Vienna (Austria) – 20 November 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.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) latest report on global human trafficking trends shows that around 35 per cent, or one in three, of detected victims of trafficking are children.
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.
Cases of child trafficking are detected in all regions and in most countries in the world. However, 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 that 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.
Statistics collected by UNODC indicate that over 18,000 child victims of trafficking were identified in 166 countries 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.
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 organizations. 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.
Earlier in November, the Inter-Agency Coordination Group Against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT), coordinated by UNODC, issued a ten-point Call to Action with an aim of having a significant impact on this issue by 2025. The Call includes specific measures to prevent child trafficking and protect the victims of this crime.
The ten points on which States are asked to accelerate action include investing in systems to protect vulnerable children and by strengthening mechanisms for the early identification and support of trafficked children.
Measures must be improved to guarantee child trafficking victims receive care and support that is tailored to their needs, age, gender and situation. More effort is needed to enhance children’s online safety and protection from newly emerging threats, including technology-facilitated trafficking and exploitation.