Trafficking Routes
last updated Dec 2018

Trafficking in persons is not limited to specific countries or regions. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking victims representing 152 different nationalities were identified in 124 countries worldwide, between 2010 and 2012.[1] The UNODC also identified approximately 510 distinct human trafficking routes during this time.  Although trafficking occurs worldwide, trafficking patterns and volumes may vary in different parts of the world. For example, in Asia,[2] trafficking in women is particularly prevalent because women make up the majority of victims trafficked for sex as well as 77% of detected victims trafficked for labor, more than double the global average of women in forced labor.[3] Trafficking in girls and women for forced marriage is also “frequently reported” in Asia.[4]

Organizations that study trafficking patterns tend to classify countries as source or origin countries, transit countries or destination countries. However, this classification system can be misleading because many countries fall under each of these categories at some point. Additionally, the UNODC has pointed out that trafficking flows are dominated less by clear geographic boundaries than by relative pockets of economic disparity, with victims flowing from poorer to richer areas within countries, regions or across the globe.[5]

In simple terms, a source or origin country is a country where traffickers commonly find and recruit women and girls for their operations. Once traffickers have recruited an individual, that person is moved through intermediary or transit countries, sometimes for extended periods during which the women may be forced into labor or the sex trade. Transit countries are chosen for the geographical location and are usually characterized by weak border controls, proximity to destination countries, corruption of immigration officials, or affiliation with organized crime groups that are involved in trafficking. In general, “organized criminals will try to push people over any border that is easiest for them to cross.”[6] Destination countries are the last link in the human trafficking chain. These countries receive trafficking victims and are generally more economically prosperous than origin countries. Destination countries can support a large commercial sex industry or a forced labor industry, the modern equivalent of slavery. The financial return to traffickers per victim is also highest in richer countries.

Additionally, victims are most commonly trafficked within their home country or region of origin.[7] Roughly 34% of identified trafficking victims were trafficked domestically between 2010 and 2012, meaning they never left their country of origin. Sub-regional trafficking, which encompasses trafficking within a limited geographic area or “sub-region” such as Europe, South Asia, or the Americas, accounted for another 40% of all reported trafficking victims. Only 26% of identified victims were trafficked internationally or “transregionally” across continents.[8]

Trafficking flows share certain similar traits no matter where they are found in the world. Certain dimensions of development in a given country have a direct effect on the likelihood of human trafficking within that country’s borders. For example, poverty is one of the prime risk factors associated with human trafficking. When combined with other risk factors such as limited economic or educational opportunity, poor governance, weakened rule of law in post-conflict countries, and natural disaster, the conditions in a country become ripe for the exploitative practices of human traffickers. International destinations for trafficking most often include well-developed, wealthy and industrialized areas of the world. As stated by the UNODC in 2014,

The ‘global north’ attracts victims from all over the world. Traffickers in poorer countries have an economic interest of moving victims there – to Western Europe, North America or the Middle East – while there is little to gain from moving victims in the opposite direction. In addition to economic factors, there are also other conditions that have an impact on the directions of trafficking flows. These include issues related to job markets, migration policy, regulation, prostitution policy, legal context and law enforcement and border control efficiency . . . . [T]o traffic victims internationally is complicated and may involve significant risks . . . Relatively few traffickers are able to organize themselves well enough to conduct effective transregional trafficking activities.[9]

Analyzing and tracking human trafficking flows or routes is a difficult task given the still hidden nature of the crime and because traffickers regularly shift routes to avoid detection. Nonetheless, the Protection Project, a legal human rights research institute based at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in the U.S., has created a number of maps of known trafficking routes that illustrate trafficking patterns and flows between source, transit and destination counties around the world, such as the one shown below illustrating trafficking routes to the United States.[10]

In addition, the Polaris Project, a nonprofit NGO (non-governmental organization) that operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), has created several maps and charts that analyze the flow of human trafficking across the United States. Finally, the UNODC includes maps of major trafficking flows in its 2014 Global Report on trafficking in Persons, such as this one depicting transregional trafficking flows:

Source, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2014[11]

As noted by one commentator in the European Journal of Criminology, “[t]he lack of certainty about the legal responsibilities of origin, transit and destination countries helps traffickers continue to operate with impunity.”[12] For this reason, it is vital that origin, transit and destination countries cooperate and develop joint strategies to combat trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State, “[d]estination countries must work with transit and source countries to stem the flow of trafficking; source countries must work not only to prevent trafficking, but to help with the reintegration of trafficking victims back into their home societies.”[13]

[1] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons,” p. 7, (Vienna: November 2014), available from

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 10.

[4] Ibid., p. 35.

[5] Ibid., p. 38.

[6] Vesna Nikolić-Ristanović, et al., “Trafficking in People in Serbia” Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, p. 161 (Belgrade: 2004), available from

[7] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons,” p. 1, (Vienna, November 2014), available from

[8] Ibid., p. 38.

[9] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons,” p. 48, (Vienna, November 2014), available from

[11] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons,” p. 40, (Vienna: November 2014), available from

[12] Benjamin Perrin, “Just Passing Through? International Legal Obligations and Policies of Transit Countries in Combating Trafficking in Persons,” European Journal of Criminology 7(1), p.15 (2010): 11-27, citing M.A. Clark, “Trafficking in persons: An issue of human security,” Journal of Human Development 4, pp. 247-264 (2003).

[13] U.S. Department of State, “Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000: Trafficking in Persons Report,” p. 5 (2002), available from