According to the International Labor Office (ILO), 40 million people are trapped in Externer Link: 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.
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.
Defining Human Trafficking and Trafficking in Children
The United Nations, under the 2000 Externer Link: 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."
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]."
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 Externer Link: worst forms of child labor and in stark violation of the rights of the child.
The trade in humans is appealing for criminal organizations because unlike the sale of illicit drugs, humans can be sold and resold repeatedly,
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 Externer Link: 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.
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.
"…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."
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.
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.
Western consumer culture dominates the global economy today.
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.
Child Trafficking into Europe
Between 2012 and 2014, 15,000 people were detected being trafficked into Western and Southern Europe.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This article is part of the policy brief on
Aidan Kerr is currently enrolled in the Immigration and Settlement Studies Master’s program at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada where he also works as a Teaching Assistant in the history department. Aidan’s current academic focus is on human trafficking and modern slavery.
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