6.11.2018 | Von:
Aidan Kerr

Trafficking in Children – the Supply and Demand of Exploitation

The human trafficking business is flourishing. No country is immune to trafficking in persons. In some world regions a large proportion of victims are children under the age of 18.

Ein Kind arbeitet im Straßenbau in Bangladesch.Child doing roadwork in Bangladesh. (© picture-alliance, NurPhoto)

Deutsche Version des Artikels

According to the International Labor Office (ILO), 40 million people are trapped in varying forms of modern slavery as of 2016. Of those 40 million, 25 percent are children under the age of 18. One form of modern slavery is human trafficking. The ILO estimates that over 20 million people around the world today have been victims of trafficking. [1] 71 percent of those trafficked are female and the vast majority of these women are trafficked into the sex trade. [2] Children who make up 25 percent of victims are trafficked for a plethora of reasons. Sexual exploitation, perhaps the most well-known and well-documented manifestation of trafficking, is only one element of this dark and complex world. Domestic labor, benefit fraud, work in service provision (nail salons, restaurants), drug mules or decoys, begging or pickpocketing, forced marriage, trade in human organs, soldiering, agricultural labor, illegal intercountry adoption and sports exploitation all serve as areas demanding the modern enslaved child. But what is human trafficking, and how does it affect children specifically?

Shares of adults and children among detected trafficking victimsShares of adults and children among detected trafficking victims (PDF-Icon download the infographic here) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)

Defining Human Trafficking and Trafficking in Children

The United Nations, under the 2000 Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, defines human trafficking as,
"the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion (...) for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs." [3]

In other words, human trafficking is a means to enslave and exploit vulnerable people through coercion. When addressing children, this definition is altered to reflect the vulnerability of the child,
"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 [force, abduction, fraud, or coercion]." [4]

If a child is transported into an exploitative position, they are considered to be a victim of trafficking regardless of the use of force or coercion. Child trafficking is considered to be amongst the worst forms of child labor and in stark violation of the rights of the child. [5] The theme of child’s rights coincides with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Drafted in November 1989, the convention details 54 articles outlining the essential rights granted to children under the age of 18 regardless of ethnicity, race, sex, political views or religion. [6] Although these protocols and conventions offer a good framework for nations to ratify, trafficking in children is still a global problem. This is because international protocols only have a limited impact, implementation at the local and national level is paramount in combating trafficking.

The trade in humans is appealing for criminal organizations because unlike the sale of illicit drugs, humans can be sold and resold repeatedly, [7] making human trafficking a multi-billion-dollar industry. According to an information leaflet by the European Parliament, profit from trafficking amounts to 117 billion Euros per year. [8] The crux of the trafficking problem is that in the context of the international division of labor the deplorable business of violence, coercion and abuse takes place far removed from the final product and thus the consumer. Labor force exploitation, including the exploitation of trafficking victims, allows for products to be produced at very low costs. The western consumer benefits from these low costs, hardly ever thinking about the manufacturing conditions. Thus, the concept of trafficking and the victims go unnoticed.

Human Trafficking and Human Smuggling

Vulnerable populations such as marginalized groups, children and (irregular) migrants are especially prone to trafficking. In 2016 the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published the 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. The biennial report exists to influence the development of international law and draw attention to the growing phenomenon of human trafficking. The thematic focus of this year’s report was rooted in the vulnerability of migrants and refugees to human trafficking while in transit. [9] This theme coincides with the fact that global forced migration has reached levels comparable to the mass displacement that followed the Second World War. [10]

Those displaced are forced into volatile and precarious situations. In cases of mass displacement, families can be plunged into extreme poverty. Lack of economic opportunities aside, access to food and basic necessities become scarce and desperation sets in. This situation can lead families to pursue illegal means of transportation to different countries or regions since legal pathways (like resettlement) are rare. [11] One option presented to displaced people in order to reach a country that might offer protection or safe harbour is smuggling. According to the United Nations Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, human smuggling is defined as,
"…the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or permanent resident." [12]

The terms human trafficking and human smuggling are often starkly separated by news media outlets and in academic discourse. While smuggling must involve the crossing of international borders, trafficking can occur within national borders. As these terms both refer to an illegal means of transportation, it is important to understand the differences and similarities between the two.

