The U.N. Human Trafficking Protocol and an Examination of the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report

Over the past century, human trafficking has become a prevalent issue on the global stage. Often conceptualized as a form of modern-day slavery, it has taken hold of an estimated 27.6 million victims worldwide.[1]

One of the first instruments to internationally recognize human trafficking was the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons (Protocol).[2] There are currently 124 parties and 117 signatories to the protocol.[3] In this Protocol, human trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring or receipt of a person by such means as a threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, or deception for the purpose of exploitation.”[4] The Protocol also establishes prevention policies to combat human trafficking. Such policies included “research, information, and mass media campaigns” throughout individual countries along with “social and economic initiatives.”[5]  Furthermore, the Protocol requires parties to support victims of human trafficking by providing them with housing, counseling services, employment and educational training opportunities, and medical, psychological, and material assistance.[6]

The Protocol establishes standards that parties must strive to meet to fight against human trafficking, but most importantly establishes that parties must also work to provide victims with the previously mentioned resources after they have been trafficked.[7] This Protocol is often conceptualized as “part of an explicit law enforcement regime rather than a human rights or labor rights regime.”[8]

Since the Protocol entered into force, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime has released seven Trafficking in Persons reports. The first of these reports was published in 2010 after the General Assembly mandated such reports through the 2010 United Nations Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons.[9] These reports have been a valuable resource in detecting trends in the human trafficking market and determining the number of victims detected in each country. The most recent Global Report on Trafficking in Persons was released in January 2023 and reported that 53,800 victims were detected in 2020 (or most recent).[10] The total number of victims detected fell for the first time in twenty years from 49,692 in 2019 to 46,850 in 2020; this is likely the result of the pandemic pushing trafficking underground.[11] The 2022 report suggests that the decrease is the result of “lower institutional capacity to detect victims, fewer opportunities for traffickers to operate due to COVID-19 preventive restrictions, and some more trafficking forms moving to more hidden and less likely to be detected locations.”[12] Additionally, the number of detected victims of sexual exploitation declined by 24% since 2019, from 0.48 victims per 100,000 people to 0.37 victims per 100,000 people, which is in part the result of victims being forced into less visible and less safe locations.[13]

Although efforts to combat human trafficking have become more widespread since the Protocol’s entry into force, the pandemic caused major shifts in the illicit market, such as forcing victims into less visible and safe locations, a global slowdown in prosecutions, and difficulties in detecting victims.[14] The pandemic drastically shifted the ways that the U.N. and other member countries have been able to detect human trafficking, suggesting a need for another shift in detection methods moving forward.  The UNODC is recommending efforts such as increasing the efforts of civil society groups to identify and protect victims of human trafficking, and it is essential that these efforts are followed through as detection of victims is one of the first steps to effectively combatting human trafficking.

[1]  ILO, Walk Free, and Int’l Org. for Migration, Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage, 2  (Sept. 2022),—ed_norm/—ipec/documents/publication/wcms_854733.pdf.

[2] Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, art. 3, December 12, 2000, 2237 U.N.T.S. 319.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.  

[5]  Id. art. 9.

[6] Id. art. 6.

[7] Id.

[8] Elizabeth M. Bruch, Models Wanted: The Search for an Effective Response to Human Trafficking, 40 Stan. J Int’l L. 1, 62-63 (2004) (describing the U.N. Protocol to Prevent Human Trafficking).

[9] Trafficking in Persons, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, (last visited Nov. 18, 2023).

[10] U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2022, at 11, U.N. Sales No. E.23.IV.1 (2023) [hereinafter 2022 Report].

[11] Id. at 11-12.

[12] 2022 Report, supra note 10, at III.

[13] Id. at IV, 22.

[14] Id. at IV, VII.