials across the human rights, national security, economic, labor, and development sectors barely coordinate. Funding to fight human trafficking—aside from funding for those offices explicitly focused on trafficking—is paltry. The Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies left migrants more vulnerable to human traffickers. Its anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies discouraged survivors from cooperating with law enforcement to hold traffickers accountable.

Washington continues to treat human trafficking as separate from broader foreign policy concerns.

International agreements and national laws on human trafficking empower authorities to combat human trafficking, but impunity remains the norm—for individual traffickers, criminal and terrorist networks, and complicit corporations and governments alike. Governments in 2019 prosecuted fewer than 12,000 of an estimated 25 million cases of human trafficking. Among those, authorities were less likely to prosecute or reach convictions in labor-trafficking cases than in sex-trafficking cases. Private firms, such as multinational companies that produce consumer goods, have been able to evade responsibility for their roles in the trafficking of people, undermining efforts to ensure that supply chains are free of forced labor and to respect workers’ rights.

The funding currently available to end human trafficking is also inadequate. Human trafficking is too often regarded as a niche issue rather than as a problem tied more broadly to economic health, the protection of labor rights, and respect for the rule of law. Governments, philanthropies, and the private sector persistently underfund antitrafficking programs. Between 2000 and 2017, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development donor countries together dedicated an average of only $12 per trafficking victim each year.

The lack of data on the prevalence of human trafficking, on what leads to the exploitation of trafficked workers, and on the effectiveness of interventions hampers antitrafficking efforts. Governments and civil society groups don’t invest sufficiently in monitoring human trafficking. The limited information about victims and cases invariably understates the scope of the crisis.


Two decades of good intentions have not produced good results. Governments must embrace new tools—and partners—to better implement global and national antitrafficking laws. Private industry should be held accountable to ensure that supply chains are free from forced labor, and the financial sector should do more to identify and report the illegal transactions of traffickers. Executives in the security and development sectors need to recognize how trafficking undermines economic growth and fuels instability.

The U.S. government should take the lead. Congress should pass a law mandating that corporations must agree to strong due diligence standards to keep supply chains free of forced labor. Such a law should align with other emerging regimes, such as those in Europe, to avoid regulatory confusion. To block goods produced by forced labor from entering U.S. markets, U.S. Customs and Border Protection should initiate more of its own investigations and refer to existing allegations to identify and confiscate suspicious products. The U.S. government should encourage other countries to adopt similar procedures.

Curbing human trafficking demands further investment.

Migrant workers make up 25 percent of forced labor victims globally. The U.S. government should lead by example by reforming its labor recruitment system to prevent abuse and human trafficking by recruiters and employers. For example, it should modify its sponsorship system so that the legal status of workers is not tied to their employer, which can force workers to stay in exploitative situations or risk deportation; it should also hold recruiters and employers liable for abuses. The government should ban recruitment fees paid by workers, which increase the risk of workers finding themselves in debt to unscrupulous brokers, and widen access to legal aid and information for those whose precarious legal status might render them vulnerable to their employers.

Curbing human trafficking demands further investment. Congress should appropriate $1 billion for combating human trafficking in the United States and around the world (nearly $400 million more than is currently allotted), providing resources to meet the additional economic and health challenges faced by trafficking survivors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. government should also invest in innovative technological tools—product DNA tracing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, for example—to identify goods produced using forced labor. Finally, the U.S. government should launch a public-private partnership to better invest in, coordinate, and evaluate data about trafficking.

Human trafficking undermines U.S. national security, economic growth, and sustainable development. It must be higher on the country’s foreign policy agenda. The United States should craft a comprehensive response to address the gaps in existing policies meant to combat this scourge. Such an effort will advance U.S. economic and security interests by blocking the $150 billion in illicit profits traffickers make, preventing the loss of human capital, and saving the government the rising costs of assisting survivors. More important, it will save lives and demonstrate the strength of both the United States’ practical and moral leadership on the world stage.

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  • JAMILLE BIGIO is Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • RACHEL VOGELSTEIN is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations
  • They are the co-authors of the forthcoming Council on Foreign Relations special report “Ending Human Trafficking in the Twenty-First Century.”
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