Human Trafficking: Slave Trade 2.0?

“Human trafficking is a scourge, a crime against humanity. It is an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ.” – Pope Francis

If you’re an active user of TikTok/Instagram, chances are you’ve come across the latest viral trend that has set it apart from others. Unlike light-hearted audio clips or complicated dance routines, this trend has been credited with saving lives. It involves a hand signal that was created by the Canadian Women’s Foundation[1], which has been making rounds on the internet.

The hand signal involves closing your fist over your thumb and using it as a way to signal that you’re in an unsafe situation. Recently, a young girl who had gone missing used this signal while in a car with her abductor. As a result, the abductor was charged with unlawful imprisonment, human trafficking, and possession of a matter of sex performance by a minor.

Signal for Help [2]

While the 16-year-old girl from Asheville, North Carolina is fortunate to have returned home safely, this incident raises burning questions about sex trafficking, and what legal remedies one can avail [3]

The comfort of our beds, enveloped in the warm embrace of dimmed lights and peaceful slumber, is a cherished gift – a sanctuary of safety where none can harm us. But what if the solace of that haven was shattered by the sudden arrival of strangers, forcing upon us the burden of strenuous labor with no consideration for our weary flesh and bones, devoid of even a shred of humanity? The will to live wanes, and the hope for a better, if not brighter future dwindles. Alas, the UNODC report on human trafficking in 155 countries reveals that in two out of every five nations studied, not a single conviction has been recorded.

“ As he sits on the cold, hard cement floor of his cramped living quarters, stripping down to his underclothes, a young boy can’t help but sigh. He shakes off the dust from his tattered work clothes and longingly remembers the days when he was free. But those days now seem like a distant memory. As he lies down, his head hits the pavement and a spider crawls nearby. The dead of night brings little comfort as he sings himself to sleep, crying tears that his master will never see ”

This is not a mere excerpt from the pages of a novel, but rather a sobering reality that befell the citizens of the US, the UK, and virtually every other country during the 17th century. Human lives were bought and sold like mere commodities, forced into labor on clandestine cannabis farms or unwillingly thrust into the vile world of sex work. Their very existence was put up for sale in public markets, where they were relegated to inhumane conditions, forced to endure unsanitary environments, and left to languish in suffocating captivity, often with fatal results.

Although President Lincoln’s signature on the Emancipation Proclamation [4]changed the course of the war and granted enslaved Americans freedom with a mere stroke of a pen, the grim reality is that the end of slavery did not come to fruition in the 19th century, despite the tireless efforts of abolitionists worldwide. Instead, a modern-day form of slavery trade persists today, veiled not in ships overflowing with captive individuals of African descent, but rather in the insidious form of human trafficking


The harsh realities of poverty drive people to take desperate measures to survive. For many, the daily struggle of filling their stomachs and providing for their families leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. The dream of owning a simple home, wearing decent clothes, and giving their children a better future remains elusive. It is this yearning for a better life that human traffickers capitalize on.

These unscrupulous individuals prey on the vulnerable by luring them with the promise of lucrative job opportunities. They target impoverished neighborhoods and small towns where people lack access to government welfare and quality education. With little knowledge and access to modern resources, individuals are often forced to take up menial jobs to make ends meet. This desperate situation is what traffickers exploit to their advantage.

The lure of earning large sums of money is a powerful incentive that can easily deceive people into trafficking traps. In the United States alone, human trafficking generates over 32 billion dollars[5]. This staggering amount is a testament to the scale of this nefarious industry.

Moreover, a study published in the Journal of Primary Prevention in 2019 revealed that LGBTQ homeless youth are at a heightened risk of engaging in survival or exchange sex[6]. These individuals trade sex for essentials like food and shelter, as they lack the necessities to survive.

The ability to meet basic needs is a primary reason why people are driven into exploitation. Until we address the root causes of poverty and provide individuals with access to education and job opportunities, the cycle of human trafficking will continue to devastate communities across the world.



