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Written By: Javier P. 

There are many ways that human traffickers operate and find their victims, but there is one thing all traffickers have in common – they target the most vulnerable. Many factors make people vulnerable to traffickers around the world. The 2020 TIP highlights the three most prevalent pre-existing factors that make someone vulnerable to trafficking. Of detected trafficking victims, 51% face economic need, 20% have a dysfunctional family dynamic that makes them vulnerable, and 10% have their immigration status exploited (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2020, p.9).

Economic Need

The most common factor that traffickers exploit is economic need. Those in economic need are individuals who continually lack basic needs such as food, shelter, or healthcare (UNODC, 2020, p.70 ). Traffickers will either seek out those with economic needs or attract them with advertisements for work. Traffickers use the allure of a high-paying job to exploit their victims’ desperation. Traffickers will deceive those who approach their jobs regarding wages, benefits, working hours, working conditions, or job duties – that is, if there is a job. Traffickers will either threaten their victims with violence or withhold payment if they attempt to leave or speak out against any injustice.

Global conflict and the after-effects of pandemic shutdowns have increased the number of people facing economic hardships. That means more people are currently vulnerable to traffickers.

Dysfunctional Family Dynamics

Traffickers also tend to exploit victims with a dysfunctional family dynamic history. Conflict, misbehavior, or abuse are the defining factors of dysfunctional family dynamics. These dynamics can be tough on children, who have a wide range of emotional needs that can only be met in healthy environments. Traffickers can draw victims of any age by preying on their emotional vulnerability and providing victims with a false sense of value and acceptance.

Victims can form emotional attachments to their traffickers amid the injustice they endure. Traffickers can also take advantage of their victim’s emotional vulnerability by using shame or fear to keep them in bondage. The dysfunctional family factor makes victims more vulnerable to sex trafficking than any other single factor (UNODC, 2020, p.72). It affects females more than males, although males still experience this factor (UNODC 2020, p.9).

Immigration Status

With so many people migrating from one country to another, it is also common for traffickers to use immigration status as a control tactic. Traffickers can use the immigration status of immigrants and migrants to coerce them. Traffickers often force their victims to work in unfair or unsafe work environments, along with little pay. Victims with an irregular migration status may be afraid of being reported, and traffickers will use that to keep them from seeking escape or justice (UNODC, 2020, p.111). Another form of this is when labor traffickers aid in the irregular migration of victims. Traffickers will charge some sort of migration fee, to which many migrants fall into debt bondage to their traffickers.

Globally, migrants make up a significant portion of detected victims in most regions. (UNODC, 2020, p.10)

  • 65 percent in Western and Southern Europe
  • 60 percent in the Middle East
  • 55 percent in East Asia and the Pacific
  • 50 percent in Central and South-Eastern Europe
  • 25 percent in North America


Irregular immigrants are not the only ones targeted. Traffickers can exploit migrants with legal rights to work if migrants do not understand their labor rights in their working country.

Although traffickers target the most vulnerable, nobody chooses to be vulnerable. Most of the factors that make people vulnerable to trafficking are things out of their control. Click here to learn more about the factors that put children at risk.

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