Difference between Trafficking and Smuggling

I am asked this question fairly often so I am going to post some information here with some links at the bottom to help you:

Trafficking and Smuggling

Is people smuggling the same as human trafficking?

No. While people smuggling and human trafficking are linked there are fundamental differences between the two.

  • People smuggling involves migrants being facilitated with entry into a State through illegal means whereas trafficking must have the threat of or use of force, coercion or deception against a victim.
  • People smuggling facilitates an individual’s illegal entry into the State whereas victims of trafficking can enter into the State both legally and illegally.
  • People smuggling must take place across international borders but there is no requirement that a person must have crossed a border for trafficking to take place – it can and does take place within national borders.
  • People smuggling, while often undertaken in dangerous or degrading conditions, involves migrants who have consented to the smuggling. Trafficking victims, have either never consented or, if they initially consented, that consent has been rendered meaningless by the coercive, deceptive or abusive actions of the traffickers.
  • People smuggling ends with the arrival of the migrants at their destination; unlike trafficking it does not involve the ongoing exploitation of victims.
  • People smuggling can lead to trafficking if, for example, the circumstances of the smuggled persons change during the journey or on arrival in the State leading to them becoming victims of violence and exploitation.

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Trafficking vs. Smuggling: What’s the Difference?

Human trafficking and human smuggling are distinct criminal activities, and the terms are not interchangeable. Human trafficking centers on exploitation and is generally defined as:

  • Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or
  • Recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.

Human smuggling centers on transportation and is generally defined as:

  • Importation of people into the United States involving deliberate evasion of immigration laws. This offense includes bringing illegal aliens into the country, as well as the unlawful transportation and harboring of aliens already in the United States.

Human Trafficking Indicators

Human trafficking indicators include:

  • Does the victim possess identification and travel documents? If not, who has control of these documents?
  • Did the victim travel to a destination country for a specific job or purpose and is victim engaged in different employment than expected?
  • Is victim forced to perform sexual acts as part of employment?
  • Is the victim a juvenile engaged in commercial sex?
  • Does the victim owe money to an employer or does the employer hold wages?
  • Did the employer instruct the victim on what to say to law enforcement or immigration officials?
  • Can the victim freely leave employment or the situation?
  • Are there guards at work/harboring site or video cameras to monitor and ensure no one escapes?
  • Does the victim have freedom of movement? Can they freely contact family and friends? Can they socialize or attend religious services?

Trafficking vs. Smuggling

Trafficking: Must contain an element of force, fraud or coercion (actual, perceived or implied), unless the person is under 18 years of age involved in commercial sex acts.
Smuggling: The person being smuggled is generally cooperating.

Trafficking: Forced labor and/or exploitation.
Smuggling: There is no actual or implied coercion.

Trafficking: Persons trafficked are victims.
Smuggling: Persons smuggled are violating the law. They are not victims.

Trafficking: Enslaved, subjected to limited movement or isolation, or had documents confiscated.
Smuggling: Persons are free to leave, change jobs, etc.

Trafficking: Need not involve the actual movement of the victim.
Smuggling: Facilitates the illegal entry of person(s) from one country into another.

Trafficking: No requirement to cross an international border.
Smuggling: Smuggling always crosses an international border.

Trafficking: Personal must be involved in labor/services or commercial sex acts, i.e., must be “working.”
Smuggling: Person must only be in country or attempting entry illegally.


Trafficking in drugs is an expansive term that includes any activity that involves the manufacture, importation, exportation, distribution or sale of illegal drugs. It also includes possessing drugs if you show the intent or there is evidence that you were conducting any of these activities. Generally, there is an element of earning money from engaging in these pursuits.

Drug dealers whose activities involve enormous quantities of illegal drugs are typically charged with a drug trafficking crime since they are moving them across state or country lines for profit.


Drug smuggling refers to moving controlled substances unlawfully across country or state borders without paying a tax or customs duties, if applicable. Smuggling can be termed as trafficking as it does involve exporting or importing of drugs although there need not be the element of selling or earning money from a smuggling activity.

Some links:

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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