Human Trafficking Law

A Brief Introduction

The problem of human trafficking is now of major global concern.  Immense resources, at national and international levels, are expended to research and combat human trafficking.¹  However, it was not always the case that human trafficking was considered such a priority.  The story of how human trafficking gained such widespread attention is intimately tied to how human trafficking is now legally defined.  To understand this connection, there are several legal doctrines to understand.

White Slavery and Anti-Vice Crusades

Newspaper clip from 1910, Chicago (open source)

In the mid-19th century, the concept  of “white slavery” emerged to articulate a concern for women and a disdain for sexual commerce.  In both the United States and Britain, anti-vice vigilance groups raised public consciousness about “public women” who were seen as victims of male domination and their corrupt morals. For excellent research on U.S. anti-vice politics, and the role of the 1910 Mann Act in regulating women and migrants, see Jessica Pliley’s excellent book Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI (Harvard UP).  These concerns for vice were ultimately codified in the 1910 International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic, a document of the League of Nations.

The underlying concerns of the convention grew out of domestic (national) policies aimed at regulating vice (sexual commerce) and a desire to create government coordination in the event of foreign women appearing in commercial sex.  The document states:

“Each of the Contracting Governments undertakes to establish or name some authority charged with the co-ordination of all information relative to the procuring of women or girls for immoral purposes abroad … Each of the Governments undertakes to have a watch kept, especially in railway stations, ports of embarkation , and en route, for persons in charge of women and girls destined for an immoral life.”

Significantly, in 1921 the League of Nations revises the convention, named the International Convention on the Traffic in Women and Children.  This document brought two important changes to legal doctrine.  First, “white slavery” was renamed the “traffic in women” so that all women regardless of race or ethnicity could be seen as possible victims.  Second, the term “traffic” signified the importance of women’s movement across borders, and thus shifted focus on “trafficking” from a domestic to international issue.²

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