Are We Catching the Bad Guys?: Do International Human Trafficking Laws Hold Perpetrators Accountable?

By: Kelly McClintock

News and social media headlines seem to suggest human trafficking crimes are increasing both at home and abroad.[1] Although reports of human trafficking are on the rise, it is incorrect to conclude that human trafficking crimes are actually increasing. Awareness and collection of reliable statistics of human trafficking crimes are on the rise.[2] When it comes to human trafficking, numbers are not always what they seem. The U.S. started keeping national and international statistics and compiling country reports in the early 2000s.[3] Hence, the issue of human trafficking has captivated media attention ever since, gaining more traction and increasing awareness - and thus increasing reporting, and thus arrests, and slowly, the prosecution of those who traffic humans has increased too.[4] The chart below helps to illustrate this.

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Caption: Global Law Enforcement Data: Aggregate data from all countries worldwide as collected and reviewed by the U.S. Department of state. The numbers in parentheses are those of labor trafficking prosecutions, convictions, and victims identified. U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 34 (2017), available at

Background of International and U.S. Human Trafficking Law Framework

Internationally and in the U.S., the framework designed to respond to human trafficking crimes centers on prosecution of perpetrators, protection for victims, and prevention.[5] Human rights advocates have criticized this approach’s heavy emphasis on prosecution, which in some circumstances can come at a high cost for human trafficking victims.[6] Most countries have formally signaled their cooperation to end human trafficking through the U.N. Palermo Protocol.[7] The U.S. ratified this international anti-trafficking treaty in 2005.[8] Libya and Nigeria, two countries battling a human trafficking crisis discussed below, have also ratified the Palermo Protocol, and thereby pledged to enact a framework and provide resources to fight trafficking.[9] Sadly, because of terrorism and a grave lack of resources, these treaty ratifications represent nothing more than hollow words.


A Snapshot of Human Trafficking in Northern Africa

You may have seen the verified video of an auction of slaves off the coast of Libya in 2017, the one where human beings were being sold for as little as $400.[10] CNN captured the footage, sparking international outrage. Since then, the Nigerian National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons arrested two human traffickers.[11]

The video exposes the dark horror African migrants face when they travel through Libya to make their way to Europe, usually aiming for Italian soil, as it is closest to the African ports near Tripoli, Libya.[12] Many of these migrants are from Nigeria seeking asylum. [13]Italy turns away about 75% of Nigerians “fleeing mortal danger, or at least violent exploitation.”[14] Migrant advocates argue Article 51 of the 1951 Convention on Refugee Status entitles Nigerians protection from the Italian government.[15] Still, Italy has spent significant financial resources shipping asylum seekers back to Libya, and employing bounty-hunting pirate-like ships, who capture migrants sailing the Mediterranean and return them to Africa (often committing human rights atrocities against the asylum-seekers).[16]

Libya lacks the capacity to carry out the necessary judiciary functions to hold offenders accountable.[17] Many parts of the country are controlled by rebels, militias, and other organized criminals, including ISIS, and the economy relies on illicit activity, like human trafficking, to survive.[18] The most recent U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report states that “[s]ince mid-2015, ISIS in Libya has abducted and taken into captivity at least 540 migrants and refugees, including at least 63 women whom ISIS forced into sexual slavery for its fighters.”[19] Rebels groups war with each other over territory and control of the human trafficking trade because it has proven to be so profitable.[20]     

Because trafficking is a regional cancer, it requires regional, multinational support, and cooperation to hold offenders accountable and protect victims. The Nigerian government has taken a leading role in confronting human traffickers and beginning the long judicial process of prosecuting human traffickers.[21] A delegation from Libya has also pledged what resources and support it can.[22] However, protecting victims and providing services they need remains a huge problem for the already-strained African governments.[23]



According to the President of the United States, we must do more than “reflect on this appalling reality.”[24] We must “also pledge to do all in our power to end the horrific practice of human trafficking that plagues innocent victims around the world.”[25] We need to continue to fund collection of reliable data and dedicate more resources to take care of victims that are identified, this will inevitably lead to more witnesses being identified, stepping forward, and in some cases, working with police to bring their traffickers to justice.



[1] E.g. Roger Snell, Inside Victory Inn raid: ‘Never seen anything like this', The Detroit News (Feb. 9, 2017),; Imran Mukhtar, Human smuggling, trafficking on rise: FIA, The Nation (Dec. 26, 2017),; Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Niger Embassy in Libya Confirm that Allegations of Human-Trafficking Markets in Libya are Hostile and Unacceptable, Jamahiriya News Agency (Nov. 29, 2017).

[2] See Massage Parlor Trafficking, Overview of massage parlor trafficking, Polaris (last visited Jan. 20, 2018),

[3] David Abramowitz, Fighting Human Trafficking, Together, The Hill (Jan. 18, 2018),

[4] U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 34 (2017), available at


[5] Laura L. Shoaps, Note: Room for Improvement: Palermo Protocol and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act 17:3 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 946 (2013).

[6] Id.; Investigations that are not victim-centered can put victims at risk at the hands of their traffickers, and re-traumatize victims. Press Release, Alliance to End Slavery & Trafficking (ATEST), Statement on Executive Order on “Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking” (Feb. 14, 2017) (on file with author).

[7] U.N. Conv. Against Transnational Organized Crime, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, Nov. 15, 2000, Treaty Doc. No. 108-16 (2005), 2237 U.N.T.S. 319, available at

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Nima Elbagir, Raja Razek, Alex Platt and Bryony Jones, People for Sale, CNN,

[11]Agency Reporter, NAPTIP arrests 2 suspected returnee traffickers, The Nation (Jan. 11, 2018),; Human Traffickers To Libya Face Trial, PM News Nigeria (Jan. 6, 2018),

[12] Alessandro Lanni, 5 things you should know about (second-class) Nigerian migrants, Open Migration, Mar. 7, 2016,

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Raouf Farrah, In Libya, locals push back against human smuggling, Open Democracy (Jan. 12, 2018),; U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, supra note 4.

[17] Raouf Farrah, In Libya, locals push back against human smuggling, Open Democracy (Jan. 12, 2018),

[18] Id.

[19] U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 432 (2017), available at

[20] Id.

[21] PM News Nigeria, supra note 11.

[22] Libya Returnees: FG Vows To Prosecute Human Traffickers, Channels Television (Jan. 8, 2018),

[23] U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, supra note 4.

[24] Proclamations, President Donald J. Trump Proclaims January 2018 as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, (December 29, 2017), available at

[25] Id.