General indicators that a person may have been trafficked

These indicators outline some of the factors that may make it more likely that a person is a victim of trafficking. It must be emphazised that they are general in nature and may not all apply in every case of trafficking.

Different types of trafficking in persons produce different victim profiles. Even the same general type of trafficking in persons activity will have significant differences between locations.

These indicators should be used with the best available intelligence to create a profile specific to your local context. If you do not have any information/intelligence on trafficking in persons, some of these indicators may help identify a new or emerging trafficking problem.


The typical age range of persons suspected to be victims in a given location depends on the nature of trafficking and demands at the point of exploitation. With some exceptions, the older the person is, the less likely it is that the case involves trafficking. This is particularly so in sexual exploitation cases. Traffickers will not normally traffic older people for sexual exploitation because there is little “client demand” for them. Exceptions have been seen where older people of a particular ethnicity are regarded as looking young by the “client” market.

The same general rule can be applied to labour exploitation because the older the person is the less productive they may be in conditions of arduous or slave labour. There are exceptions to this; trafficking older people to beg is an example.

Children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking as they may be compliant and can be exploited in a variety of ways: in the sex industry, illegal labour markets, including begging and pickpocketing, as domestic “slaves” and for their organs.


Sex trafficking predominantly affects females. There is substantial evidence of trafficking for heterosexual exploitation in some form in virtually every country in the world.

Male trafficking for the purposes of prostitution, particularly of teenage and younger boys, has been found to exist, but research and knowledge in this area is limited.

Trafficking in persons for forced labour exploitation affects both males and females. The proportions vary according to the form of the labour and prevailing gender roles at the location.

Location of origin

The supply chain of victims relies on exploitation of a combination of factors including relative poverty, discrimination and lack of opportunity. Many victims come from developing countries or countries in transition where opportunities are limited.

Trafficking takes place in developed countries for various purposes. For example girls are groomed for sex by “boyfriends” and then moved within the country or between countries for sexual exploitation. Recent research and cases have shown that victims from developed countries are trafficked also for purposes of labour exploitation. However, even in these cases victims tend to come from the disadvantaged and vulnerable populations.


A person presenting another person’s identity and travel documentation at a border crossing or other checkpoint is a general indicator of trafficking in persons at all phases/locations in the process. In addition, the lack of documentation or travel documents on a suspected victim and fraudulent identity or travel documentation are also strong indicators of trafficking.

Last location

The location where the victim was found immediately prior to coming to the attention of law enforcement officers will always be significant: a brothel, call-girl agency or lap dancing club, place of labour exploitation such as a “sweatshop”, restaurant kitchens, mines, quarries or agricultural sites may all be indicators of potential exploitation.

In origin or transit locations the last locations that victims were found, including premises such as bars where recruiting takes place or transport hubs associated previously with trafficking in persons, may be significant.

The last location could also be the country or district the suspected victim came from, where existing intelligence suggests that the particular location is a endemic origin or transit location for trafficking in persons.


How a person has been (or is being) transported may indicate trafficking. Some characteristics of transport in trafficking cases are very similar to those found in smuggling of migrants but there are a number of potential differences.

For example, traffickers will often attempt to control all aspects of transport from origin location through transit to destination because they will only realize their investment at the destination location/exploitation phase. Smugglers, by contrast, may have received at least part of their fees from the smuggled migrants before they leave the origin location.

Other indicators of trafficking transport include evidence that an individual being moved across borders is constantly under escort; a small number of victims are being led by a relatively large numbers of escorts and increasing levels of supervision the nearer they get to an identified destination/exploitation location. This increasing supervision may be required in cases where it was relatively easy to deceive potential victims in a location of origin and traffickers fear that as the group nears the destination, the victims will realize they are to be exploited. The increasing supervision acts as a control mechanism in situations such as this.

Law enforcement officers in some locations around the world have observed that traffickers frequently stay with one transport route for a prolonged period of time. The reason for this may be that arranging transport over a number of countries can be complex, particularly if the main traffickers have limited local contacts. It is therefore important for regular or known transport routes to be continuously and routinely monitored.

Circumstances of referral

Trafficked victims may come to the attention of law enforcement officers through a referral from NGOs or clients who have used their services (client rescue).

The circumstances leading up to the referral will always be a key indicator; circumstances such as removal from brothels by police, client rescue or identification and rescue by NGO partners. 

Evidence of abuse

Any signs of physical injury to the victim can be an indicator of trafficking; victims are subjected to abuse by their traffickers and clients.

However, do not assume a person has not been trafficked if there is no sign of injury or physical abuse. Other equally or more effective control measures may have been used including the threat of abuse or confiscation of documentation.

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