The timeline of human trafficking is long. For as long as humans have existed, human trafficking has existed.
It occurs in every corner of the world, and thanks to the internet, the issue is no longer contained by physical boundaries.
Human trafficking is commonly referred to as “modern-day slavery.” While the words slavery and human trafficking are frequently used interchangeably, “slavery” has a more general definition. Merriam-Webster.com defines slavery simply as “the state of a person who is held in forced servitude.”
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) defines human trafficking as the act of gathering, moving, receiving, or keeping human beings by threat, force, coercion, or deception, for exploitative purposes.
For much of human history, across cultures and continents, slavery was legal, regulated, and common. It was often perpetrated by one people group onto another. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, an international movement began to abolish slavery in all its forms. Our understanding of and fight against human trafficking have grown out of these movements.
Slavery is no longer legal anywhere in the world, but human trafficking still occurs in every country. Here’s a brief history of human trafficking, including a timeline of events in the United States and internationally that have shaped our understanding of human trafficking and the fight against it.
1500-1866: Transatlantic Slave Trade
During the 16th century, Portugal began traveling overseas to Africa to purchase or capture people, enslave them, and take them back to Europe. Other European nations followed.
1525 marked the first slave voyage from Africa to the Americas. Over the next roughly 350 years, during a period known as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, some 12.5 million slaves were shipped from Africa around the world. 10.7 million arrived in the Americas, including the Caribbean, South America, and North America. Between 300,000 and 400,000 thousand enslaved Africans arrived in North America.
During the 16th century, owning African slaves was a legal and governmentally condoned practice. It wasn’t until 1807 that Britain first outlawed slavery. The United States followed in 1820, nearly 40 years before the American Civil War. Despite the laws outlawing slavery, the last reported transatlantic slave voyage arrived in the Americas in 1866.
1850-1900: The Traffic of Chinese Women into the United States
The Chinese began arriving in the United States in significant numbers in the mid-1800s. They were drawn to the United States by the promise of lucrative jobs associated with the California Gold Rush and the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad.
As the number of Chinese immigrants grew, they became the targets of racial hatred and violence because of the perceived economic threat. At the same time, concern spread over the practice of “coolie” labor. At the end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, many countries around the Americas began contracting “coolie” labor from China as a source of low-wage workers. However, many critics said that this practice was simply a new form of slavery, sometimes using coercion, deceit, and violence.
Thus The Page Act of 1875 both sought to limit the immigration of Asians into the United States and prevent the traffic of unwilling persons and “immoral” women (i.e. prostitutes). It created fines and jail time for anyone who tried to bring people into the United States “without their free and voluntary consent, for the purpose of holding them to a term of service.” This effectively stopped the immigration of nearly all Chinese women.
Thus, by the early 1880s, males made up 95% of the Chinese population in the U.S. This spurred the illegal traffic of Chinese women into California and the American West by Chinese gangs called Tongs. Most of the Chinese women who crossed the Pacific in the mid-1880s were enslaved, and many of them were forced into prostitution by these gangs. The trafficking of Chinese women into the United States continued and flourished into the early 1900s.
1900-1910: The International Agreement for the Suppression of “White Slave Traffic”
Following the abolition of the African slave trade, “white slavery” became a topic of interest for many international governments as people became aware of European women, often immigrants, ensnared in forced prostitution. White slavery was defined as the “procurement — by use of force, deceit, or drugs — of a white woman or girl against her will for prostitution.”
In Paris, international conferences against white slavery took place in both 1899 and 1902. In 1904, the Mann Act, or the International Agreement for the Suppression of “White Slave Traffic,” was signed as the first international agreement on human trafficking. The act focused on migrant women and children. In 1910, 13 countries signed the International Convention for the Suppression of White Slave Trade to make this form of trafficking illegal.
1919: The International Labor Organization
In 1919, the International Labor Organization was formed in order to provide protective standards for working conditions such as pay and hours.
1921: International Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Women and Children
During the 1900s, human trafficking — both forced labor and sexual exploitation — was at an all-time high. In 1920, following the First World War, the League of Nations was founded. It was the first international organization of nations and had the goals of maintaining world peace and focusing on international issues such as human trafficking. In a 1921 League of Nations international conference, 33 countries signed the International Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Women and Children.
This agreement represented several important steps forward. The issue of White Slavery was changed to “traffic in women and children” so that everyone was included, regardless of race. Children of both genders were also recognized as victims of trafficking.
1949: United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Prostitution of Others
After the Second World War, the member-nations of the United Nations adopted the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others in 1949, the same year as the landmark document on human rights. It was the first legally binding international agreement on human trafficking. However, as of the present day, only 66 nations have ratified it.
1980 - Present Day: The Internet and Social Media
With the advent of the internet, the world of human trafficking radically changed. It’s no longer necessary to move exploited individuals to a specific physical location. Now, thanks to video streaming, a victim can remain in one location and be exploited all over the world.
The human trafficking marketplace has expanded astronomically through any online platform that allows images and streaming. This takes place on platforms designed to sell sexual content, such as OnlyFans and Pornhub, which are notoriously lax in monitoring for trafficking activity. But it also happens on seemingly innocent social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, WhatsApp, and YouTube.
Along with actual digital product distribution, social media is also used in the grooming and recruitment of trafficking victims and in the advertising and sales of sexual services.
2000: United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children
In 2000, the United Nations adopted the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. This was the first agreement that acknowledged modern-day slavery, as well as the possibility of men being victims of human trafficking. The definition was also expanded to include organ harvesting, slavery, and forced labor.
In March 2007, in an effort to promote a communal global approach to fighting human trafficking, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT). This initiative highlights a renewed commitment by world leaders to combat human trafficking. As of December 4, 2007, 116 nations had signed the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.
Present Day: Our Fight Against Human Trafficking
There are many Non-Governmental Organizations that work with governments to combat human trafficking, such as Polaris. Many other large NGOs include the fight against human trafficking within their organizational framework, such as Save the Children and Amnesty International.
Different organizations focus on addressing different aspects of the issue of human trafficking. Some focus on prevention, through initiatives such as education, skills training, or legislation. Others focus on aftercare, providing restoration for people who have been removed from human trafficking. Other organizations, such as The Exodus Road, focus on intervention — helping law enforcement intervene in human trafficking crime by investigating incidences of human trafficking and working with law enforcement to remove victims.
There are a variety of ways you can get involved in the fight to make human trafficking history. As a first step, we suggest you take TraffickWatch, our free online course full of facts, stories, and action steps. Take your next step to become an abolitionist now!