What ist human trafficking

Human trafficking is a complex problem. It is an extreme form of exploitation that must be analyzed and understood in the context of global poverty, restrictive migration regimes, economic crises and discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation.

Most victims of human trafficking who are exploited in Switzerland originally come from another country. Most of them start out with wanting to improve their own life and that of their family. They decide to migrate because they have been promised a job. Once they arrive, it turns out that it was a false promise or that they were deceived about the working conditions. They are forced to work under threats, violence or because of alleged debts and are exploited in this predicament.

Human trafficking in Switzerland occurs particularly in precarious work sectors, such as sex work, in private households, in agriculture, construction or the hotel and restaurant industry. It is very difficult for those affected to defend themselves and receive support because of the force and compulsion exercised by the perpetrators, but also because of their precarious legal situation. Only a few dare to testify against the perpetrators, which is why there are very few convictions in Switzerland.


What is the legal definition of human trafficking?

Human trafficking is a serious human rights violation and a felony. International conventions define human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, accomodation, or hosting of persons for the purpose of exploiting them through coercive means.”


This definition was first established in the so-called UN-Palermo-Protocol. The Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings largely adopts this definition and also aims to strengthen and improve victims’ rights.


The crime of human trafficking has three characteristics according to the international definition:
All three characteristics must be present for a situation to qualify as trafficking.

  • What: the action, this can be the recruitment, the transportation, the transfer, the accomodation or the hosting of people
  • How: with the use of illicit means of coercion (violence or other forms of coercion, kidnapping, fraud, deception, abuse of power, use of
    power, exploitation of extrordinary helplessness)
  • What for: the purpose (coercion into prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, labor exploitation or removal of bodily organs). The persons meant are thus either victims of sexual exploitation, exploitation of their labor power, they are forced to commit illegal actions or organs are removed from them under force.


Switzerland has signed these two agreements and drafted a penal code agreement (§ 182 StGB) that prohibits human trafficking. Although Switzerland has adapted its national legislation following the ratification of these international conventions, it still does not comply with all its international obligations, particularly with regard to the protection of and assistance to victims.

For more information, look at our recommendations to policymakers in the brochures “Gemeinsam gegen Menschenhandel” and “Unwürdige Arbeit“.


How does human trafficking look in reality?

Human trafficking can appear in very different shapes. Because of its broad definition, it can affect a wide variety of situations.


Nevertheless, most of the trafficked persons ecountered by the organisations of the Plateforme Traite have certain things in common. The majority of them are women and originally come from a country other than Switzerland. Most of them were in distress – because of poverty, lack of social security, economical or political crises and wars, but also because of discrimination based on their gender, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation. Many of them resolved to migration, because they aimed to improve their own lifes and the ones of their family. Others fled due to life threatening situations in their home country.


At the beginning of their migration there was usually the promise for a better future : Mediator offered them the prospect of a job, an education or marriage. However, once they arrived at their destination, the perpetrators (an individual, a group or a criminal network) coerced them into working, using threats, violence or alleged debts as means of coercion. Many of those affected were already exploited on the migration route. Some of the people we advised knew what work they would be doing, but they were misled about the working conditions. They were deprived of wages, had to work very long hours with almost no days off and many were also threatened to be reported to the police because they lacked a residence permit.


For the persons concerned, it is difficult due to the coercive means used against them, but also due to their legally precarious situation (e.g. lack of residence permit) and lack of knowledge (language, rights etc.) to fight back, to reach out for help and to free themselves from this situation of exploitation.


In Switzerland human traffick especially occurs in low-wage industries, where little job qualifications are needed. In recent years, the organisations of Plateforme Traite have advised people who have been exploited in sex work, as nannies, carers for the elderly or domestic helpers, in the cosmetics industry, in begging, in the construction, hotel or catering industries. There is also evidence of exploitation in agriculture. Some affected persons were forced to engage in illegal activities, such as theft, burglary or drug smuggling.


How many victims of human trafficking are there?

Figures on victims of human trafficking are difficult to determine precisely. Human trafficking takes place in secret. Therefore, only rough estimates of the extent of this human rights violation are available.

According to the International Labor Organization ILO, an estimate of 50 million people have been victims to forced labour and forced marriage alone in 2021. The state statistics which are gathered in the UN Global Report about human trafficking show a global number of about 50 000 identified victims. Both figures have increased in recent years.


An important indication of the extent of human trafficking in Switzerland are the case numbers of the specialised victim protection organisations. The four specialised organisations of the Plateforme Traite have accompanied and supported a total of 492 victims in the year 2021, of whom 207 have been newly identified as victims of human trafficking in 2021.The majority of the victims were from Nigeria, Romania, Brazil and Hungary. In comparison, the numbers of convictions of perpetrators are low: in 2021, there were only 13 convictions due to human trafficking</a in Switzerland.

These different figures show that the extent of human trafficking is very difficult to measure.The official figures are not very representative of the extent of human trafficking because victims are difficult to identify and perpetrators are rarely prosecuted.


How are victims of trafficking protected?

Victims of human trafficking are guaranteed special rights under the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which has been in force in Switzerland since 2013. Anyone who escapes exploitation or is freed from it, for example by the police, is entitled to a recovery and reflection period of at least 30 days, regardless of their residence status. The purpose of this recovery and reflection period is to allow victims to recover as effectively as possible and escape the influence of traffickers. During this period, they have to decide whether to cooperate with the prosecuting authorities and testify against the traffickers.