2020 saw the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Palermo Protocol[7], which is formally known as the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women, and Children. Named after the picturesque Italian city where United Nations Member States convened and signed this landmark international treaty, the Protocol has had a profound impact on the legislative, programmatic, and moral reactions to the issue of modern slavery over the past two decades. While some have praised the Protocol as a much-needed step toward eradicating this despicable trade, others have scrutinized it for its shortcomings. As we enter the Decade of Action and strive to achieve SDG Target 8.7 of eliminating all forms of trafficking by 2030[8], it is imperative that we reflect on the progress made so far and the challenges that still lie ahead. This will help us channel our collective efforts and allocate resources more efficiently toward achieving this ambitious goal. It highlighted three crucial areas and provided clarity on each one.[9]

Firstly, the protocol acknowledged that any human being can be trafficked, regardless of gender and age. Secondly, it recognized that human trafficking is not limited to sexual exploitation, but can also occur in other areas such as labor. Thirdly, the protocol explicitly stated that the use of force, coercion, or deception is necessary for the act to be considered trafficking.

The intention to exploit and control another human being is at the heart of the crime of trafficking. By defining and criminalizing trafficking as a specific crime, the protocol validated the fact that trafficking in human beings is a particularly heinous crime. The exploitation of individuals during their most vulnerable moments is done in unimaginable and inhumane ways.

The protocol requires that states take specific measures to prevent and combat human trafficking. These measures include criminalizing trafficking, providing assistance and protection to victims in their countries of origin, transit, and destination, facilitating the repatriation of victims, managing migration to prevent and detect trafficking, and focusing on training, research, and information to prevent trafficking.


Despite the implementation of frameworks, human trafficking continues to persist, with occasional successes in curbing the issue. While some progress has been made in reducing forced labor and slavery, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem to unprecedented levels. The loss of jobs and the subsequent desperation to survive has led to an increase in vulnerability to trafficking. The pandemic has also negatively impacted human rights protection, with reports of families firing domestic workers and migrants being denied basic humane treatment. As a result, many have become victims of trafficking in the pursuit of earning meager wages.

India, in particular, has struggled with effectively implementing anti-trafficking measures, as highlighted by the UNODC report. Despite an increase in the number of people prosecuted for trafficking between 2003-2006, the number of convictions has declined. The criminal justice system, plagued with corruption and misconduct, is often stacked against victims, with officials failing to provide adequate support. Additionally, the collection of data on both victims and traffickers is inadequate, and the lack of evidence often results in traffickers evading punishment. The testimonies of victims are also often disregarded, leading to a pervasive belief that justice cannot be served. The following table is a document recently published by the National Crime Bureau, which provides a clear depiction of the amount of work that must be done in order to combat the crime of trafficking before it becomes too late.


S. No. State/UT Below 18 YrsAbove 18 YrsTotal
1Andhra Pradesh71623820421215220235
2Arunachal Pradesh49130004913
9Himachal Pradesh2020111121113
10Jharkhand 16981143715018753248301
13Madhya Pradesh1564790535315117132
23Tamil Nadu816247613152237
26Uttar Pradesh0616101191190180180
28West Bengal9445311718106171
 TOTAL STATE(S) 1197811200851919432462171627544470
29A & N Islands000022022
31DNH  and  Daman & Diu022000022
32Delhi UT178242021572219331224
33Jammu & Kashmir112000112
TOTAL UT(S) 180342141692519643239
 TOTAL (ALL INDIA) 1377845222253519522487191227974709



In Raj Bahadur v. State of W.B., it was held that “traffic in human beings” means treating men and women as commodities or goods, with the intention to sell, let, or otherwise dispose of them. The court held that this definition also includes the trafficking of women and children for immoral or other purposes. The case is significant because it helped establish a legal definition of human trafficking in India.


The case of Vishal Jeet v. Union of India (2019) was related to the issue of human trafficking in India. In this case, the Supreme Court of India provided a set of guidelines to be followed by the central and state governments to tackle the issue of human trafficking effectively. The guidelines included measures to prevent trafficking, such as conducting awareness campaigns and training programs for law enforcement agencies, as well as measures to protect and rehabilitate victims of trafficking. The guidelines issued were [13]-:

  • The law enforcement authorities of all State Governments and Union Territories should take prompt and appropriate action to eliminate child prostitution.
  • Within each respective zone, the State Governments and Union Territories should establish a separate Advisory Committee to propose measures and social welfare programs for the rescue and rehabilitation of children and girls who have been rescued from prostitution.
  • Adequate and rehabilitative homes, staffed by qualified social workers, psychiatrists, and doctors, should be provided by all State Governments and Union Territories.
  • The Union Government should create its own committee to design welfare programs at the national level for the care, protection, and rehabilitation of young victims, and to propose amendments to existing laws for the prevention of child sexual exploitation.
  • The Central Government, as well as the Governments of States and Union Territories, should establish their own machinery to ensure the proper implementation of the recommendations made by the respective committees.
  • The Advisory Committee should also explore the devadasi system and join tradition and provide valuable advice and suggestions on what actions the government can take in this regard.


