What’s the difference between human trafficking and human smuggling? - We Welcome

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It can be difficult to separate facts from myths when it comes to human trafficking, but in order to be effective advocates, we must start with understanding. We’re looking to the experts to learn what trafficking is, and what we can do to help.

A common point of confusion exists about the difference between human trafficking and human smuggling. Smuggling at the border is not always related to trafficking, but it certainly can make an individual vulnerable to trafficking. Let’s take a look at the definitions of human trafficking versus smuggling, according to the State Department.

  • Human trafficking is a crime involving the exploitation of an individual for the purposes of compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.
  • Human smuggling is when a person voluntarily enters into an agreement with a smuggler to gain illegal entry into a foreign country and is moved across an international border. 

While we often hear the terms used interchangeably in the public square, it’s important to understand the legal and practical differences between trafficking and smuggling. According to a white paper from the Council on National Security and Immigration, the key difference between the two is about coercion: while both trafficking and smuggling are a crime, trafficking involves coercion while smuggling does not. 

Infographic from The Distinction Between and Response to Human Trafficking and Smuggling, by the Council on National Security and Immigration

When we conflate the two issues, we run the risk of falling short in our legal response. While trafficking can involve crossing borders, it can often occur within the country. When we limit our view of human trafficking to our physical land borders, we miss a significant part of the picture and can overlook victims within our own communities.

How migration links to human trafficking

Current data suggests that migration is linked to human trafficking either through:

  • Victims entering the U.S. legally and then being forced into illegal working conditions, or
  • Victims being smuggled across the border and then being held hostage and forced into labor or sexual services through coercion.

Even in the second example where a border crossing is present in the crime, the act of smuggling and the act of trafficking are two distinct acts. First, the individual is smuggled into the country, and then after that crime has occurred, they are later trafficked as a separate crime. It’s possible—and actually common—for an individual to be smuggled into the country to then freely move on and not become a victim of trafficking. 

However, it’s also true that those who have been smuggled into the U.S., and even migrants more broadly, are at a higher than average risk of being trafficked. Those entering the country with legal work visas can be coerced by employers into illegally overstaying their visas or forced into unfair working conditions while the employers threaten their ability to remain in the country legally. 

Human trafficking and human smuggling are both serious crimes that put human lives at great risk of harm. In order to combat these issues, we must understand both the differences and the areas of overlap. 


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