fbpx Skip to main content

Today, July 30, is the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. Trafficking is a problem that touches all corners of the world, entrapping thousands of men, women, and children each...

Today, July 30, is the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. Trafficking is a problem that touches all corners of the world, entrapping thousands of men, women, and children each year in situations where their basic human rights are egregiously violated. The International Labour Organization estimated that in 2016, 40.3 million people around the world were trapped in modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labor.

As a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) constantly seeks to shine a light on human rights abuses such as trafficking. While human trafficking affects almost all countries, HRF’s research has produced a finding seldom discussed and often overlooked by media: authoritarianism is at the structural root of human trafficking. 

Trafficking in Persons & Authoritarian Regimes

Human trafficking is defined as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons […] for the purpose of exploitation” through using deception, fraud, debt bondage, and other forms of coercion. Each year, the U.S. Department of State publishes its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which classifies countries based on their efforts in combatting human trafficking. It labels countries into four categories, Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watchlist, and Tier 3. Countries ranked in the Tier 1 category demonstrate the strongest anti-trafficking efforts, while countries ranked in the Tier 3 category demonstrate the worst. 

HRF’s analysis of the 2020 TIP report revealed that democracies outperform authoritarian regimes in their efforts to combat human trafficking. 91% of the highest-ranking countries in the report —Tier 1 — are democratic. On the other end of the spectrum, almost 90% of the lowest-ranked countries — Tier 3 — are those ruled by authoritarian regimes. 

This correlation is not just limited to the findings of the 2020 TIP report. Last year, HRF published an op-ed entitled “Human Trafficking Has a Hidden Cause — and It’s on the Rise Worldwide,” and in 2018, HRF published a policy memo “Authoritarianism and Trafficking in Persons.” Both found similar patterns linking authoritarianism and trafficking. 

These patterns exist because of the features inherent to authoritarian regimes: the absence of rule of law, an independent or free press, and free and fair elections. Without avenues for dissent, trafficking victims, activists, and even ordinary citizens who oppose trafficking lack the means to disseminate information and hold their governments accountable. Those who do speak up are subject to political persecution, including being harassed, arbitrarily arrested and detained, and jailed. 

Case Studies: How Human Trafficking Manifests in Authoritarian Regimes



China was ranked a Tier 3 country in the 2020 TIP report for its “lack of significant efforts” to combat trafficking and “pattern of widespread forced labor.” The Global Slavery Index found that in 2016, there were more than 3.8 million people living in modern slavery in China, excluding organ trafficking. 

Trafficking in China manifests in numerous ways. Forced student labor has been linked to the supply chains of major electronics and technology companies, such as Apple, HP, Acer, and Sony, and Chinese businesses are not legally obligated to disclose that they relied on forced labor. Traffickers lure foreign females to China, which has a significant gender imbalance, only to force them into marriages or sexual exploitation. The government itself also sponsors trafficking, with reports emerging about the forced labor of inmates to produce exported goods and forced organ harvesting of prisoners, despite these practices officially being banned in 2013 and 2014 respectively. 

At the same time, protections for trafficking victims are weak. Sex trafficking victims can be punished for prostitution, and foreign women in forced marriages who escape and report their situations to police have been arrested and returned to their abusers. Furthermore, victims and their families have been harassed and threatened by police after reporting crimes. 

China has recently received scrutiny for the mass internment and forced labor of Uyghurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. Under the guise of countering religious extremism, officials have forcibly detained approximately 800,000 to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in “re-education camps,” where they are indoctrinated with Communist Party ideology. Alongside the camps, the government also sponsors a labor transfer program that moves Uyghurs, including former “graduates” of the re-education camps, from Xinjiang to other parts of China to work at factory and service jobs.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, produced a report conservatively pegging the number of Uyghurs transferred as a part of the program between 2017-2019 at 80,000 and finding “conditions that strongly suggest forced labor.” Uyghurs who refuse to work can be labeled an extremist sympathizer and threatened with detention. Transferred Uyghurs live in segregated dormitories, where they are subject to constant surveillance and physical and electronic tracking and are prohibited from engaging in religious practices. They cannot voluntarily leave the programs and must work for either minimum wage or no pay. The forced labor of Uyghurs has been linked to the supply chains of some of the most prominent brands in the world, including Adidas, Amazon, Patagonia, Zara, H&M, Kraft Heinz, and Coca-Cola


North Korea

In the 2020 TIP report, North Korea is ranked in the Tier 3 category, where “the government did not demonstrate any efforts to address human trafficking” and had a “policy or pattern of forced labor.” Domestically, the state sponsors trafficking. Forced labor is an essential part of the economy. North Koreans are assigned jobs based on social class with no option to change them, and students are forced to provide unpaid labor. The government has jailed 80,000 to 120,000 North Koreans in political prison camps, which serve as tools for political repression. Conditions in these camps are harsh; everyone, including children, are forced to perform hard labor, fed inadequate supplies of food, deprived of access to health services, and subject to torture, including beatings and rape.

