7 human trafficking facts and myths you need to know

What’s the difference between human trafficking and people smuggling? Are asylum seekers abusing the UK modern slavery system? Read the truth about human trafficking.
People walking on a UK high street; human trafficking facts

If you’re looking for a solution to a problem, it’s best to understand it properly. Here, we separate human trafficking facts from fiction, revealing the truth about people trafficking, people smuggling and more.

Definition of human trafficking

Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery and happens when someone is moved by force, fraud, coercion, or deception to be exploited.  

This exploitation can take many forms and includes forced labour, being made to commit a crime such as shoplifting, and being forced into prostitution, which you might hear referred to as sexual exploitation. 

Fact: people smuggling and people trafficking are not the same thing

Some journalists, commentators and politicians confuse people smuggling and human trafficking.  

This is wrong and is especially the case when talking about migrants crossing the Channel on small boats.   

Deliberate or not, confusing people smuggling with people trafficking is not helpful. It lumps together immigration and modern slavery when they are two distinct issues. And it distracts people from: 

  • looking out for the signs of modern slavery and trafficking 
  • properly addressing the causes of modern slavery and people trafficking 
  • focusing on the needs and rights of survivors.    

While both people smuggling and people trafficking are crimes that involve the movement of individuals, they are different and require very different responses. 

The four key distinctions between people smuggling and human trafficking are: 

  1. Exploitation: Trafficking involves forcing or deceiving a person into a journey with the intention of exploiting them for various forms of modern slavery, such as forced labour or sexual exploitation. This could be by another person or criminal gang. 


    Smuggling usually involves paying someone to move you across an international border.


    Once the border is crossed, the relationship between the smuggler and the migrant ends. The relationship between a people trafficker and migrant, however, is extended beyond a border crossing. 

  2. Consent: Smuggling is something the individual consents to. Even if the journey is dangerous, people are often willing to take that risk. Trafficking involves coercion, deception or force. 

  3. Nature of crime: Smuggling, facilitated by criminal gangs, is a crime against the state, whereas trafficking is a crime against the individual.

  4. Borders: Smuggling only happens across international borders. Trafficking can take place across international borders, between cities, within towns, and even on a single street. People trafficking could refer to County Lines, for example.

Fact: asylum seekers are not abusing the modern slavery system

The UK Home Secretary has alleged that many asylum seekers are making false claims of being human trafficking victims so that they can stay in the UK.  

This is a myth. 

According to the Government’s own statistics, the vast majority of claims are legitimate – 91% in 2021 and 89% in 2022.  

And that is after the Home Office itself has investigated the claimants.   

The truth is that it is not possible to make a modern slavery “claim” on your own behalf.  

Potential victims are referred by qualified “first responders” into the National Referral Mechanism: the Government’s system for supporting victims of trafficking and other forms of modern slavery.  

First responders work in policing, local authorities and some NGOs.

Fact – anyone can be a victim of human trafficking

It’s a myth that all human trafficking victims are foreigners.  

Human trafficking doesn’t just happen abroad, and not all victims are migrants. Anyone from any background can be at risk of human trafficking. 

In fact, a quarter (25%) of all victims of people trafficking found in the UK last year were British, the second most common victim nationality, behind Albanian (27%).

That same year, the UK ranked as the seventh most common nationality reported to our Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline out of a total of 99 nationalities recorded.

Fact – exploiters use many ways to control their victims

It’s a myth that victims of modern slavery and human trafficking are always held against their will.

While physical confinement can be one method of control, traffickers often use other tactics to recruit their victims and prevent them escaping.  

Unseen’s Helpline has recorded a number of methods of control, including: 

  • Threats of violence to victims and their family 
  • Deportation threats 
  • Constant monitoring (digitally and physically) 
  • Financial control (for example, having control over a victim’s bank account, card or income) 
  • Trauma bonding (when a person experiencing exploitation or abuse develops an attachment to their exploiter) 

These techniques might not be immediately visible to the untrained eye and might prevent people from reporting to the police.  

