Types of exploitation

Types of exploitation

Trafficking in human beings has numerous faces. It is a dynamic phenomenon and is conditional, among many others, on demand and supply. However, there are certain common characteristics.

Exploitation is a core element of the crime of trafficking in human beings and even though the term has not been defined expressly in international law, there is a common understanding about unfair use of vulnerability or abuse of a person’s needs and situation. In the context of trafficking of human beings, exploitation is considered as a prolonged targeted action.

Vulnerability and abuse are key to understanding the essence of the crime of trafficking in human beings. The ILO notes that vulnerability may be the result of a natural/innate characteristic of the victim of trafficking (physical or mental deficiency, poor health or immaturity) or it may evolve due to one’s situation (such as poverty or uncertain legal status).

Consent of the victims of trafficking is irrelevant when any form of abuse has been used because the people subjected to, for example, sexual and/or labour exploitation, could voluntarily accept the situation as they believe that they have no other choice or no other way of making ends meet or because they do not see the situation as exploitation.

Here you will find information about the main contemporary types of trafficking in human beings

Sexual exploitation in the context of trafficking in human beings is forcing a person to prostitute for the purpose of financial benefit/profit. Trafficking in human beings for the purpose of sexual exploitation takes places in countries in Western Europe and across the globe, regardless of the regulatory framework for prostitution – whether it is allowed (legal) or prohibited (illegal). Sexual exploitation can take place within street prostitution or strip clubs and gentlemen’s clubs, also as part of escort services and apartments rented specially by the traffickers. Prostitution and sexual exploitation in closed unauthorised places have increased significantly with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic which poses numerous challenges in relation to victim identification. Even if they started prostituting of their own accord, the victims of trafficking quickly lose their freedom to make decisions about their life or work in prostitution. They are controlled by the trafficker, they do not have freedom of movement, they are subjected to slave-like working conditions and they do not receive the means they have earned. The victims of trafficking are unable to stop prostituting and suffer violence in the case of insubordination.

Labour exploitation is the second most frequent type of exploitation globally, including Bulgaria, and is related to the exploitation of people in different economic sectors such as construction, agriculture, production, fishery, food and drinks, hotel services, logistics, cleaning, forestry, housework, textiles, metallurgy, electronic, oil and gas. Victims of labour exploitation could be people of any age, gender and race. Article 2, paragraph 1 of Convention No. 29 of the International Labour Organisation on Forced or Compulsory Labour (1930) defines forced labour as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”. A form of forced labour is the forced work as a housemaid and, in most cases, it affects women and children. Migrants from third countries are among those most vulnerable for the so called house slavery. It happens through private recruitment companies which attract people with job offerings abroad knowing that the people do not speak the language of the country they will be going to. Upon arrival, their identity documents are taken away and the victims are in fear of the immigration authorities due to their inappropriate/illegal resident status. They are often isolated and unable to contact other people outside the house in which they are forced to work.

Forced crime. Adults and children are the subject of a relatively new form of trafficking in human beings and are forced to commit crime such as growing cannabis, stealing from ATMs, fraud with social security, abuse of social benefits or being forced to beg and pick-pocket. The exploitation of people in this case happens through coercion or misleading into crime.

Forced begging is used most often to exploit children, people with disabilities and women with young children and babies as well as elderly people. Traffickers place them to beg at key places in the centres of large European cities counting on the people’s pity and compassion, especially in countries where religion has a strong influence such as Greece, Italy and Spain.

Pick-pocketing is well-known as small theft in shops of different sizes, public transportation, the subway and places/events where crowds gather; it is used by traffickers for profiting from children, young women and elderly people forced to steal. This type of exploitation falls within forced crime described above and is the preferred mode of traffickers, especially when they exploit children because if children get caught by the police, they are no subject to penalties and the measures the authorities may take against them are limited, especially abroad.

Removal of organs (including cells, tissue and blood). Trafficking in organs includes removal of body parts, most often the kidneys and the liver, and illegal sale. In some cases, the victim formally or unofficially agrees to sell an organ but is then defrauded because the amount promised is not paid or less is paid. In other cases, traffickers make use of the fact that a vulnerable person is treated for an illness which may or may not exist and the organs are removed during an operation without the victim knowing. In the most extreme cases, there is extortion: the victim could be abducted, ransom could be demanded and the organs could be removed without the abductee’s consent. Blood donation in exchange for payment is also used for exploitation.

Forced marriage is in place when both parties have not agreed fully and freely to enter into marriage, often as a result of coercion or fraud, or when someone is subjected to pressure to marry a certain person. The victims could be threatened with physical or sexual violence or subjected to emotional or psychological stress so that the traffickers could achieve their goals. The main reason for the use of this form of coercion is the one paying the trafficker to provide them with a spouse of a certain nationality, to gain legal access to an EU Member State (this holds true to the greatest extent for third-country nationals) and/or to gain access to social benefits and compensation. According to 2016 ILO data, 15.4 million women and girls are in a situation of a forced marriage. The most frequent reasons for fake marriages include resolving issues related to immigration, legal stay in a country, work or obtaining citizenship for a spouse.

Trafficking in pregnant women for the purpose of selling their babies is a form of exploitation which happens most often with families with multiple children from socially isolated communities used by the traffickers who convince young girls and women to give birth and sell their new-borns abroad promising them a substantial amount of money to provide for their other children. For many poor families, most often of Roma origin, this is a way of dealing with poverty; some of them believe that their children will have a much better future in this way. Traffickers sell the new-borns to families with reproductive problems, mainly from Greece, Cyprus and France.


