Sex trafficking is typically associated with cross-border sex trafficking, in which victims are recruited in one country and subsequently transported to, and sexually exploited in, another country (usually a country with a higher standard of living). However, sex trafficking also manifests itself more regionally in (near-)domestic sex trafficking, in which victims are recruited and exploited in the same, or (an adjacent area of an easily accessible) neighboring, country. Hardly any research exists that empirically compares (near-)domestic and cross-border sex trafficking. The few studies that do, are based on relatively small samples, and only represent US data.
Therefore, in the study Crossing borders: Does it matter? Differences between (near-)domestic and cross-border sex traffickers, their victims and modus operandi the differences between these two types of sex trafficking were examined, based on Dutch data. The researchers used a sample of all 658 (near-)domestic sex traffickers, and all 424 cross-border sex traffickers, registered by the prosecution service in 2008–2017, who were brought to court in the Netherlands. They collected data on these traffickers from registers of the prosecution service, from a file analyses on the indictments/verdicts, and from registers of Statistics Netherlands. These data provide insight into the characteristics of the traffickers, their victims and modus operandi.
The findings of this study, which was recently published in the European Journal of Criminology, show that significant differences exist between the two types of sex trafficking.
First of all, there are differences in the characteristics of the traffickers themselves. (Near-) domestic sex traffickers are more often males (88%) and on average younger (27.6 years) than cross-border sex traffickers (78.5% male and 32.7 years old). The (near-) domestic sex traffickers are also often born in the Netherlands (64.4%) or migrated to the Netherlands as a child (27.5%), while the majority of cross-border sex traffickers was born in Central or Eastern Europe (71.4%) and either never migrated to the Netherlands (42.3%) or migrated to the Netherlands as an adult (33.8%).
Second, also the characteristics of their victims differed between both groups. The exploitation of underaged victims was much more common among (near-) domestic sex traffickers (48.5%) than among cross-border sex traffickers (15.6%). Per definition, (near-)domestic sex traffickers recruited all their victims in the Netherlands (97.4%) and/or in a neighboring country (i.e. Germany or Belgium; 3.8%), while the large majority of the cross-border sex traffickers recruited their victims in Central or Eastern Europe (83.5%). Moreover, a vulnerable position of victims prior to the recruitment was more often mentioned among those victimized by (near-)domestic sex traffickers (93.3%) than those victimized by cross-border sex traffickers (69.3%). Vulnerabilities of victims that were more often mentioned in the files of (near-)domestic sex trafficking include being underaged, homelessness (including ran away from home), caregiver dysfunction (including childhood abuse), living in an institution, mental health problems, intellectual disabilities, and substance abuse. Vulnerabilities that were more often mentioned among victims of cross-border sex trafficking, on the other hand, include unbeneficial societal settings (including financial problems and no or low educational background) and needing to provide for others. However, it is important to keep in mind that it is possible that in the case of cross-border sex trafficking, information on victim vulnerabilities in the phase of recruitment is lacking more often than in the case of (near-)domestic sex trafficking, for the mere reason that the recruitment took place in another country where gathering evidence is harder for Dutch law enforcement agencies.
Third, also the modus operandi of (near-)domestic sex traffickers and cross-border sex traffickers showed a couple of differences. The (near-)domestic sex traffickers more often used violent means of coercion (40.4%) compared to cross-border sex traffickers (17.7%). Moreover, (near-)domestic sex traffickers were less often charged with co-offending (54.4%), the average number of victims was lower (1.6 victims) and the average duration of trafficking was shorter (458.4 days) than among cross-border sex traffickers (respectively, 71.9% co-offending, 3 victims and 603.3 days).
These results are of great importance for better tailored prevention and identification strategies. The most prominent conclusion is that the threshold to get involved into (near-)domestic sex trafficking is lower than for cross-border sex trafficking: (near-) domestic sex traffickers are, compared to cross-border sex traffickers, younger (as are their victims), they seldom need to migrate, they operate on a smaller scale (more one-to-one trafficking and for a shorter period of time) and they are practically never part of a criminal organization. Furthermore, they use violent means of coercion to control their victims more frequently than cross-border sex traffickers. Because it is the use of more subtle – instead of violent – means of coercion that can be seen as the more strategic decision to maximize profits and discourage escape, this finding can be interpreted as additional evidence for a less organized practice by (near-)domestic sex traffickers. These findings contribute to a more complete understanding of sex trafficking, in particular of the traffickers who were seldom the direct subject of research.
Kragten-Heerdink, S., Van de Weijer, S. & Weerman, F. (2022). Crossing borders: Does it matter? Differences between (near-)domestic and cross-border sex traffickers, their victims and modus operandi. European Journal of Criminology.