Human Trafficking in Historical Perspective


In an op-ed published in multiple American newspapers on November 9, 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote that, “For decades, the problem [of human trafficking] went largely unnoticed. But 10 years ago this week, President Clinton signed the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act [TVPA], which gave us more tools to bring traffickers to justice and to provide victims with legal services and other support.” Clinton’s reference to the signing of the TVPA and the ensuing decade of more formal and coordinated efforts by the United States and other governments to combat the traffic in persons is typical in that while she does reference the “decades” when the problem of human trafficking “went largely unnoticed,” there is also no explicit recognition of the degree to which what was first known as the “White Slave Trade” and later as the “Traffic in Women and Children” was the focus of significant international efforts by governments, non-governmental organizations, the media, and individuals, extending back more than 100 years.

When I meet with foreign policy professionals or those working to combat human trafficking in the NGO world, one of the questions I like to ask is when, exactly, the United States signed its first international treaty targeting human trafficking as we know it today. The answers I get are indicative of the general ignorance, even among specialists, of the historical dimensions of the fight against human trafficking. Thus far, only one person has yet hazarded a guess before 1945. The correct answer to my question would be 1904, the year when the United States signed on to its first international treaty targeting what we now call the traffic in persons.1

Understanding the historical dimensions of the fight against human trafficking is important for several reasons. Although many scholars working on the issue of human trafficking offer some sort of recognition of the history of the problem, the most typical approach is to see modern forms of trafficking as an outgrowth of rapid globalization since the end of the Cold War.2 It is certainly not wrong for scholars, government officials, law enforcement professionals, and activists to focus on the here and now, but doing so without a better understanding of the historical context, especially an understanding of what anti-trafficking strategies have already been tried (generally unsuccessfully), makes it that much more difficult for those working against human trafficking to achieve their goals. A close examination of the historical trajectory of human trafficking is also instructive of the degree to which today’s global problems were global problems a century ago.

Even if the most conservative estimates of the size of the trade in humans are used, there is general agreement that this trade is either the second or third largest illegal traffic in the world, dwarfed by the traffic in illegal drugs and either slightly larger or slightly smaller than the illegal traffic in arms.3 What, then, can we learn from earlier efforts to combat the trade in humans that might be useful in the current efforts to reduce the illegal flow of humanity around the globe for labor and/or sex?

The first reason why it is worthwhile to pay close attention to the fight against human trafficking that began in the late 19th century is that, with the not insignificant exception of technological change, the reasons for the traffic (demand), the methods by which traffickers acquired their goods (people) and moved them within and between states, and the ways that governments, NGOs, and other international actors attempted to suppress the trade in humans are strikingly similar to what we see in the present. Writing about the present situation, Louise Shelley says, “Human smuggling and trafficking have been among the fastest growing forms of transnational crime because current world conditions have created increased demand and supply. Migration flows are enormous, and this illicit trade is hidden within the massive movement of people. The supply exists because globalization has caused increasing economic and demographic disparities between the developing and developed world, along with the feminization of poverty and the marginalization of many rural communities.”4

Shelley’s argument could be applied just as easily to the period between 1890-1914, when rapid globalization, mass migrations, and rising economic inequality, were also significant features of world society. During those last decades before the First World War millions of Europeans crossed the Atlantic and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans crossed the Pacific for North and South America. Hidden in that flow were many tens of thousands of victims of human traffickers each year. Whether they were destined for brothels in Buenos Aires, San Francisco, or New York, or cotton farms or sugar plantations in South Asia or Africa, many of these victims were caught in the nets of traffickers because their rural communities were increasingly marginalized in the global economy or because, as women, their economic prospects were particularly bleak. Similarly, rural districts of China sent an increasing flow of men abroad for labor in places such as California and Malaysia, and women to be “Sing Sing girls” or prostitutes across Southeast Asia and the Pacific coast of North America.5

A careful reading of studies by the League of Nations Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children shows just how few differences there actually are between the trade in humans in 1932 and 2012. More depressing than the fact that so little seems to have changed over the past 80 years, is that efforts to combat the traffic in human beings have not changed significantly over that same period of time. What failed in the 1920s and the 1930s is failing again in the first decades of the new century.

