Vienna (Austria) – 20 September 2023 - Children as young as six are forced to work extensive hours in dangerous settings in quarries, mines and factories.
Others toil in extreme weather and inhumane conditions on plantations and fishing boats or work, without pay, as domestic servants.
Some are sexually abused in brothels, bars, private homes and online or forced into marriage. All these children are victims of human trafficking.
“They’re not only exploited, but may also be raped, beaten, humiliated, deprived of liberty, and forced to live in squalor - their childhoods are stolen,” says Mukundi Mutasa, a UNODC crime prevention expert.
“Many are physically and psychologically scarred for life, while others do not survive their trafficking ordeal,” he adds.
Research, conducted by UNODC, shows that some traffickers use their child victims to commit crimes, such as theft, illegal drug production, and even acts of terrorism, for which they are sometimes arrested, deported or imprisoned.
Next month, delegates from around 120 countries will meet in Vienna, Austria, and online, to discuss how to better counter child trafficking.
The discussion forms part of the annual meetings of the intergovernmental Working Group on Trafficking in Persons and centres around an in-depth paper on this topic produced by UNODC’s Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section.
UNODC’s latest report on global human trafficking trends shows that around 35 percent, or one in three, of detected victims of trafficking are children.
While cases of child trafficking are detected in all regions and in most countries in the world, in Central America and the Caribbean, North Africa and the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa, children account for the majority of identified victims.
Children are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking for several reasons, including poverty, lack of access to education, humanitarian crises, or the lack of support networks.
“Traffickers are known to prey on children in vulnerable situations, especially when their parents or guardians struggle to support their households. This places children under pressure to contribute to the family’s income,” explains Mutasa.
The UNODC anti-trafficking expert says, in many cases, the traffickers are known to the child’s family and guardians or they target children without parental care, including those in orphanages and foster homes.
Criminals take advantage of these situations to deceive children and the adults who care for them with “fake promises of better opportunities”.
“In some cases, family members even play a role in the trafficking process, especially in the initial stages. Our research suggests that the extent of family involvement in cases of child trafficking is up to four times higher than in cases of adult trafficking,” he says.
UNODC’s anti-trafficking experts train relevant authorities how to identify cases of human trafficking, including those that involve children, and to take the necessary steps to support the child and prosecute the traffickers.
A recent case of forced ‘marriage’ in Malawi shows the impact of this work. A female child was trafficked by her uncle and forced to live with a man she had never met before. This man had paid her uncle money for a ‘wife’.
Over a period of eight months, he would repeatedly rape, beat and abuse her. Her ordeal came to an end when neighbours heard her crying and reported this to the authorities.
Police officers trained by UNODC rescued the girl and identified the signs of trafficking for the purpose of forced marriage.
With the cooperation of UNODC’s office in Malawi, the girl is being supported by two non-profit organisations. Her uncle and her abuser are both in prison.
According to UNODC data, existing risks for child trafficking are worsened further during times of emergency.
Natural disasters, such as floods, droughts and typhoons, and armed conflicts force children to flee their homes often unaccompanied by or, at times, separated from parents or guardians.
Deprived of opportunities and protection, the displaced, migrant or asylum-seeking children are easy targets for traffickers.
Statistics collected by UNODC indicate that in 166 countries, over 18,000 child victims of trafficking were identified in 2020.
However, anti-human trafficking experts fear the rates do not reflect the full extent of the problem, due to the clandestine nature of this crime and the lack of data collection in many parts of the world.
The Working Group will also look at issues concerning the protection of child victims, their access to justice, and the long-term impact on their well-being and health, as well as their opportunities for rehabilitation and reintegration, and the risks of re-exploitation.
“It’s the first time this expert meeting has focussed on child trafficking,” says Mukundi Mutasa.“We hope the discussions will lead to concrete measures to prevent this crime and improve the identification and protection of child victims of trafficking that all delegates can implement in their home countries,” he concludes.
The Working Group on Trafficking in Persons is the principal forum within the UN system for discussion about human trafficking. It was established to facilitate exchange between crime prevention and criminal justice experts from the countries that have committed themselves to implement the UN’s Trafficking in Persons Protocol. More than ninety percent of States globally are implementing this international instrument.