It is, therefore, vitally important that frontline workers, including healthcare professionals and law enforcement, are aware of the signs of trafficking.

Fact – trafficking victims are not necessarily criminals if a crime is committed

It is a myth that trafficking victims forced to commit a crime, such as growing cannabis or selling drugs, are criminals; they are victims of exploitation.  

The same goes for those forced to beg or commit fraud. 

Criminalising victims forced to commit crimes, which can happen under our current system, undermines efforts to provide the necessary support and rehabilitation they need.

Fact – survivors of trafficking can help in the fight against modern slavery

The revelation that Sir Mo Farah is a survivor of human trafficking shook the world – and telling his story on TV was hugely important in raising public awareness of modern slavery.   

But trafficking survivors have more to offer than their stories.  

Survivors have unique expertise: they know what trafficking looks like, what it is like to experience it, and the impacts of specific policies and interventions.  

Survivors can therefore provide a unique understanding that can improve society’s response to modern slavery, whether that’s in policy or support services. 

At Unseen we recognise this. Our Survivor Consultants Group is made up of people with lived experience of modern slavery and exploitation who provide vital insights to police, researchers, businesses and politicians.   

Fact – there is a lot you can do to help stop human trafficking

It is estimated that there are 50 million people in slavery globally, many of them victims of trafficking.  

Climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, conflict, and the cost-of-living crisis are all leaving more people vulnerable to modern slavery.  

Given this daunting statistic, it’s easy to think that nothing can be done. But this is a myth, and there are plenty of things you can do to help stop human trafficking.   

What can I do?
  1. Learn the signs of exploitation and report concerns: If you see something that doesn’t look right, call the free Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline on 08000 121 700. 
  2. Raise your voice: Share stories and raise awareness about trafficking and slavery on social media. Join the noise on World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on 30 July to start making a difference. What better day to begin?
  3. Be a conscious consumer: Everyday products we buy in the UK can be connected to forced labour or labour abuse. Supporting ethical businesses and questioning why certain products are absurdly cheap can help. By doing so, you can encourage brands to take action.
  4. Support the anti-slavery movement: From making a donation to joining a campaign, help turn our vision of a slavery-free world into reality. 

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Justine Currell

As I came to understand more about the issue, including through a visit to an Unseen safehouse, I knew I needed to do more to stop this abuse and exploitation.

For the last five years of my Civil Service career, I was the Modern Slavery Senior Policy Advisor in the Home Office and led on development of the Modern Slavery Act, including the transparency in supply chains provision and business guidance.

I joined Unseen to lead the development of the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline, and Unseen’s work with businesses. I am regularly called upon to present at national and international conferences and use my experience of working with Ministers to influence other governments internationally to take action to address modern slavery and, in particular, business supply chain issues.

In my spare time I enjoy keeping fit, music, reading and travelling.

Andrew Wallis

What ultimately compelled me to act was a report on how people from Eastern Europe were being trafficked through Bristol airport to the USA. Kate Garbers, who went on to be an Unseen Director, and I wrote to all the city councillors, MPs and the Police Chief Constable challenging them on the issue. The challenge came back to us: this city needs safe housing for trafficked women. And so Unseen began.

But we never wanted Unseen to be just about safe housing. We wanted to end slavery once and for all, and that remains our driving focus.

I chaired the working group for the Centre for Social Justice’s landmark report “It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to Fight Modern Slavery”. This is now acknowledged as the catalyst behind the UK’s Modern Slavery Act of 2015. It was a great honour to be awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours that year. On the other hand, I’ve also been described as “the loveliest disrupter you could ever hope to meet”.

This job has taken me from building flat-pack furniture for safehouses, to working with businesses to address slavery in supply chains, to delivering training, raising awareness and advising governments around the world.

When not at work, I enjoy travelling, spending time with my dog Harley, cooking, supporting Liverpool and Yorkshire CC, music (I’m a former DJ) and endurance events such as the Three Peaks Challenge and Tribe Freedom Runs – which I vow never to do again. Until the next time.