The Parliament realized the need for comprehensive legislation that covers all forms of trafficking is needed. To address this, the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection, and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 was introduced in Lok Sabha on 18-7-2018 by the Minister of Women and Child Development, Ms. Maneka Gandhi[14]. The Bill was passed in the House on 26-7-2018, but it eventually lapsed due to the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha.

The Bill aimed to prevent, rescue, and rehabilitate trafficked persons, but it did not consider the factors that push people into risky situations. Furthermore, it failed to incorporate the knowledge gained by anti-trafficking stakeholders since the adoption of the United Nations Trafficking Protocol. The Bill was based on the belief that trafficking can be stopped through harsh punishments instead of addressing the root causes. This approach may have compromised the human rights of trafficked persons. A better strategy is to adopt a rights-based approach that enables migration and promotes decent work, rather than criminalizing them[15].


Human rights are not just a mere concept but a fundamental necessity for the very existence of humanity. Without human rights, life becomes a struggle to survive in a world that offers little hope or purpose. The lack of protection for these rights leaves individuals scarred and society traumatized. When someone is coerced into exploitation, their right to a peaceful existence is snatched away, leading to unimaginable suffering.

To counter this, an effective and consistent human rights protection policy must be in place, with proper implementation to instill confidence in people and deter traffickers. Awareness and skill development programs can equip individuals with the tools to recognize and avoid the traps of exploitation.

Moreover, a criminal justice system that is fool-proof and ensures the conviction of offenders is necessary to curb this issue. But above all, society must embrace the importance of human rights and recognize the need to respect the basic rights of every individual. This idea must be instilled in the hearts and minds of future generations, taught in schools and workplaces, and disseminated even to those who are uneducated and unskilled. As Justice VR Krishna Iyyer said – “No nation, with all its boasts, and all its hopes, can ever morally be clean till all its women are really free — free to live without the sale of their young flesh to lascivious wealth or commercializing their luscious figures….”[16]

In conclusion, every individual must learn to demand their rights, to protect themselves from those who seek to exploit them. Human rights are as vital as water to human life, and without them, life is nothing but mere existence. It is only when we value and protect human rights that we can truly call ourselves a civilized society.

[1] Canadian Women’s Foundation. “The Signal for Help.” Canadian Women’s Foundation. Accessed April 11, 2023 <,>

[2]World Bank. “Signal for Help.” World Bank. Accessed April 11, 2023 <,could%20be%20made%20easily%20visible. >

[3]“NC man, 61, faces kidnapping, child pornography charges after missing teen uses hand signals from TikTok.” Fox 29 News. Accessed April 11, 2023 < >

[4] “Emancipation Proclamation.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed April 11, 2023. 

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[5] “Human Trafficking.” Embassy of Austria in Washington, D.C. Accessed April 11, 2023.

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[6] Uppal, Monica, and Rajesh Kumar. “Human Trafficking in India: A Critical Analysis.” Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care 8, no. 8 (2019): 2489-2493.

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[7]United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and Its Protocols.” Accessed April 11, 2023.


[8] “Target 8.7.” International Labour Organization. Accessed April 11, 2023.< >

[9] Shah, Alpa, and Renu Modi. “20 Years on from the Palermo Protocol: Contestation and Reflections.” Global Policy Journal (April 20, 2021). Accessed April 11, 2023.

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[10] National Crime Records Bureau. “Crime in India – 2020.” Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. Accessed April 11, 2023 < >

[11] ZJaising, I. (2017). Victimology in India: Problems and perspectives. Journal of the Indian Law Institute, 59(2), 191-212. < >

[12] Singh, R. K. (2003). The scourge of child labour in India: An analysis of the existing legal framework. Journal of the Indian Law Institute, 45(4), 491-513.< >

[13] Vishal Jeet vs Union Of India And Ors on 2 May, 1990 , AIR 1412, 1990 SCR (2) 861 . < > Accessed April 11 , 2023

[14] The Print. (2021, August 16). What is draft anti-trafficking bill 2021 and how it is different from the 2018 bill? The Print.< > Accessed April , 2023

[15] Singh, R. (2020, September 20). Human trafficking: Analysis of recent trends in India. SCC Online Blog.

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[16] Indian Kanoon. The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. < > Accessed April 2023

Author: Nittyam Modi

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