Human Trafficking Vs. Migrant Smuggling: Exploring the Differences

Although human trafficking and migrant smuggling are both crimes, they are different from each other. The key difference is that individuals who are human trafficked are victims of a crime. In contrast, smuggled migrants (illegal aliens, undocumented immigrants) aren’t crime victims; rather they participate in a crime, i.e., the crime of unlawfully entering a country.

Human trafficking is exploitation of an individual for the purpose of compelled labor. Force, fraud, and coercion are used on the trafficked individual. Human trafficking suggests movement from one region or country to another, however, human trafficking can occur when trafficked individuals don’t leave their home town. Sex trafficking is part of human trafficking.

Human traffickers act alone or are part of a large organization. Within the last decade, drug traffickers have added another business venture; that venture is human trafficking. An entire town in Mexico which was once funded from drug trafficking is now funded by human trafficking.

One trafficker explain the finances of human trafficking this way – when he sells a supply of drugs, the drugs are gone. In contrast, when he rents a human, i.e., for sex or for field labor, the human remains and can be rented again.

Brutal street gangs are increasingly turning to human trafficking for income. In the United States, human trafficking laws are notoriously weak, in contrast to harsh drug trafficking penalties. Common sense dictates that gangs and other entrepreneurs become involved in human trafficking in contrast to drug trafficking.

Migrant smuggling occurs when a person enters an agreement with a smuggler to be transported into a foreign country illegally. Migrant smugglers are called coyotes on the southern Mexico- United States (U.S.) border. Typically, once the migrant crosses the destination country’s border and the smuggler is paid in full, the migrant and smuggler have no further contact. Costs of smuggling a migrant from one country to another can include the cost of obtaining fraudulent documents which show the smuggled migrant is in the destination country legally.

For the most part migrant smugglers work alone or are part of a small group. When migrants contact a smuggler to transport them through an entire country, such as Mexico, migrants may have several smugglers. Each smuggler knows the geography of his region and has official and non-official contacts in that region that facilitate movement of migrants.

The table below is an adaptation of one provided by Human Trafficking Search that summarized the difference between human trafficking and migrant smuggling:

Human Trafficking                         VS                 Migrant Smuggling
Victims are forced, defrauded, or coerced. Even if victims consent initially, the consent is rendered meaningless by actions of trafficker. Consent Individual consents to being smuggled whether or not they fully understood the potential dangers.
Exploitation of individual is ongoing without an endpoint. Exploitation Smuggling ends when migrant reaches destination.
Crime committed against the individual being trafficked. Crime Crime against a country by violating its borders.
Victim not always transported out of country or from one area to another. Movement Always involves illegal transport of a person across international borders.
Profit is from ongoing, sustained exploitation of the victim. Profit Smuggler charges migrant for their movement, making a profit on the transaction.

Overall risks to human trafficking victims and smuggled migrants are escalating, as are their numbers. Most of us know that smuggled migrants can be raped, kidnapped, or money extorted from them. Smuggled migrants can fall victim to human traffickers.

When human trafficking and migrant smuggling aren’t differentiated, trafficked victims may not receive protection, services, and even legal redress. National anti-trafficking laws and immigration laws must include clear definitions of both human trafficked victims and illegal migrants.

Trafficking awareness training is imperative for immigration, law enforcement, judicial officials and most importantly for you and me. Often, we see someone who we suspect is trafficked or in the U.S. illegally; but are reluctant to get involved. In reality, we must become involved. We live in our communities. We know (or should know) what occurs in them. Equally, true we should protect them.

Nevada’s attorney general posted a list of warning signs of human trafficking on the state’s website. After considering the list, I starred the ones that suggest migrants who were smuggled into the U.S.:

  • Appear malnourished, with physical injuries, poor dental and physical health*
  • Avoid eye contact and authority figures/law enforcement*
  • Individuals not allowed to go into public alone or speak for themselves; adhere to rehearsed responses in social interactions
  • Lack official identification documents*
  • Appear destitute, lack personal possessions,* live at work place
  • Work excessively long hours, small children serve in restaurants
  • Tattoos on neck or lower back
  • Security measures that keep individuals inside, i.e., bars on windows, barbed wire
  • Check into a hotel with an older male, refer to male as boyfriend or “daddy”
  • Untreated sexually transmitted diseases

Both human trafficking and migrant smuggling must be stopped throughout the world and most assuredly in the United States of America. The crisis at the southern border of the U.S. involves both trafficking and smuggling. Rational, thinking women and men must be involved in activities to stop this scourge on individuals who are brought into the United States.

Dr. Carolyn A. Roth

Dr. Carolyn A. Roth is a spiritual woman who believes that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. She is the author of eight books, most of which are Christian nonfiction. Her passion is delving deeper into the Bible to glean wisdom nuggets from relatively obscure passages. Carolyn is a retired university professor who lives in Roanoke, Virginia with her husband, Bruce. Read more at

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