According to UNICEF data, approximately 28% of the identified trafficked persons globally are children (2018). According to Europol, children are trafficked from different parts of the world to the EU and they become victims primarily of sexual and labour exploitation, begging and forced crime such as pick-pocketing and stealing. Children are also the subject of trafficking for the purpose of illegal adoption and forced marriage.

Trafficking in unaccompanied minors. In the context of the EU, an unaccompanied minor (UAM) is a minor person who arrives in the territory of an EU Member State unaccompanied by an adult or a minor person who remains unaccompanied after entering the territory of an EU Member State. Unaccompanied minors are especially vulnerable to all types of exploitation on the part of traffickers due to their increased vulnerability along the migration route. They often depend on traffickers to continue on their way while, at the same time, they do not have sufficient financial resources to pay them. Thus, a part of the transaction is the accumulation of debt paid in kind, for example through forced labour (including house slavery), prostitution or forced crime. Many unaccompanied minors have been the subject of exploitation along their route of migration to Europe, before entering the EU, and this is how they pay for their movement to Europe. The 2015 migration crisis created a hybrid phenomenon of two crimes – a particular merger of the crime of illegal border crossing (smuggling) and trafficking in human beings.


The large-scale migration flows of the past decade have increased the risk of trafficking in human beings in Europe. Migrants are one of the most vulnerable groups and they can fall prey to trafficking in human beings at any stage of their migration route and in the process of asylum seeking. The main factors for the high vulnerability of migrants include:

  • Limited access to information about migration procedures;
  • Lack of knowledge about the fundamental and labour rights migrants have in the respective countries to/through which they migrate;
  • Not knowing the language or the culture of the country of residence which hampers integration;
  • Role of third parties acting as intermediaries in the migration process;
  • Lack of safe, legal and organised migration channels accessible to asylum seekers.

In addition, the refusal to be granted refugee status or the decision for return significantly increases the risk of migrants becoming victims of trafficking.
For many migrants, Bulgaria is a temporary stop, a transit country. They strive, at any cost, to continue on to the desired destination. To finance their trip or to provide for their families, migrants need funds. Traffickers use their vulnerability. Migrants can easily become victims of labour exploitation in Bulgaria because they do not know Bulgarian well enough and are forced into low-qualified jobs in the grey economy.

Women in migration are especially vulnerable due to their difficult integration. Those who come from the Middle East or Africa usually do not have sufficient education or work experience and need more time to master skills they need for a successful integration in the labour market. Many of these women live in isolation, full dependency and submission or provide care for young children and sick people in the family. They need to overcome not only the cultural norms they have been brought up with but also the prejudice and discrimination in society. For many of these women, there is no going back. They are running away from cruel violence the women in their countries are subjected to – domestic violence, violence of honour often related to murder and mutilation, genital mutilation.

According to a 2017 IOM study involving 9,000 migrants and refugees along the route from the Central and Eastern Mediterranean, almost two-thirds of the migrant men and women were held against their will, while some migrants (9% of the men and 15% of the women) report that they were exploited directly in at least four ways.

Unaccompanied migrant children remain the most vulnerable among the migrant group. “Unaccompanied” is a minor or underage foreigner located on the territory of the Republic of Bulgaria who is not accompanied by a parent or another adult responsible for them by virtue of the Bulgarian law or custom.


Contemporary communication technology (internet, social media and mobile applications) has made it possible for traffickers to recruit victims for sexual and labour exploitation using the anonymity of the internet, the possibility to use encrypted communications in real time, to reach a wider audience (both in terms of victims and clients). The internet has given traffickers a significant geographical mobility and a new safe way for them to control their victims from a distance. Over the past few years, traffickers use the internet ever more to identify, recruit, abuse, exploit and control people via social media and different digital platforms using grooming, sexting and extortion

Online sexual exploitation includes electronic recording, photographing, video streaming or streaming of images without consent, dissemination of video and audio or transmission/exchange with a third party of recorded intimate and sexual acts of a person without the person’s knowing or consenting online. This type of exploitation also includes allowing/making it possible for third parties to watch sexual acts, participation in voyeurism or dissemination of intimate and sexual information about another person on the internet. Online sexual exploitation happens primarily to women and children but also to boys and since the start of the pandemic in 2020, it has grown 100%, according to Europol estimates.

Grooming is the process in which a person purposefully builds relations with another person in order to force or defraud them or to involve them in a situation of exploitation. It could happen to anyone, regardless of age or gender. However, people may not be able to recognise that they have been groomed and may not consider the relations as exploitation. Grooming is often related to sexual exploitation but it is also present in other forms of exploitation such as modern-day slavery and financial exploitation. It could happen live, over the telephone and on the internet, specifically via social media, chat and video chat applications as well as image sharing applications and online gaming platforms. Unlike other forms of violence, a person who is the victim of online sexual exploitation could potentially be re-victimised millions of times – every time an online image is seen, sent or received.

Online sexual exploitation of children takes place via:

  • Materials on the internet containing sexual violence against children – every access, owning, production and/or dissemination of images and/or videos of sexual violence against children – “child pornography”.
  • Grooming of children for sexual purposes – building online relations of trust with children in order to create potential opportunities for sexual violence and/or exploitation, online or offline.
  • Live streaming of sexual abuse of children – use of encrypted applications/online video platforms (such as Skype and Discord) to watch and, sometimes, interact directly with the sexual content with children live.
  • Sextortion – forcing or blackmailing children for sexual purposes – creation and/or use of sexual images and/or videos showing a child for the purposes of sexual, financial or other personal benefits.