This module is a resource for lecturers

Indicators of trafficking in persons

There are standard sets of indicators that have been used by States in the identification of potential trafficking cases, which can be useful tools for training different actors, including police officers, immigration and customs officials, medical professionals and non-governmental organizations. These indicators may be relevant to specific aspects of the potential trafficking situation, such as the means used by the trafficker, or to a certain form of exploitation, such as forced labour. Indicators relating to the exploitation phase are usually more reliable, given that most victims are identified only once they have already been exploited.

It should be noted, however, that indicators are inherently limited due to the variety of types of trafficking. Some types of exploitation are easier to identify than others. For instance, a person working very long hours every day for little or no pay and under armed guard is a strong indicator of trafficking. At the same time, a certain indicator may be more compelling in a particular case of trafficking, whilst being irrelevant in another. This could be the instance of a child transported across the border without identification documents. Where a location has been characterized by a pattern of child begging, the transport of the child could be considered as a strong trafficking indicator. The same indicator may be irrelevant in a place where children regularly accompany their parents across a border to sell goods in a market.

Moreover, certain indicators may be more suggestive of other crimes. Their presence or absence does not indicate in a conclusive manner whether or not a case is one of trafficking. In addition, it must be noted that traffickers are becoming increasingly aware of indicators frequently used by both governmental and non-governmental organizations to identify situations of trafficking and, as a consequence, they may adapt their practices to avoid apprehension. This would be the case, for example, of traffickers allowing victims to carry their travel and identity documents in an attempt to avoid raising any suspicion. In light of said limitations, it is recommended that a combination of different types of indicators be used, as it would provide more insights than exclusively relying on one single type. Finally, it should be borne in mind that indicators are not themselves proof of trafficking, but rather they can justify a presumption for assistance and protection in favour of the victim, until further investigations are carried out ( The Bali Process, 2015).

The following non-exhaustive list of indicators is based on various police trafficking investigations. Not all of the given indicators are present or obvious in every case. Equally, each of these indicators of itself does not lead to a conclusion a trafficking offence has been committed. It is a combination of indicators that will help determine whether a person has been trafficked or not.

Figure 8: Indicators of trafficking in persons

General indicators


People who have been trafficked may:

  • Believe that they must work against their will
  • Be unable to leave their work environment
  • Show signs that their movements are being controlled
  • Feel that they cannot leave
  • Show fear or anxiety
  • Be subjected to violence or threats of violence against themselves or against their family members and loved ones
  • Suffer injuries that appear to be the result of an assault
  • Suffer injuries or impairments typical of certain jobs or control measures
  • Suffer injuries that appear to be the result of the application of control measures
  • Be distrustful of the authorities
  • Be threatened with being handed over to the authorities
  • Be afraid of revealing their immigration status
  • Not be in possession of their passports or other travel or identity documents, as those documents are being held by someone else
  • Have false identity or travel documents
  • Be found in or connected to a type of location likely to be used for exploiting people
  • Be unfamiliar with the local language
  • Not know their home or work address
  • Allow others to speak for them when addressed directly
  • Act as if they were instructed by someone else
  • Be forced to work under certain conditions
  • Be disciplined through punishment
  • Be unable to negotiate working conditions
  • Receive little or no payment
  • Have no access to their earnings
  • Work excessively long hours over long periods
  • Not have any days off
  • Live in poor or substandard accommodations
  • Have no access to medical care
  • Have limited or no social interaction
  • Have limited contact with their families or with people outside of their immediate environment
  • Be unable to communicate freely with others
  • Be under the perception that they are bonded by debt
  • Be in a situation of dependence
  • Come from a place known to be a source of human trafficking
  • Have had the fees for their transport to the country of destination paid for by facilitators, whom they must pay back by working or providing services in the destination
  • Have acted on the basis of false promises

Children who have been trafficked may:

  • Have no access to their parents or guardians
  • Look intimidated and behave in a way that does not correspond with behaviour typical of children their age
  • Have no friends of their own age outside of work
  • Have no access to education
  • Have no time for playing
  • Live apart from other children and in substandard accommodations
  • Eat apart from other members of the "family"
  • Be given only leftovers to eat
  • Be engaged in work that is not suitable for children
  • Travel unaccompanied by adults
  • Travel in groups with persons who are not relatives

The following might also indicate that children have been trafficked:

