Background: There is very limited evidence on the health consequences of human trafficking. This systematic review reports on studies investigating the prevalence and risk of violence while trafficked and the prevalence and risk of physical, mental, and sexual health problems, including HIV, among trafficked people.
Methods and findings: We conducted a systematic review comprising a search of Medline, PubMed, PsycINFO, EMBASE, and Web of Science, hand searches of reference lists of included articles, citation tracking, and expert recommendations. We included peer-reviewed papers reporting on the prevalence or risk of violence while trafficked and/or on the prevalence or risk of any measure of physical, mental, or sexual health among trafficked people. Two reviewers independently screened papers for eligibility and appraised the quality of included studies. The search identified 19 eligible studies, all of which reported on trafficked women and girls only and focused primarily on trafficking for sexual exploitation. The review suggests a high prevalence of violence and of mental distress among women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation. The random effects pooled prevalence of diagnosed HIV was 31.9% (95% CI 21.3%-42.4%) in studies of women accessing post-trafficking support in India and Nepal, but the estimate was associated with high heterogeneity (I² = 83.7%). Infection prevalence may be related as much to prevalence rates in women's areas of origin or exploitation as to the characteristics of their experience. Findings are limited by the methodological weaknesses of primary studies and their poor comparability and generalisability.
Conclusions: Although limited, existing evidence suggests that trafficking for sexual exploitation is associated with violence and a range of serious health problems. Further research is needed on the health of trafficked men, individuals trafficked for other forms of exploitation, and effective health intervention approaches.