Today is World Day against Trafficking in Persons, our annual opportunity to show solidarity with victims of trafficking, raise awareness of their plight and to advocate for better protection of their rights. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark ‘Palermo Protocol’, which provided the first internationally recognised definition of ‘trafficking in persons’, achieving much needed international consensus and consistency of approach in responding to trafficking cases.
The past twenty years have seen high levels of international attention dedicated to the fight against trafficking. Unfortunately, this has not translated into a reduction in numbers of victims affected. The International Labour Organisation recently estimated that 40.3 million people are trapped in modern slavery, of which 25 per cent are children and the situation is only predicted to heighten in the wake of the global uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Lockdowns and restrictions on movement are feared to be disrupting efforts to identify and rescue victims and hindering access to vital support services. Children have been made particularly vulnerable, not least by the widespread closing of schools, which are, for so many children, sanctuaries of safety and protection, but also by other factors such as increased time spent online, intensifying the risk of grooming and other forms of sexual abuse.
The true scale of the global trafficking phenomenon is near to impossible to quantify, owing not only to the inherently covert nature of the crime, but also to the difficulties in defining and measuring trafficking experiences. Dilemmas such as these were explored in a recent study by Coram International, ‘Casting Light in the Shadows’, designed to establish evidence on the situation of child trafficking and labour exploitation in Vietnam.
The study’s authors identified a number of conceptual and practical challenges that arise when attempting to measure conduct against each of the three ‘prongs’ of the Palermo Protocol’s trafficking definition (‘movement’, ‘coercion’ and ‘exploitation’). The authors argued that each dimension may be ‘best understood as a continuum, and indicators of each element of the trafficking definition may occur at the different stages of a young person’s labour or migration journey.’ In recognition of this, the research team developed a set of indicators designed to understand whether each child surveyed for the research had experiences that were suggestive of trafficking. The team used this information to calculate the proportion of children who had ‘experiences indicative of, or consistent with, child trafficking’, reaching an estimate of 5.6 per cent of children in Vietnam, which is far higher than the number of trafficking victims identified in official government statistics. The exercise suggests that in Vietnam, there are a significant number of vulnerable children and young people whose exploitation has not been identified or recognised by authorities.
The research also highlighted the contrast between prevailing narratives that depict child victims of trafficking as ‘passive, invoking stories where children are kidnapped, abducted or taken by force’ and the reality in Vietnam, where only 13 per cent of the children with indicators of trafficking considered themselves to have been ‘taken against [their] will.’ Instead, children tended to leave home voluntarily (though often under the influence of recruiters or even family members) to pursue employment (50.3 per cent) or education (23.7 per cent) opportunities, that later turned out to be exploitative. Poverty was found to be a significant driver: children in the lowest wealth bracket were over five times more likely to have indicators of trafficking than those in the highest.
The research was a stark reminder that a lack of employment opportunities can drive children and their families to enter precarious arrangements in order to survive. These trends are not specific to Vietnam and are expected to heighten as a result of the disruption to global economies and labour markets caused by the pandemic. The International Labour Organisation has announced the pandemic will lead to an estimated 14 per cent reduction of working hours worldwide when compared to pre-pandemic levels, which translates to the equivalent of 400 million full-time jobs. The Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons has noted the particular vulnerability of the world’s two billion informal workers, who are at the greatest risk of being affected by job losses and turning to exploitative work arrangements as a consequence.
In Casting Light in the Shadows, Coram International made a number of recommendations aimed at strengthening the prevention and response to child trafficking in Vietnam, including improving access to education and safe employment opportunities for children and young people; improving access to basic social protection coverage; training key stakeholders to recognise indicators of child trafficking; and integrating child trafficking response services into the broader child protection system. Measures such as these are all the more important in the face of the trends identified above. More broadly, it is hoped the pandemic will serve as a wakeup call for renewed global efforts to tackle the root causes of vulnerability that push children and their families into the hands of traffickers, and an acknowledgement of the interrelatedness of irregular migration and trafficking risk. As the UN Office on Drugs and Crime recently commented:
‘Recovering from the pandemic offers a unique opportunity to look at deeply entrenched inequalities in our economic development model that feed marginalization, gender-based violence, exploitation and trafficking in persons. Human trafficking is the result of the failure of our societies and economies to protect the most vulnerable and enforce rights under national laws. They should not be additionally ‘punished’ during times of emergency.’