Human trafficking: the EU’s fight against exploitation

Learn how the EU is strengthening anti-trafficking rules to respond to changes in the way people are being exploited.

What is human trafficking?

  • Human trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit

Human trafficking facts

Every year more than 7,000 victims of human trafficking are registered in the EU. In 2022 alone, the number of registered victims hit 10,093. Even so, although the actual figure is likely to be much higher as many victims remain undetected.

The majority of victims are women and girls, but the number of men is on the rise particularly as forced labour.

Types of human trafficking

Reasons for human trafficking include:

  • Sexual exploitation - victims are predominantly women and children.
  • Forced labour - victims primarily from developing countries, forced to work in labour-intensive jobs, or kept in domestic servitude.
  • Forced criminal activities - victims must carry out a range of illegal activities. Victims often have quotas and can face severe punishment if they don’t meet them.
  • Organ donation - victims often see little to no compensation and face health risks

The causes of human trafficking


According to the United Nations, inequalities within and between countries, increasingly restrictive immigration policies and a growing demand for cheap, labour are among the underlying causes. Poverty, violence and discrimination make people vulnerable to trafficking.

What is the EU doing?

The EU’s work so far

In 2011, MEPs adopted the Anti-Trafficking Directive to protect and support victims and punish traffickers. It aims to prevent trafficking and recognises that as women and men are often trafficked for different purposes, assistance and support measures should be gender-specific.

The EU’s way forward

Forms of exploitation have evolved in recent years, with trafficking increasingly shifting online. Most recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine generated a massive displacement of women and children and created new opportunities for criminal organisations.

Against this background, on 19 December 2022 the European Commission proposed strengthening EU rules for tackling human trafficking:

  • Making forced marriage and illegal adoption a criminal offence
  • Adding human trafficking offences committed or facilitated through information and communication technologies, including internet and social media
  • Mandatory sanctions for trafficking offences, including excluding offenders from public benefits or temporarily or permanently closing establishments where the trafficking offence occurred
  • Formal national referral mechanisms to improve early identification and referral for assistance and support for victims
  • Making it a criminal offence to knowingly use services provided by victims of trafficking
  • EU-wide annual data collection on trafficking

In April 2024, Parliament backed a deal struck with the Council in January 2024. During negotiations, it was agreed to explicitly mention the exploitation of surrogacy as an additional type of exploitation, targeting those who coerce or deceive women into acting as surrogate mothers. This was an important element for MEPs who argued that criminalising surrogacy through the use of force, threat or coercion would give rights to women as victims while the perpetrators would be prosecuted.

MEPs also prioritised more effective protection of victims of human trafficking, pushing for:

  • Making sure that victims who are in need of international protection receive appropriate support and protection, and that their right to asylum is respected
  • Ensuring that victims are not prosecuted for criminal acts they were coerced into committing
  • Ensuring support to victims using a gender-, disability- and child-sensitive approach based on an intersectional approach
  • Including anti-trafficking measures in emergency response plans when natural disasters, health emergencies or migratory crises occur

The updated rules also introduce a new aggravating circumstance to take into account the amplifying effect of digital technologies in human trafficking. This includes the non-consensual dissemination of sexual images, videos or similar material of the victim.

Another change involves tougher sanctions against legal persons, such as companies, discovered to be involved in human trafficking. Under the new rules, companies could lose access to public funding, such as tender procedures, grants, concessions and licences. They may also have their permits and authorisations revoked if they were used to engage in activities which have contributed to this criminal behaviour.

Next steps

The new rules will come into force twenty days after their publication in the EU Official Journal, and EU countries will have two years to incorporate the new rules into national laws.

Cracking down on the products of forced labour

Under a different law, MEPs adopted rules aimed at keeping products made using forced labour out of the EU market. The regulation puts in place a framework to investigate the use of forced labour in companies’ supply chains.

Companies found in violation can see all import and export of the goods in question confiscated at the EU’s borders and any goods that have already reached the EU market withdrawn. MEPs believe that this ban will remove the financial incentive for companies to use forced labour as well as protect whistleblowers and victims.

Parliament endorsed the new law against forced labour in April 2024.