Furthermore, the victims of human trafficking are entitled to specialised support services during this period. This means counselling by a specialist organisation that is familiar with the situation of the victims of human trafficking (e.g. the four organisations that set up this platform) medical, psychological and financial assistance and secure accommodation (e.g. in a professionally supervised safe house of the type run by our member organisations FIZ and Astrée). In Switzerland, these services are paid for through the Victim Support Act, but only if the exploitation took place in Switzerland.

If victims decide to testify against the traffickers, the authorities can issue them a residence permit for the duration of criminal proceedings and extend the period during which they receive specialised support services. Once proceedings have ended, victims are required to return to their country of origin. For many, returning to their home country is associated with fresh dangers and greater vulnerability, including the risk of a significant number being “re-trafficked” (i.e. returned to a situation in which they are exploited). In exceptional cases, it is therefore possible to apply for a residence permit to enable victims who are likely to face hardship to remain in Switzerland beyond the duration of proceedings.

However, many victims do not have access to all these rights. They are not recognised as victims and are deported because they do not have a residence permit or because their asylum application has been rejected. There are major variations in Cantons’ commitment to combating human trafficking. Where there is effective cooperation between adequately funded, specialist victim protection organisations, specialised police and investigation units and sensitised public prosecutors, more victims receive access to protection and support services and more traffickers are successfully prosecuted.

Delivering effective victim protection will require improvements at various levels. The Focal points section” contains more information on the major shortcomings in victim protection in Switzerland and on ways of remedying them. To ensure genuine action to combat this brutal violation of human rights, however, it is above all essential to address its causes. Switzerland needs more safe and legal migration and employment opportunities, particularly for low-skilled jobs.


How do I recognize a trafficked person?

Human trafficking is often associated with extreme images: the victims are tied up, locked up, the violence which they had to endure is clearly visible, they are being sold as slaves. These stereotypical images can lead to victims not being recognized as such when they are not exploited in such extreme situations. Trafficked persons can be of any gender, age and origin, with a “normal” appearance that does not arouse suspicion.

These stereotypes are being reproduced through images by the media. We have to sharpen our view on human trafficking because if we don’t, many victims remain undetected. Plateforme Traite provides press images to break stereotypes.


You may encounter a potential victim at the border, at the embassy, in a hospital, in the premises of social services, in asylum centres, emergency sleeping facilities, legal advice centres, on the street, at information and registration desks, in the entertainment sector, at a police station and in various other places of work. The places are diverse.
Therefor it is essential for professionals but also for the broader population to know the signs of human trafficking and where victims can turn to for help.


Eventhough the personal freedom of victims of human trafficking is very limited, they have the opportunity to be in contact with other human beings in most of the cases. They play an important role in initiating initial assistance and in facilitating the exit from the exploitative situation. Trafficked persons hardly ever describe themselves as victims of human trafficking and only rarely report to the police or a specialised victim protection organisation on their own. Therefore, the support of third parties can be decisive.


The following indications may indicate that a person has been trafficked:

      • The person was deceived about pay or working conditions.
      • The person tells of excessive debts that do not decrease; of tasks that they no longer want to do; of humiliation or blackmail against them or their children.
      • Third parties have organised and prepaid her accommodation and travel. They took away her passport.
      • The person seems to be under pressure, they do not dare to tell, they are suspicious or seem scared.
      • There is evidence of physical violence, rape or deprivation of liberty.

Not all of these indicators have to appear, and there are also further indications.


The best thing is to contact one of the four Plateforme Traite specialist units directly at the first sign of suspicion.

    • Detecting human trafficking is not easy. It requires time and expertise and is a complex task that requires the willingness of the victim to trust and accept help.
    • All four organisations are specialised in the identification of victims of human trafficking and work with a victim-centred approach.
    • People who have been trafficked have special rights. In order to profit from these rights and being protected they have to be identified as victim of human trafficking. Therefor it is really important that presumed victims of trafficking are connected with specialised organisations, like the four memberorganisations of the Plateforme Traite, because these organisations advocate for the rights of the victims to be protected.

How can I help a person affected by human trafficking?

If you are in contact with a person who may be a victim of trafficking, keep the following points in mind:

  • As soon as there is a suspicion of trafficking in human beings, it is essential to contact a professional from one of the four specialised organisations of the Plateforme Traite and involve the professional. An initial assessment can also be done anonymously.
  • Encourage the person concerned to contact one of the four specialised agencies so that they can be informed about their rights and receive support. Offer to accompany them there. The counselling sessions are free of charge and take place in the language of the person concerned (with interpreters if necessary).
  • Reassure the person concerned that the specialised agencies are bound by professional secrecy. What the person concerned says there will not be disclosed to anyone.
  • Do not act over the head of the person concerned. Do not do anything without first asking the trafficked person. As a victim of human trafficking, they have been controlled by others – do not perpetuate this control. It is important to respect the will of the trafficked person so that they can trust you..
  • Many of those affected remain in an exploitative situation for years. Only when the pressure of suffering is very high do they try to escape.
    It is crucial to build up trust so that victims have the courage to speak out. Every encounter can be used to “set an anchor” and let the person know that they have rights and can get help.

The above questions and answers are also available in a brochure. Printed copies can be ordered (mail to info(at)plateforme-traite.ch).