  • The presence of child-sized clothing typically worn for doing manual or sex work
  • The presence of toys, beds and children's clothing in inappropriate places such as brothels and factories
  • The claim made by an adult that he or she has "found" an unaccompanied child
  • The finding of unaccompanied children carrying telephone numbers for calling taxis
  • The discovery of cases involving illegal adoption

Sexual exploitation

Domestic servitude

People who have been trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation may:

  • Be of any age, although the age may vary according to the location and the market
  • Move from one brothel to the next or work in various locations
  • Be escorted whenever they go to and return from work and other outside activities
  • Have tattoos or other marks indicating "ownership" by their exploiters
  • Work long hours or have few if any days off
  • Sleep where they work
  • Live or travel in a group, sometimes with other women who do not speak the same language
  • Have very few items of clothing
  • Have clothes that are mostly the kind typically worn for doing sex work
  • Only know how to say sex-related words in the local language or in the language of the client group
  • Have no cash of their own
  • Be unable to show an identity document

The following might also indicate that children have been trafficked:

  • There is evidence that suspected victims have had unprotected and/or violent sex.
  • There is evidence that suspected victims cannot refuse unprotected and/or violent sex.
  • There is evidence that a person has been bought and sold.
  • There is evidence that groups of women are under the control of others.
  • Advertisements are placed for brothels or similar places offering the services of women of a particular ethnicity or nationality.
  • It is reported that sex workers provide services to a clientele of a particular ethnicity or nationality.
  • It is reported by clients that sex workers do not smile.

People who have been trafficked for the purpose of domestic servitude may:

  • Live with a family
  • Not eat with the rest of the family
  • Have no private space
  • Sleep in a shared or inappropriate space
  • Be reported missing by their employer even though they are still living in their employer's house
  • Never or rarely leave the house for social reasons
  • Never leave the house without their employer
  • Be given only leftovers to eat
  • Be subjected to insults, abuse, threats or violence Have no choice of accommodation
  • Never leave the work premises without their employer
  • Be unable to move freely
  • Be subject to security measures designed to keep them on the work premises
  • Be disciplined through fines
  • Be subjected to insults, abuse, threats or violence
  • Lack basic training and professional licences

The following might also indicate that people have been trafficked for labour exploitation:

  • Notices have been posted in languages other than the local language.
  • There are no health and safety notices.
  • The employer or manager is unable to show the documents required for employing workers from other countries.
  • The employer or manager is unable to show records of wages paid to workers.
  • The health and safety equipment is of poor quality or is missing.
  • Equipment is designed or has been modified so that it can be operated by children.
  • There is evidence that labour laws are being breached.
  • There is evidence that workers must pay for tools, food or accommodation or that those costs are being deducted from their wages.

Labour exploitation

Begging and petty crime

People who have been trafficked for the purpose of labour exploitation are typically made to work in sectors such as the following: agriculture, construction, entertainment, service industry and manufacturing (in sweatshops).

People who have been trafficked for labour exploitation may:

  • Live in groups in the same place where they work and leave those premises infrequently, if at all
  • Live in degraded, unsuitable places, such as in agricultural or industrial buildings
  • Not be dressed adequately for the work they do: for example, they may lack protective equipment or warm clothing
  • Be given only leftovers to eat
  • Have no access to their earnings
  • Have no labour contract
  • Work excessively long hours
  • Depend on their employer for a number of services, including work, transportation and accommodation

People who have been trafficked for the purpose of begging or committing petty crimes may:

  • Be children, elderly persons or disabled migrants who tend to beg in public places and on public transport
  • Be children carrying and/or selling illicit drugs
  • Have physical impairments that appear to be the result of mutilation
  • Be children of the same nationality or ethnicity who move in large groups with only a few adults
  • Be unaccompanied minors who have been "found" by an adult of the same nationality or ethnicity
  • Move in groups while travelling on public transport: for example, they may walk up and down the length of trains
  • Participate in the activities of organized criminal gangs
  • Be part of large groups of children who have the same adult guardian
  • Be punished if they do not collect or steal enough
  • Live with members of their gang
  • Travel with members of their gang to the country of destination
  • Live, as gang members, with adults who are not their parents
  • Move daily in large groups and over considerable distances

The following might also indicate that people have been trafficked for begging or for committing petty crimes:

  • New forms of gang-related crime appear.
  • There is evidence that the group of suspected victims has moved, over a period of time, through a number of countries.
  • There is evidence that suspected victims have been involved in begging or in committing petty crimes in another country.
Source: UNODC Human Trafficking Indicators

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