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Are Human Smuggling & Human Trafficking The Same Thing?

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Human smuggling and human trafficking are two different crimes, although most people think they are one and the same. In fact, many news reports often use the terms interchangeably.

Human trafficking is a crime against an individual and it doesn’t have to involve crossing any borders. Human smuggling is a crime against a country or state that involves illegally crossing borders (see the graphic for more details). While human trafficking and human smuggling are different, human smuggling can create vulnerabilities that lead to human trafficking.

Traffickers look for vulnerabilities in people, because vulnerabilities create desperation and often make it easier to manipulate or coerce someone into doing things they did do not want to do.

If we look at some of the vulnerabilities that migrants face, it becomes clear why traffickers would target them. Imagine a teenager who is smuggled into the United States by themselves. They likely don’t speak English, have no place to go, no one is looking for them or aware they are in the United States, they may not know where or who to ask for help, they likely lack basic necessities (and the list goes on).

All it takes is one manipulative trafficker to come along and “help” them and suddenly they are trapped in nightmare of labor or sex trafficking.

Because many of these victims aren’t on anyone’s radar or accounted for, it’s impossible to know the full scope of the problem. However, there are many stories coming to light showing the way traffickers are targeting this vulnerable population. (Source: The Trafficking of Undocumented Immigrants - Stop Modern Day Slavery)

In fact, a recent story ( highlights how an adult woman was luring undocumented migrant women into a “waitressing job” and once they arrived to work, they were sold for sex instead, with the threat of deportation being held over their heads. The FBI believes that this trafficker has possibly exploited hundreds of migrant women over the last few years.

This situation is not unique, there are many bait and switch tactics that are being used on undocumented and vulnerable people. If you notice anything that seems off or concerning as you are interacting with migrant populations, report your concerns to the Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

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