Human trafficking

Human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices such as servitude, forced labour and forced marriage are complex crimes and a major violation of human rights. Globally, human trafficking is one of the biggest sources of income for organised crime and causes untold damage to millions of lives.

There is little reliable data about the nature and extent of human trafficking. However, there is a general consensus that human trafficking affects almost every country in the world. Men, women and children are trafficked for a wide range of exploitative purposes, such as:

  • servitude, including in the sex industry
  • forced labour
  • marrying another person against their will
  • the harvesting of body organs.

Opportunities to traffic people into—or exploit people within—Australia are limited because of our strong migration controls, geographic isolation and high degree of regulation, compliance and enforcement. Australia is traditionally a destination country for people trafficked from Asia—particularly Thailand, the Republic of Korea and Malaysia. To date, the majority of trafficked people identified by Australian authorities have been women working in the sex industry. However, in recent years cases of men and women exploited in a range of other industry sectors have increasingly been identified by Australian authorities.

Human trafficking and people smuggling

Human trafficking is a very different crime from people smuggling.

Australia uses the term ‘human trafficking’ to encompass a range of crimes including those where a person is moved domestically or transnationally for the purposes of exploitation—as well as those where a person already in Australia is subjected to exploitative practices like slavery, servitude, forced labour and forced marriage. The link between these crimes is that a person’s freedom and ability to make choices for themselves is substantially constrained—whether that is because of the use of coercion, threat or deception, or because the powers of ownership have been exercised over them. By contrast, people smuggling is the organised, irregular movement of people across borders, usually on a payment-for-service basis, and does not involve the ongoing exploitation of the victim by the offender.

Signs that a person may have been trafficked

The following may indicate that a person is a victim of human trafficking, slavery, or slavery-like practices:

  • the person appears to be servicing a debt to their employer or a third party (such as a recruitment service)
  • the person is unable to terminate their employment at any time
  • personal documents, such as passports or residency documents, are being held by the employer or a third person, and the worker is not allowed to access these documents when they wish to do so
  • there are indications that the worker is being subjected to, or threatened with, violence in connection with their employment
  • the person is being confined or isolated in the workplace or only leaves at odd times
  • the person is living at the workplace, or another place owned/controlled by their employer
  • the person is subject to different or less favourable working conditions than other employees because he/she comes from overseas
  • the person is in the control of another person and is not allowed to speak for himself/herself
  • the person has an intermediary who ‘holds' or ‘invests' the person's money for him/her
  • the person does not understand the terms or conditions of his/her employment.

Signs that a person be may in or at risk of a forced marriage

The following may indicate that a person is in a forced marriage, or at risk of being made to enter into a forced marriage:

  • the person has a family history of elder siblings leaving education early and/or marrying early
  • the person displays signs of depression, self-harming, social isolation and substance abuse
  • the person is subject to unreasonable or excessive restrictions from their family, such as not being allowed out or always having to be accompanied
  • the person expresses concern regarding an upcoming family holiday
  • the person has an extended absence from school, college, or the workplace, or begins to display truancy or low motivation
  • the person has limited career choices, or their parents control their income
  • there is evidence of family disputes or conflict, domestic violence, abuse or running away from home.

For more information visit the Forced marriage page.

Australia's response

The Australian Government has a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach to tackling human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices. Australia works with other governments and organisations to prevent human trafficking, prosecute the perpetrators, and protect and support trafficked people.

Australia's anti-human trafficking strategy was established in 2003. Since then, the government has provided more than $150 million to support a range of domestic, regional and international anti-trafficking initiatives.

Key measures include:

  • specialist teams within the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to investigate human trafficking and slavery-related matters, and an Australian Policing Strategy to Combat Trafficking in Persons
  • legislation to criminalise human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices—including forced labour and forced marriage
  • legislation to protect vulnerable witnesses giving evidence in Commonwealth criminal proceedings, including victims of slavery, slavery-like and human trafficking offences
  • a victim support program which provides individualised case management support
  • visa arrangements to enable suspected victims and witnesses of human trafficking and slavery to remain in Australia and support the investigation and prosecution of offences
  • specialist immigration officers posted in Thailand, China and the Philippines, who focus on human trafficking issues and aim to prevent trafficking in source countries
  • support for the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute human trafficking and slavery-related matters, including funding and training
  • regional engagement in the Asia-Pacific on human trafficking issues through the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime
  • regional activities to deter human trafficking and slavery, train law enforcement officials, and assist victims under Australia’s overseas aid program
  • research into national and regional trafficking activities by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

These initiatives reflect the four central pillars of Australia's anti-human trafficking strategy:

  • prevention and deterrence
  • detection and investigation
  • prosecution and compliance
  • victim support and protection.

Together these measures address the full cycle of trafficking from recruitment to reintegration and give equal weight to the critical areas of prevention, prosecution and victim support.

Australia's response to human trafficking has provided support to people trafficked for sexual exploitation and other forms of exploitative labour. The Australian Government's efforts to combat human trafficking are coordinated through the Interdepartmental Committee on Human Trafficking and Slavery, which is chaired by this department with membership from thirteen agencies.

Non-government organisations

Human trafficking, slavery, and slavery-like practices are complex crimes and government action is only part of the solution. The Australian Government is committed to building strong partnerships with the non-profit sector, and works closely with a range of non-government organisations (NGOs).

NGOs play a vital role in working on the ground, identifying and supporting trafficked people in Australia.

The Annual National Roundtable on Human Trafficking and Slavery was established in June 2008 as a consultative mechanism between the government and NGOs on trafficking issues. Since 2011, the national roundtable has been supported by an operational-level senior officials' meeting.

Parliamentary statements

Who to contact

If you are aware of, or suspect someone has been trafficked, contact the Australian Federal Police by calling 131 AFP (131 237) or via the Human Trafficking, Sexual Servitude and Slavery Information report form on the Australian Federal Police website. Contact with the AFP can be anonymous.

In the case of an emergency, dial triple zero (000). You can also call the Fair Work Ombudsman on 13 13 94.