By Linda Burkle, PhD
Throughout my professional career, I have had the privilege and challenge of directly working with victims of human trafficking as well as administering programs to assist them. In my experience of working with both the justice and social service systems, I have been exposed to some of the most vulnerable cases of human trafficking, including an eleven-year-old with a six-month-old infant who was trafficked by her mother, a woman who was fleeing from her pimp who had previously branded her, and a young woman whose husband convinced her that she would show her love for him by prostituting herself and bringing him the money.
In these and many other tragic situations, the trafficker exercised complete control over the victim through threats, physical abuse, deception, deprivation, and psychological manipulation. Unfortunately, these characteristics are far too common in all forms of human trafficking.
Human Trafficking Defined
From the 1970s to the 1990s, before the term “human trafficking” was coined and understood, the victims of trafficking were often perceived as a criminal committing the crime of prostitution and adjudicated accordingly. This tragically meant that the “victim” was penalized, and the trafficker typically faced minimal consequences. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the term “human trafficking” was recognized and acknowledged as a global problem; the enslavement of people for the purposes of exploitation and/or profit. In 2000, the UN General Assembly formally developed and adopted the definition of human trafficking at the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (the Palermo Convention). The trafficking of persons was officially defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other means of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability.” The definition also recognized that “…exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery, or practices similar to slavery, servitude, or the removal of organs.” As of May 2020, 178 countries have ratified the Trafficking Protocol.
In the same year, modeled after the UN document, the U.S. government enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), which serves as the national framework for the federal response to human trafficking.
Scope of Human Trafficking
Human trafficking is modern-day slavery, generating over $150 billion annually, slightly eclipsed only by the trafficking of drugs and weapons. The trafficking of human beings is uniquely profitable, however, because they can be sold multiple times. According to the International Labor Organization, “40.3 million people are in modern-day slavery, including 24.9 million who are in forced labor and 15.4 million in forced marriage.”
A few statistics on human trafficking show that:
- There are 5.4 victims of modern-day slavery for every 1,000 people in the world
- 1 in 4 victims of modern-day slavery are children
- Out of the 24.9 million people trapped in forced labor, 16 million people are exploited in the private sector, such as through domestic work, construction, or agriculture; 4.8 million people in forced sexual exploitation, and 4 million in forced labor imposed by the state authorities.
- Women and girls are disproportionately affected by forced labor, accounting for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry and 58% in other sectors.
*Source: Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labor and Forced Marriage, Geneva, September 2017
The intersection of Religious Persecution and Human Trafficking
Per the report referenced above, forced labor, sexual exploitation, and forced marriage are the primary means by which people are trafficked. While 30% of labor trafficking is committed by state actors, sexual exploitation and forced marriage are often the results of a society or culture in which the government may be complicit, reluctant, or ineffective in protecting marginalized and vulnerable populations, such as persecuted Christians. One report estimates, “In the 50 countries with the highest level of Christian persecution, forced marriages of women have increased by 16 percent.”
Whereas a primary motivator in the human trafficking industry is profit, trafficking in the context of religious persecution is uniquely different. While there may be economic benefits to trafficking Christians and other religious minorities, the driving motivators are religious and cultural factors. In addition, the trafficking of Christians is often used as a weapon of war and domination to undermine and destroy the presence of religious minorities in a specific geographic region. Thus, human trafficking, and predominately sex trafficking, are primary tools for persecution, although profit may be a secondary factor.
One report on gender-based persecution found that Christian women and girls are most adversely impacted among the countries listed on the World Watch List (WWL), a ranking list of the top fifty countries where it is most challenging to be a Christian. Of the countries on the WWL, at least 90% reported cases of forced marriage, and 86% reported sexual violence as the key instrument for persecution. The situation for Christians and women and girls often goes hand in hand, whereas Christians are typically poor and marginalized in countries where women’s rights are limited and vice versa.
The report also identified forced marriage, sexual violence, physical violence, psychological violence, and forced divorce as the five most common “pressure points” for religious persecution against women in WWL countries. In addition, the report found that each category had increased since the previous year’s study, showing that “…the rise in psychological violence mostly affects women and girls, who often live in fear of attacks or struggle to move on from the trauma of past physical and sexual assaults.”
Women are also primarily impacted by the rise in human trafficking, although bonded labor and trafficking continue to affect men and boys too. Sexual violence and forced marriage are used as tools of shame, coercion, and control, primarily against Christian women and girls because of the strong association of sexual purity with the honor of a family or community.” Additionally, reports of psychological violence among women in these countries rose from 40% to 74% from the 2020 report to the 2021 report. Forced marriages increased by 16%, and physical violence increased by 20%. The report also found that forced marriage is most prevalent in Africa (4.8 per 1000), while the most significant number of victims are in the Asia and Pacific regions, accounting for 73% of victims of forced sexual exploitation.
Some more examples of the intersection between Christian persecution and the treatment of women and girls include:
- In India, Christian girls are considered “less than” in a stratified Hindu society. They are poor and vulnerable to being abducted and or tricked with offers of jobs and a better life.
- Impoverished Pakistan Christian girls are often lured into marrying Chinese men with promises of security and provision. The lucrative international bride trafficking business is fueled by the demand of young Chinese men, who are disproportionately overrepresented in the population due to the failed one-child policy, which heavily favored males.
- In Nigeria, Christian girls continue to be abducted despite international condemnation of the 2014 kidnapping of Chibok school girls by Islamic terrorists. Most criticize the Nigerian government for not doing enough to rescue the victims and bring the traffickers to justice. Much to the ire of Nigerians and the international community, some officials have even referred to identified traffickers (captors) as “husbands” of abducted and released girls.
As we pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world, we also pray for the victims of human trafficking – they are often one and the same.
 1. https://www.unhcr.org/3e71f84c4.pdf
Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019, where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Dr. Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and her dissertation focused on religious persecution, specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China, and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.