The effect discrimination has on human trafficking

Modern slavery is a global problem and claims millions of victims. The reasons and causes for human trafficking are complex and diverse and are shaped by social, economic and cultural factors. They are closely related to globalisation, trade and migration policy, labour markets, the poverty gap and humanitarian emergencies. Lack of opportunities for individuals in the countries of origin and the ever-increasing demand for cheap and easily exploited workers in the destination countries also must be taken into consideration when talking about human trafficking.

Various forms of oppression and discrimination enable and encourage human trafficking. Cultural oppression carries the risk that prevention and intervention methods and attempts are faced with particular challenges.

In order to actively counteract human trafficking and end it, it is necessary to include factors that increase susceptibility to it. These include discrimination on all levels (discrimination = the disadvantage of people in connection with certain characteristics such as gender, skin colour, ethnic or social origin, language, religion, sexual orientation).


Understanding these constructs is essential to fully understand the intersection of racism, ethnic bias and human trafficking. Human trafficking is the exploitation of people through violence, fraud, or coercion, which creates a special type of trauma. Biases and prejudice are negative attitudes towards members of a certain group.

Through the act of dehumanising certain groups of people and ascribing negative traits to them, society creates a framework in which it is accepted that those affected are injured, exploited and bullied. These far-reaching and deeply rooted negative prejudices against ethnically marginalised groups contribute to the acceptance of trade and the exploitation of people. Prejudice, bias and stereotypes firmly anchored in people’s minds act as justification for discriminatory behaviour.

Undocumented, newly migrated people who look different and / or who do not speak the language of the destination country are often portrayed as criminals, immoral and unworthy of protection and care. In addition to spreading stereotypes or victim blaming, cultural oppression increases the risk of human trafficking by denying access to necessary resources such as safe housing, liveable wages, education, safe childcare and protection under the law. Ethnically marginalised groups are at increased risk of poverty, homelessness, poor education and acts of violence. Each of these factors increases the risk of human trafficking.


In some countries, discrimination and gender inequality make women and girls disproportionately more vulnerable to forced prostitution than men. Many women are systematically driven into the hands of human traffickers in this way. For example, women who are already victims of sexual abuse or violence are more susceptible to human trafficking. This is exacerbated by discrimination, poor or no access to education and work, a difficult political and economic situation and a complex family situation.

Other problems arise regarding the target country of human trafficking. Racial, ethnic and gender-based discrimination can, in combination, create a high demand for marginalised people. This is especially true for women and children, who are viewed as commodities. Women from Asia, Africa and South America also struggle with the realities of sexual stereotyping. These ethnicity-based prejudices include assumptions about sexual availability, immorality, promiscuity, animalism, and eroticism.

Stereotyping and discrimination often also serve as mechanisms for recruiting and suppressing victims. Women from certain ethnic backgrounds, such as, for example, Asian women, are perceived to be obedient and submissive, which some find more desirable for housework or forced prostitution (source: Thema Bryant-Davis & Pratyusha Tummala-Narra (2017) Cultural Oppression and Human Trafficking: Exploring the Role of Racism and Ethnic Bias, Women & Therapy).


Trafficking human beings involves a lot of psychological implications and trauma. Depression, anxiety, addiction, shame, hopelessness, and trust issues are just a few. The psychological trauma is intensified by the stigma and discrimination associated with human trafficking.

If the victims manage to escape such situations, they are still not protected from discrimination, because social stigmatisation does not stop at any professional degrees or any kind of professional training or expertise in that field. Linguistic communication difficulties and a lack of understanding of the cultural context from which the victims come can potentially make it difficult to provide proper support.

Those affected have often experienced discrimination by judicial officers. Prejudices based on ethnicity often influence the degree to which some people help or support others. Likewise, therapists might believe that the main problem faced by a racially and ethnically marginalised woman is a lack of responsibility, morals, and values. This type of victim blaming is more ubiquitous than you might think and shows the consequences of systemic oppression.


Modern slavery requires a cross-sectoral response. There is much need for increased public awareness of human trafficking, which can be achieved through education. Much more attention should be paid to the way in which discrimination increases the risk of exploitation and affects human trafficking. In this context, it is particularly important to also focus on gender discrimination. By raising awareness, steps can be taken towards improvement in the countries of origin and destination.

Translated by Sophie Kitchen