The fundamental difference between these definitions is the assumed violation of human rights present in human trafficking. But smuggling, too, puts refugees and migrants in very dangerous situations. Although smugglers may portray a righteous persona, helping to get desperate refugees to safety, the reality is that smuggling often leads to trafficking. Even though academics and researchers tend to develop a divide between these two legal definitions, the line between smuggling and trafficking is blurred. In the 2016 Report on Trafficking in Humans the United Nations found that migrants looking for safe passage into various countries often sought out smugglers. These migrants were promised better opportunities and safe passage. They paid extremely high fees but many of them ended up trafficked into forced labor, debt, and sexual slavery. [13] The fact that smuggling can turn into trafficking is especially true in the case of children who are sent overseas with smugglers in hopes that they will be established in a wealthy country in safety and with better prospects for their future.

Trafficking – a Flourishing Business

How is it that human trafficking continues to flourish with strong ties to the rich countries of the world? The answer to this question is complex but for the sake of this general discussion, it can be attributed to the displacement brought about by military conflict and the steady demand for cheap labor cultivated by the Western Economy.[14]

Western consumer culture dominates the global economy today. [15] The nexus of neoliberalism and globalization in the world economy has allowed for the free movement of capital and the commodification of humans: humans and their labor are treated as commodities for trade. While capital transcends borders freely, refugees and migrants are excluded, valued only for their labor. Agricultural areas like fisheries and farms, mineral extraction for jewelry and electronics, and entertainment industries like sports are all supplied to some degree by slaves and trafficked people. The profits generated by the cycle of modern slavery and human trafficking keep the demand for indentured servitude thriving. [16] Exploitative labor is required in order to keep prices down and so it appears to be the cornerstone of global competition in the capitalist economic system.

As discussed above, children are trafficked for a myriad of exploitative uses. Of these, sexual exploitation is the most widespread and well-known. Sexual slavery is a prime example of the effect that conflict has on trafficking. As people seeking refuge make an easy target for traffickers, conflicts supply the sexual slavery business with women and children. Conflict is followed by a concentration of military forces (both national and international) which creates demand for sexual services. [17] The effects of globalization are also seen as the rise of the informal economy gives way to industries like sex tourism.

Child Trafficking into Europe

Between 2012 and 2014, 15,000 people were detected being trafficked into Western and Southern Europe. [18] Of those 15,000, 67 percent were trafficked for use in sexual exploitation, 25 percent of which were children below the age of 18. [19] Research in Central and South-Eastern Europe reveals similar numbers with 75 percent of trafficking victims being female (women or girls) and 25 percent being under the age of 18. Of the total number of victims from Central and South-Eastern Europe, 65 percent were trafficked for use in sexual exploitation. [20] Many of these children are put to work in brothels across the continent. According to the 2016 Europol Situation Report, the prominent destination countries for trafficking in Europe are Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. [21] Some of these countries are amongst the wealthiest in Europe and many have large sex markets. [22] These sex markets are fueled by both domestic demand and foreign demand produced by tourism. [23]

While sexual exploitation is one of the most widespread and therefore well-known purposes for trafficking in Europe, there are other more cover forms that do not automatically come to mind. One of these is children trafficked for use in professional sports. Young boys and men make up the majority of those trafficked for this purpose. Valued for their physical abilities, these children are taken from their homes and sent to Europe. Major sporting organizations search areas with less prevalent talent farming institutions like South America, Asia and Africa for untapped athletic resources. [24] In 2009, there were reportedly 600 abandoned African youth in Paris with 7,000 in France in total thought to have been trafficked for work in professional soccer. [25]

Although drawing the connection between the legal definitions of trafficking and trafficking for sport is complex, the argument is rooted in the deceptive nature of the athletic recruiters. These recruiters leverage the desperation of the child’s parents, conning them into signing fake contracts that exclude the agency of the child. [26] The parents are tricked into believing that the child has the possibility to earn enough money playing sports to alleviate the crippling poverty felt by the family. The parents are deceived into steaking the future of their families well being on a single child. The child is taken, and the family sees little in return.