Especially worrisome is the fact that international cooperation to fight the traffic in humans was, in many ways, more coordinated 75 years ago than it is today. It is generally fashionable to dismiss the League of Nations as a worthy but ineffectual international organization. While it is true that the League failed in its most important mandate–the prevention of a second world conflagration–the League was not entirely a grand failure. For example, on the issue of the traffic in humans, the League was able to marshal a high degree of global cooperation. It is impossible to know whether the League’s efforts made a significant dent in the size of the traffic in humans, just as it is all but impossible today to determine how successful anti-trafficking efforts are, but the League was able to coerce, persuade, and embarrass its member states into passing laws against slavery, prostitution, and human trafficking. Moreover, the League’s permanent committee on the traffic in women and children produced some of the most detailed studies we have of the traffic as a global problem–far more detailed in many ways than anything produced today.

An especially noteworthy aspect of the League’s efforts to fight human trafficking was the high degree of cooperation between the League and the “friendly societies” (NGOs) devoted to the fight. That the member states of the League understood the important role that NGOs played in the effort against trafficking is evidenced by the fact that NGOs were given seven of the 21 seats on the League’s permanent committee devoted to human trafficking. While the NGO representatives held non-voting seats on the committee, a careful review of the archives of the committee indicates the degree to which their voices were given particular authority in the committee’s deliberations. Representatives of the member states understood that the NGOs were on the front lines of the struggle and so should be given particular credence.6

The positive result of this deeper level of cooperation by all the players involved in the fight against human trafficking–as compared to the more fractured and disjointed efforts we see today–is that all the significant voices in the fight were heard and often heeded, and the level of open information sharing among all the players involved in anti-trafficking was much greater. It is worth considering what might be achieved today were the United Nations able to marshal a similar degree of international cooperation among not only states, but also NGOs and other non-governmental actors.

Sex trafficking was just as much the overwhelming concern of anti-traffickers then as it is today, and so it is not surprising that so much of the League’s efforts were devoted to combating sex trafficking rather than labor trafficking. On this front, another positive result of the international efforts against human trafficking in the interwar period is the degree to which the League was able to cajole, encourage, and persuade its member states to change domestic laws with respect to both prostitution and the age of consent. While no universal standard was or could have been achieved, the League did manage to set in motion a process that persuaded many of its member states to raise the age of consent and to change their domestic laws on prostitution in the hopes of creating a more unfavorable environment for sex traffickers. In the present, anti-trafficking legal regimes often at odds with one another, especially in the European Union, create a circumstance that sex traffickers often take advantage of. For instance, the most recent EU Directive on human trafficking (Directive 2011/36/EU, April 5, 2011) defines a “child” for the purposes of prosecuting traffickers as anyone under the age of 18. But in Germany, where virtually all forms of prostitution are legal as many as 1 million sex-for-pay transactions may take place daily, a “child” is defined as anyone under the age of 14.7 In the vast German sex market, traffickers may much more easily take advantage of late teenage children, largely hidden among the volume of daily transactions.

Historians cringe at the idea that we must study the past to avoid making the same mistakes in the present. Understanding that the trade in humans is not substantially different today than it was 100 years ago or that enforcement regimes are strikingly similar to those tried before World War II does not mean that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Instead, it means is that the issues faced by policy makers, law enforcement, non-governmental actors, and others leading the fight against human trafficking have deep historical roots and therefore great staying power that must be appreciated if there is to be any hope of achieving significant results.



  1. International Convention for the Suppression of the “White Slave Traffic,” May 4, 1910 []
  2. See, for example, Kevin Bales. 2004. Disposable People. New Slavery in the Global Economy, Berkeley: University of California Press and Siddharth Kara. 2009. Sex Trafficking. Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. New York: Columbia University Press. []
  3. Shelley, Louise. 2010. Human Trafficking. A Global Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press: 4-8 []
  4. Ibid., 2-3. []
  5. League of Nations. December 10, 1932. Report to the Council. Commission of Enquiry into Traffic in Women and Children in the East. League of Nations Archive (Geneva), CTFE Orient 39(1), v. 328. []
  6. See, for example, “Report on the Work of the Tenth Session,” Traffic in Women and Children Committee, League of Nations, Geneva, April 21-27, 1931. League of Nations Archive, Geneva. []
  7. “National Info Pages: Germany,” European Commission—Fight against Trafficking in Human Beings, last modified December 19, 2011, accessed March 20, 2012, My thanks to Ms. Annabel Allen for pointing me to this issue. []


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