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Smuggling vs. Trafficking: Why The Difference Matters

Human smuggling and human trafficking…those terms seem interchangeable. Despite how similar they may seem, smuggling and trafficking are two very different criminal activities, and differentiating them is key to better understanding how to fight human trafficking. 

The biggest difference between human smuggling and human trafficking is what these two acts center around. Human smuggling centers around transportation, while human trafficking centers around exploitation. As explained by Interpol, both crimes take advantage of vulnerable populations for the benefit of the criminal. However, human smuggling is the process by which criminals illegally transport individuals seeking a better life from one place to another, often over national borders. Compare this to trafficking, where victims are exploited for things including sex, labor, organs, and other purposes. Although transportation is sometimes a means by which traffickers ensnare their victims, transportation, illegal or legal, isn’t necessary for trafficking to occur–it can happen in someone’s own home, place of work, social spaces, etc. 

Another key component that differentiates human smuggling and human trafficking is consent. In cases of human smuggling, those being transported consent to being taken from one place to another, and after the smuggling has taken place, the smuggler usually discontinues the relationship with the person they smuggled. However, in cases of human trafficking, the victims do not consent to the conditions they are put in by the trafficker, and the relationship between the victim and trafficker continues as the trafficker exploits the victim.

Why is it important to distinguish between human smuggling and human trafficking? It is key to separate these two crimes so that we can better serve the individuals caught in them. The resources that those who have been trafficked require as opposed to those who have been smuggled differ. When we put these groups together, we can’t cater to the specific needs of each distinct individual and give them the support and resources that they need to live a fruitful life.

When trying to figure out if something is smuggling or trafficking, here are some indicators that trafficking is occurring:

  • The victim is not allowed to possess personal identification and travel documents, such as their passport.

  • The “employer” holds wages or the victim is in debt to the employer.

  • The “employer” has given the victim “scripts” or instructions on what to say to law enforcement and other individuals in public

  • The victim cannot freely leave the employment or situation they are in. 

  • The victim is restricted from who they can contact, what they can do, where they can go, whether or not they can socialize or attend religious services, etc.

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