Once in Europe, those who do not succeed in professional sports are often left to fend for themselves and thus are at risk to lose access to food, education and shelter. [27] Comparable to the commodification of humans brought about by neoliberalism and the globalization of the world economy, child trafficking for sports turns children into a product to be sold and distributed at will. That children are trafficked for sports is often ignored. If a child does become a professional, officials involved will not question the origin of the child or their journey. Those[28] who fail, often end up rejecting or avoiding help for fear of exposure as a failure to their family and end up on the street. [29]

No End in Sight

Today, there is no shortage of international protocols attempting to uphold the global values of human rights. International bodies like the United Nations and the European Union seek to hold violators accountable and strive toward a peaceful world order. Prominent democratic states like Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States house many activist organizations whose sole objective is to defend the defenceless. Yet, trafficking victims often do not receive long-term protection in the countries they are trafficked into. The influx of newcomers into Europe since the end of the Second World War has been met with contempt. Anti-migration discourse has created a hostile environment for the victims of human trafficking. Rather than seeking to rehabilitate victims, demands to return to their country of origin carry the day as the victims of trafficking are often considered irregular migrants who are criminalized in public discourse and regarded as a potential threat to (national) security. [30] Human trafficking is seen as a problem of the poorer countries of the world even though the West plays a prominent role in upholding this profitable business.

The valuable earthly minerals and metals required to build the cell phone that we all use on a daily basis are mined by slave workers in central Africa. The 2.5 billion pounds of seafood that are imported into the United States each year are largely the product of child slaves working in the fisheries of South East Asia. [31] The consumers of these products are largely unaware of the slavery that is required to produce them at such low prices, and the constant danger and deplorable work environments faced by these indentured workers. As surmised brilliantly by human trafficking expert, Louise Shelley, "Many of the world’s citizens would never buy illegal drugs or smuggled weapons, but consumers will use the products produced by trafficking victims without thinking about why they are available at such an affordable price." [32] This oblivious nature and ignorance are what sustain trafficking and modern slavery today.

Deutsche Version des Artikels

This article is part of the policy brief on Child and Youth Migration.


European Parliament (2016): "Human Trafficking: More than 20 million victims," last modified October 18, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/ (accessed: 9 July 2018).
International Labour Office (ILO) (2017): Global estimates of modern slavery: Forced labour and forced marriage, Geneva.
United Nations (2000): “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transitional Organized Crime,” UNCJN.
International Labour Organization: "Worst forms of child labour,” http://www.ilo.org/ (accessed: 9 July 2018).
The United Nations( 1989): “Convention on the Rights of the Child,” Treaty Series 1577 (November).
Louise I. Shelley (2010): Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, Cambridge University Press, p. 3.
European Parliament (2016): “Human Trafficking: More than 20 million victims,” last modified October 18, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/ (accessed: 9 July 2018).
UNODC (2017): Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2016, p. 13.
Ibid, p. 1.
Ibid, p. 62.
United Nations (2000): "Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime," UNCJN.
UNODC (2017): Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2016, p. 62.
Louise I. Shelley (2010): Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Kevin Bales (2016): Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World, New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Kevin Bales (2016): Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World, New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Kevin Bales (2016): Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World, New York: Spiegel & Grau, p. 8.
UNODC (2017): Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2016, p. 10.
Ibid, p. 71.
Ibid, p. 78.
Europol, Europol Situation Report: Trafficking in human beings in the EU, February 2016, p. 16, https://ec.europa.eu/ (accessed: 9 July 2018).
Louise I. Shelley (2010): Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 205.
Darragh McGee (2012): “Displacing childhood Labour exploitation and child trafficking in sport", in Ato Quayson/Antonela Arhin (ed.): Labour Migration, Human Trafficking and Multinational Corporations: The Commodification of Illicit Flows, Vol. 7, Abingdon: Routledge, p. 71.
Ibid, p. 76.
Ibid, p. 72.
Ibid, p. 74.
Ibid, p. 74.
Ibid, p. 75.
Louise I. Shelley (2010): Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 202.
Kevin Bales (2016): Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World, New York: Spiegel & Grau, p.75.
Louise I. Shelley (2010): Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 39.
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