Human trafficking is the trading of human beings as commodities and exploiting them for profit or personal benefit. It involves the recruitment, transportation, harbouring or receiving of persons through force, coercion or deception.

Often trafficked people have taken what is presented as a chance of a better life via a job or educational opportunity. They are lied to about the work, pay and conditions, and subsequently find themselves in situations similar to slavery.

Victims can be

  • sexually exploited
  • forced to be a domestic servant
  • trapped in forced labour
  • forced to commit criminal acts.

Here you can find information on the link between human trafficking and health inequalities as well as actions that can be taken to address this.

  • Trafficking is not confined to the major cities in Scotland. In 2017, Scottish Government reported that victims of trafficking had been identified in 27 of the 32 local authority areas.
  • In 2017, 213 persons were referred to the National Referral Mechanism m (NRM) from Scotland. 59% were male and 41% were female.
  • The number of referrals to the NRM will likely underestimate the true scale of trafficking as it only relates to detected cases in which adults have consented to being referred.
  • Globally 71% of human trafficking victims are women and girls and 29% are men and boys.
  • Children are estimated to account for 29% of human trafficking victims.

Studies which have focused on women previously trafficked found that

  • 43% to 60% had been physically and/or sexually abused.
  • 12% to 31% had experienced childhood sexual abuse.
  • 26% had been abused by more than one perpetrator.

Trafficking can affect men and women differently.

  • 69% of women referred to the NRM experienced sexual exploitation in contrast to 3% of men.
  • 91% of men referred to the NRM experienced labour exploitation in contrast to 20% of women.

Human trafficking and health inequalities

Male and female victims of trafficking can be subjected to violence and have passports or other documents withheld.

Men are more subjected to

  • threats against their family
  • denial of food and sleep
  • threats of legal action.

In the context of sexual exploitation, it is important to be aware of the likelihood of trauma. This is given the

  • nature of the abuse sustained
  • the possibility of the prior experience of physical and sexual abuse.

Due to the sexual exploitation of predominantly women and girls, they are also more likely to

  • be threatened regarding their involvement in prostitution or pornography
  • have photographs used to advertise services also used for blackmail purposes.

Those subjected to trafficking can be found to have health risks associated with exploitation and abuse, and also experience the long-term psychological impact of being enslaved.

We have created guidance for health workers on the range of situations into which people may have been trafficked and how staff can respond to those who have experienced it.

View the guidance for health workers

National actions

Victims or potential victims of human trafficking are entitled to free healthcare.

Human trafficking and exploitation

Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 provides rights for adult victims who need support and protection. It is supported by the Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy. This was developed to build on existing work to identify and support victims to safety and recovery.

You can find out more about these within the human trafficking policy on the Scottish Government site.

View the human trafficking policy


Together with NHS Education for Scotland (NES), we have developed an e-module course to raise awareness of human trafficking among health and social care staff who are interacting with patients.

It does not cover the treatment of victims but does

  • provide some practical information on the health needs of trafficked people
  • briefly outline the role of staff in health and social care in identifying and responding appropriately to trafficked individuals.

Visit TURAS for the e-module

Modern Slavery Human Trafficking Unit (MSHTU)

The UK Government established the MSHTU to provide a consistent approach to the prevention of trafficking and provision of support to trafficked persons. It has also established a National Referral Mechanism (NRM) to respond to victims.

Local actions

A number of areas have developed multi-agency protocols on human trafficking, which

  • identify the key contacts for each agency
  • clarify the different levels of responsibility
  • provide information on local support arrangements.

The inter-agency guidance for child trafficking helps professionals working with children to identify potential trafficking victims and make appropriate referrals for protection and support.

View the inter-agency guidance

Health and social care staff can refer potential victims to

Both organisations are funded by Scottish Government to provide assistance to victims of trafficking and can refer individuals to the NRM.

Local contacts

Each local NHS Board has an Executive Lead and Operational Lead for gender based violence (GBV). You can contact your local lead for information on local policies, training opportunities and support for staff.

Support services for the public

Members of the public can be directed towards Scotland's Service Directory on NHS inform which provides information on

Last updated: 02 October 2023
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