Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling: What They Are and How They Differ

Human trafficking and human smuggling (and their associated terms) are thrown around a lot in the media but are often misunderstood.

In this post we are going to highlight some key differences between the two concepts, and then discuss how the concepts can play out in the real world.

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking refers to the trade in people for the purposes of exploitation. Human trafficking is the process of trapping people through the use of violence, deception or coercion and exploitint them for financial or personal gain. For some people, being trafficked means being forced into a life of sexual exploitation, and for others, it means being forced to perform manual labour. Others still suffer from other forms of exploitation. Human trafficking goes against every basic right that someone has as a human being. 

Migrant Smuggling

Migrant smuggling occurs when a potential migrant pays a smuggler to help them reach another country. In some instances migrant smuggling comprises smugglers assisting people to enter a country without proceeding through regular border controls. In others migrant smuggling comprises the provision of fraudulent documents to enable the person being smuggled to enter a country legally, but using fraudulent means to do so. Importantly, not all people who cross a border without authorisation are doing so illegally. For example, a person might cross a border to escape violence or persecution to seek asylum in another country. However, if they have paid for the services of a smuggler to facilitate the border crossing, then this blurs the lines for many countries and national responses in such cases vary widely.

Crossing of Borders

When it comes to migrant smuggling, it almost always will involve crossing a border. When it comes to human trafficking, there are many instances when a person may be taken over the border. But, there are also several instances when human trafficking can occur without crossing any borders at all.


A key difference between human smuggling and human trafficking is consent. In the case of migrant smuggling, the person being smuggled consents. There is a contract and some form of payment that passes from the migrant to the smuggler to complete the border crossing.

In the case of human trafficking, the person being trafficked has not consented. In many cases trafficking victims believe they are entering into a labour migration arrangement only to fall under the control of a trafficking operation and become forced into an exploitative arrangement. 

Concepts Versus Reality

In reality, the line between human trafficking and human smuggling often blurs and there are a wide range of practices around the world that range from relatively benevolent to utterly horrifying. For instance, a typical pattern of labour migration between one South Asian nation and a South-East Asian nation functions as follows. Migrant workers from Country A negotiate passage, a job and accomodation to Country B with a broker, often with little or no understanding of the distinctions between legal and illegal forms of migration, or fully understand that they will be smuggled into Country B and illegally. The migrant worker is not obliged to provide full payment up front, but instead is obliged to pay the broker a percentage of their earnings over time. 

This kind of arrangement is common and there are millions of people in these kinds of work arrangements. They disempower the worker and create circumstances in which the worker is vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking, or worse. 

One of the factors that sustains this vulnerability is a lack of information. Potential migrants often struggle to access accurate information in their language and in an appropriate format. As an enlightening experiment, take a moment to assume that you are potential migrant and you only speak your chosen local language. Then navigate to the webpages of some of the worlds’ predominant migration organisations and try to find useful, actionable information in your chosen language. What you will quickly find is that there is a dearth of useful or actionable information. 

Our Mission

This disconnect between potential migrants and the countries they are interested in migrating to is the space in which Statt Consulting operates. We bridge the gap between source and destination communities. We strive to provide potential migrants with the information they need to make better migration decisions through appropriate channels. 


Please leave us a message through our contact page.


Statt Consulting was founded in 2010 and is headquartered in Singapore. We work primarily across Africa, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region. Statt Consulting is led by Mr Luke Falkner and Ms Renee Le Cussan, and supported by a highly skilled and experienced global team.