North Korea is also a source country for forced labor and sex trafficking victims in other countries. The North Korean government signs contracts with foreign businesses and governments that send approximately 50,000 to 150,000 North Koreans abroad to perform forced labor in sectors ranging from manual labor to restaurants to IT, with as many as 80% being sent to Russia and China. Workers must endure 12 to 16 hour workdays, dangerous work conditions, constant surveillance, travel limitations, and only 1-2 days off per month. The government confiscates up to 70-90% of the wages earned, using the proceeds to prop up the domestic economy and fund programs such as the nuclear program. 

Female North Korean defectors are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. A report by the Korea Future Initiative found that about 60% of female North Korean who defect to China are sold into into the sex trade, where they are forced into prostitution, marriages, and cybersex. HRF Board Member Yeonmi Park is one of these defectors who fell prey to trafficking in China. She argues that one way to counter trafficking is to address the root of the problem —authoritarianism— through democracy promotion and increasing North Koreans’ knowledge of the outside world. HRF seeks to pursue this mission through the Flash Drives for Freedom program, which has delivered flash drives filled with foreign media to an estimated 1.3 million North Koreans. 



Eritrea is another fully authoritarian regime that is ranked in the Tier 3 category in the 2020 TIP report. As Eritrean journalist and human rights activist Meron Estefanos discussed in her speech at the 2013 Oslo Freedom Forum, Eritrea instituted a mandatory national military service program in 1995 that conscripted youth at the end of high school. Though initially a 18-month service, the time limit has since been abolished, forcing young Eritreans under threat of penalty into indefinite, low-paying military service, where they have little choice in their work assignments. Many Eritreans flee the country, not only for political and economic reasons, but also to escape conscription into the national service. Because Eritrea strictly controls exits from the country and limits passport issuances, migrants must depend on smugglers, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking. Some are targeted by international criminal groups that kidnap Eritrean refugees inside and near refugee camps, particularly in Sudan. The traffickers hold the refugees for ransom, brutally torturing them until they receive compensation from friends and family. 



Qatar is ranked in the Tier 2 category in the TIP report; the report states that it “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. That being said, investigative journalist Pete Pattisson spoke about forced labor in Qatar in his talk at the 2019 Oslo Freedom Forum in New York highlighting the reality that exists on-the-ground. Poor migrants in search of economic opportunities pay large sums of money to recruiters in order to migrate Qatar, often going into debt in the process. However, they may be fraudulently recruited, with jobs and salaries that differ from what they were led to believe, and their employer may confiscate their passport when they land in Qatar. Under the kafala system (or “sponsorship system”), the workers are tied to their employer, unable to leave the job and Qatar without their employer’s permission. Housed in labor camps in squalid conditions, these laborers are forced to work under dangerous conditions for paltry pay, and many have died. In 2016 and 2020, Qatar’s government responded to international backlash against its treatment of migrant workers galvanized by the reports of journalists like Pattisson by instituting labor reforms that abolished the kafala system and allowed migrant workers to freely leave Qatar. However, critics have claimed these efforts “fail to remedy rights abuses.” 


This link between authoritarianism and trafficking is unlikely to disappear in the near future without intervention, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has only exacerbated trafficking in authoritarian regimes, as governments crack down on political dissent, increase surveillance, and close down borders. 

Something must be done. Yet, often, when we talk about trafficking, we only talk about it in the context of changes that can be made within the framework of the authoritarian status quo, even though the status quo is frequently an inherent part of the problem. It is about time to add democracy into the conversation. Democratic features such as free and fair elections and rule of law allow citizens to hold their governments accountable for egregious human rights abuses, such as state-sponsored forced labor. Guaranteed political and civil liberties and a free press allow victims to disseminate their stories and ordinary people to hear them without fear of retribution. Democratic freedoms address the systemic issues with authoritarianism that allow trafficking to perpetuate.