Visa Crunch

Human Traffickers Exploiting International Students For Forced Labour, Sex Work Globally: US State Department

Human traffickers around the world are exploiting international students for forced labour and sex work, the US State Department’s latest Trafficking in Persons report has identified.

Each year the State Department profiles countries around the world to monitor and combat human trafficking, with officials detailing in the latest report that Covid-19 has provided an “ideal environment” for trafficking.

Researchers found that international students are falling victim to traffickers in numerous countries, including key study abroad destinations such as the US and Australia.

“Human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic”

“If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, it is that human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic,” said Kari Johnstone, acting director at the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

“The concurrence of the increased number of individuals at risk, traffickers’ ability to capitalise on competing crises, and the diversion of resources to pandemic response efforts have resulted in an ideal environment for human trafficking to flourish and evolve.”

The report was prepared using information from US embassies, government officials, non-governmental and international organisations, published reports, news articles, academic studies, as well as consultations with authorities and organisations in every region of the world.

Read some of the key findings by country.


The report noted over the last five years, human traffickers have exploited domestic and foreign victims in every state and territory in Australia, primarily exploiting women and men in forced labour, and to a lesser extent, women and girls in sex trafficking.

“Traffickers may exploit temporary migrants and international students in forced labour, especially when based in remote regions with limited access to support,” the report said.

“Some identified victims are foreign citizens on student visas who pay significant placement and academic fees. Unscrupulous employers coerce students to work in excess of the terms of their visas, making them vulnerable to trafficking by exploiting fears of deportation for immigration violations.”

The Department places each country in this report onto one of four tiers, based not on the size of a country’s problem but on the extent of government efforts to meet standards for the elimination of human trafficking.

Australia was given a Tier 1 ranking, the highest-ranking. While the report noted that the government meets the minimum standards, its trafficking convictions remain low in comparison to the number of trafficking cases identified and the overall broader scope of the crime.

“Additionally, while courts convicted one trafficker during the reporting year, the trafficker received three years’ probation; such lenient sentences weaken deterrence and may undercut broader efforts to fight trafficking,” the report added.

“The government also did not adequately screen vulnerable groups traffickers may target, including domestic workers, international students, and migrant workers, which at times may have resulted in the government’s detention or deportation of unidentified victims.”

United States

The report noted that there are issues with the US’ Exchange Visitor Program, commonly referred to as the J-1 visa.

Advocates reported the need for additional steps to reduce the risks of exploitation in some EVP categories, noting concerns with fraudulent recruitment practices, exorbitant program fees and exploitative work conditions.

A news report featuring interviews with former and current EVP au pairs detailed a lack of oversight of sponsors and families, including insufficient corrective action and frequent sponsor non-compliance with the program’s reporting requirements.

The report includes victim stories and photographs which are illustrative and characterise the “many –though not all – forms of human trafficking and the wide variety of situations and location in which they occur”.

Each of these victim stories is based on real experiences (the victims’ names were changed). One story focuses on the experiences of a Chilean student who goes to the US.

“Vicente was thrilled when he was recruited and offered an educational visa to attend community college in the United States,” the report said.

“The college program promised free tuition for a two-year degree program in Culinary Arts, free room and board, and an internship. After arriving in the United States, Vicente and several other Chilean students learned their program had been changed from a two-year program to a one-year program in food services.”

Instead of an internship, the school required the Chilean students to work 40 hours per week in a meat processing plant to pay off a debt for the academic program—that they had been told would be tuition-free—and pay for food and housing out of their wages.

“The school administrators forced Vicente and the other students to adhere to an exhausting work and academic schedule and threatened deportation and legal action if they failed to comply or skipped a work shift. When the school closed the educational visa program after complaints were filed, it encouraged students to self-deport.”


The report said that the Russian government was actively complicit in the forced labour of North Korean workers and used student visas to circumvent UN Security Council resolutions.

“The government did not screen North Korean workers for trafficking indicators or identify any North Korean trafficking victims, despite credible reports in previous years that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) operated work camps in Russia and exploited thousands of North Korean workers in forced labour,” the report said.

According to the report, although the Russian government took steps to repatriate North Korean workers in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions, citizens from the DPRK continued to arrive throughout the year, many of whom likely engaged in informal labour.

“While the Russian government reported the number of North Korean workers in Russia declined in 2020, the government issued almost 3,000 new tourist and student visas to North Koreans in 2020 in an apparent attempt to circumvent the UNSCRs,” the report added.

Other countries

In Cyprus, foreign university students, many of whom were recruited with false promises of scholarships, free housing, and employment, are vulnerable to both sex and labour trafficking.

“Traffickers force female students into sex trafficking in apartments and male students into forced labour or coerce students to commit crimes such as transporting or selling drugs. Students who drop out of school or engage in irregular work, many from sub-Saharan African countries, were particularly vulnerable,” the report said.

Some for-profit universities in Taiwan “aggressively recruit” Indonesian students and subsequently place them into exploitative labour conditions under the pretence of educational opportunities.

“These students are often unaware of the work component prior to arrival and reportedly experience contract switching, prohibitive working hours, and poor living conditions contrary to their original agreements,” the report said.

According to researchers, fraudulent recruitment agencies have sent at least 100 Indonesians to Taiwan under the guise of university scholarships where, upon arrival, they were forced to work at an iron foundry to repay a “loan” for alleged schooling fees.

The report said that some agencies have subjected Bhutanese students in work-study programs in Japan and Malaysia with indicators of forced labour, including fraudulent contracts, nonpayment of wages, and passport retention.

And in Israel some traffickers in the agricultural sector recruit agricultural students to take part in an agricultural study program on student visas and force them to work in the industry upon arrival, effectively circumventing the bilateral work agreements process; observers reported the programs to contain no academic content and students are bound by tuition fees.

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