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What is human trafficking?


Under the Trafficking Protocol, to which Australia is a signatory, human trafficking is defined as: the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person through means such as threat or use of force, coercion, deception, or abuse of power or vulnerability; for the purpose of exploiting that person through slavery, forced labour, servitude, debt bondage, organ removal or other forms of exploitation.

Trafficking is a violation of human rights and a serious crime. While exploitative practices such as forced labour, slavery and practices similar to slavery often occur as a result of trafficking, this is not always the case. For example, in 2017, the International Labour Organisation estimated that at any one time there are 40.3 million victims of modern slavery world wide of which, 24.9 million people are victims of forced labour. One in four victims are being exploited outside of their home country.

The Criminal Code Act (the Criminal Code) contains offences for trafficking in persons which were introduced in 2005 to implement Australia's obligations under the Trafficking Protocol. Division 271 of the Criminal Code prohibits organising or facilitating the movement of a victim into, out of, or within Australia, where this movement occurs because of coercion, threat, or deception for the purpose of exploitation. It is also an offence to be reckless to the fact that a person who is trafficked to Australia may be exploited. The maximum penalty of the trafficking offences is 12 years imprisonment (aggravated offences have a penalty of 20 years imprisonment). There are separate offences of trafficking in children, which carries a higher penalty of 25 years imprisonment, and also domestic trafficking within Australia.

It is important to understand that human trafficking and people smuggling are different. People smuggling involves the illegal movement of people and does not involve moving people for the purpose of exploitation after arriving in the destination country. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes states one of the major differences between trafficking and people smuggling is that smuggled migrants consent to the smuggling, while trafficking victims have either never consented or, if they initially consented, that consent has been rendered meaningless by the coercive, deceptive or abusive actions of the traffickers.

Human Trafficking in Australia

Australia is a destination country for people who have been trafficked. The exact number of people trafficked to Australia each year is not known. Between 2004 and 2016, the Australian Federal Police (the AFP) have undertaken over 691 investigations and assessments of allegations of trafficking and offences related to trafficking such as slavery and servitude. In 2015-16, the AFP received 169 new referrals. This is an increase from 119 new referrals in 2014-15. There have been 20 convictions of trafficking and slavery offences in Australia since the offences were introduced in 2004. However, the real figure is likely to be higher as trafficking is a clandestine crime, which is often hidden in plain sight. There are also many barriers that prevent trafficked people from seeking help.

Trafficked people may be effectively controlled and coerced by traffickers through subtle methods such as confiscation of travel documents, threats of violence, fear of being reported to authorities and social, cultural and physical isolation.

People are trafficked to Australia for exploitation including forced labour, slavery, forced marriage, servitude and debt bondage. These types of exploitation can occur in workplaces or in private homes. Sometimes people assume that trafficking is a problem that only occurs in the sex industry, however people can also be trafficked to Australia for exploitation in other industries such as hospitality, construction and agriculture, as well as domestic labour and forced marriage. In 2013-14, 44% of new AFP investigations were related to sexual exploitation. This dropped to 23% in 2015-16.

To find out more about human trafficking see our fact sheet here.

If you or someone you know has been trafficked, click here to see our fact sheet on help available for trafficked people.


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Anti-Slavery Australia, University of Technology Sydney
Phone: +61-2-9514 9660