Different countries and organizations use different terminologies to describe modern slavery. Even the term “slavery” itself and concepts related to migration and labour rights, such as human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, and exploitation of children, differ.

We adhere to the definitions from international treaties. Understanding the terms is crucial in identifying and addressing the needs of the communities, constructing advocacy policies and project methodologies.

Debt bondage

The 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery (Article 1(a) ) defines debt bondage as “the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined". Debt bondage is a condition whereby the individual acknowledges the work as a means of repayment of debt.

Debt bondage is a status or condition, where one person has pledged labour or service as for the repayment of a debt or other obligation, in circumstances where the terms, such as length and nature of the service not limited or defined hus the debt or length of debt is not being reduced.

Forced Labour

Forced labour is defined in the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on Forced Labour 1930 (No. 29) as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” This definition excludes compulsory military service, normal civil obligations, penalties imposed by a court action taken in an emergency, and minor communal services.

Forced or servile marriage

Forced and early marriages are serious human rights violations affecting both genders. Yet, in the vast majority of cases female children, girls and women are the main victims. The 1956 Slavery Convention defines following practices as forced marriage:

  • A woman, without the right to refuse, is promised or given in marriage on payment of a
    consideration in money or in kind to her parents, guardian, family or any other person
    or group; or
  • The husband of a woman, his family, or his clan, has the right to transfer her to another
    person for value received or otherwise; or
  • A woman on the death of her husband is liable to be inherited by another person.

This definition has been updated in 2006 by the United-Nations Secretary-General who noted that “a forced marriage is one lacking the free and valid consent of at least one of the parties.” Forced marriage therefore refers to any situation where a marriage takes place without the free or valid consent of one or both of the partners, regardless of their age, and involves either physical or emotional distress, as noted in the Joint General Recommendation No. 31 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

Early marriage, particularly those involving children under the age of 16 years, is related to forced marriage because minors are deemed incapable of giving informed consent. It is important to note that many countries allow 16 and 17-year-old girls and boys, who wish to get married, to wed with parental consent or a judicial ruling .

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is defined in the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, known as well as one of the 3 Palermo Protocols supplementing the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, ratified by 173 nations so far.

It involves three steps:
  1. Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons;
  2. By means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person;
  3. With the intent of exploiting that person through: prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery (or similar practices), servitude, and removal of organs.

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered “trafficking in persons” even if this does not involve threat, use of force, or coercion.

Irregular Migration 

Although a universally accepted definition of irregular migration does not exist, the term is generally used to identify the movement of persons that takes place outside the laws, regulations, or international agreements governing the entry into or exit from the State of origin, transit or destination. According to the “Glossary of Migration”, published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), categories of migrants who may not have any other choice but to use irregular migration channels can also include refugees, victims of trafficking, or unaccompanied migrant children.


There is no internationally agreed upon definition of the term “migrant”, so the way in how migrants are defined varies substantially across UN Member States.

IOM defines a migrant as any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a State away from his/her habitual place of residence, regardless of the person’s legal status; whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; what the causes for the movement are; or what the length of the stay is.


A refugee is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

The term is defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which outlines also the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of States to protect them.

The core principle is non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This is now considered a rule of customary international law. In addition to the refugee definition in the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention defines a refugee as any person compelled to leave his or her country “owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country or origin or nationality”. Similarly, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration states that refugees also include persons who flee their country “because their lives, security or freedom have been threatened by generalised violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violations of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order”.



In 1956, the UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery considered ‘modern slavery’ practices such as debt bondage and serfdom to be:

Serfdom: “the condition or status of a tenant who is by law, custom or agreement bound to live and labour on land belonging to another person and to render some determinate service to such other person, whether for reward or not, and is not free to change his status.”


Slavery and Slavery-Like Practices

Slavery is defined in the 1926 Slavery Convention also known as “Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery” as the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised. In 1953 The Slavery Convention was updated by a Protocol further amended in 1956 in a Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery defining ‘slavery-like practices’ including: debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, sale or exploitation of children (including in armed conflict), serfdom and descent-based slavery. The Slavery Convention from 1926 also calls for prevention and suppression of slave trade and progressive and complete abolition of slavery in all its forms.

Worst forms of child labour

Drawing on the 1999 International Labour Conference Convention No.182, concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, the term “worst forms of child labour” comprises:

  • All types of slavery or slavery-like practices, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage, serfdom or any other type of forced labour, including using children in war and armed conflict;
  • All activities which sexually exploit children, such as prostitution, pornography or pornographic performances;
  • Involvement of children in illegal activities, in particular for the production or trafficking of drugs;
  • Work which could damage the health, safety or well-being of children (so called “hazardous work”).

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