Strangers in a foreign land - Migration's hidden risk: Increased child trafficking

In many parts of the world, migration is adding a new dimension to the child labour problem, exposing many children to potential exploitation by traffickers. This article explains how migrants can fall into the trafficking trap and how the ILO is working to stop this worst form of child labour.

BANGKOK - As the music thumps from a popular Bangkok nightspot, a young boy sells chewing gum to a group of tourists sitting outside. The boy can't be more than eight or nine. When asked where he's from, he says "Thailand". "Where in Thailand?" asks one of the customers. The boy shrugs and, after further questioning, admits he's actually from neighbouring Cambodia.

Nearby, the boy's controller will be watching. The boy will be a member of a "team" of exploited children who beg, shine shoes, sell flowers, and sometimes, most sadly of all, sell themselves.

This small, scruffy, barefoot child is almost certainly a victim of human trafficking, either sold by his village parents or guardians to a trafficker, or taken by a broker to "find work" in the city. Often the broker is a relative or family friend who then sells the child on to someone else. Some children never see their families again.

This kind of exploitation is common in many parts of the world, including south-east Asia. Both demand and supply exist and are major obstacles in eliminating the worst forms of child labour, a mandate given to the ILO through various international conventions including the unanimous adoption by its member States of the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182).

Increased migration adds another dimension to the problem of child trafficking. A new ILO-supported survey ( Note 1), conducted by the Government of Laos (Lao People's Democratic Republic), confirms fears that international migration, at least in the case of Laos, exposes many to potential exploitation by traffickers. Many migrants are unaware of the risks of ill-prepared and uninformed migration and the difficulties they can face in a foreign land. It is this vulnerability which human traffickers exploit, and children - especially girls - and young women are the primary targets.

Most disturbingly, the Lao survey, carried out in three provinces, discovered that more than 50 per cent of migrants under the age of 18 had not been heard from since leaving home. The vast majority of these migrations had occurred within the last three years.

Of the nearly 6,000 Lao households surveyed, nearly 7 per cent had family members who had migrated, and one in five was under the age of 18. Two-thirds were girls.

Although the Lao survey results are troubling, the country is only one of a number of south-east Asian countries where ill-prepared migration, poverty, deep-rooted gender inequality and lack of information create the perfect environment for human traffickers to ply their trade.

Virtually no corner of the world is untouched. Victims are often "chosen" in one country, and then sent to another, sometimes transiting through a third.

But trafficking is not just an international phenomenon. In China, the white-hot economic development of urban areas along the Eastern seaboard has resulted in a human tidal wave of rural-to-urban migration. In Henan Province alone, a staggering 28 per cent of the province's 96 million inhabitants are believed to be on the move.

This massive internal migration is helping support China's blistering economic development, and certainly most migrants profit from their move. But the stampede toward the cities provides a well-worn trail for human traffickers to follow. Girls and young women are easy prey, unwittingly trafficked into the "entertainment" industry or forced marriage.

Consider the story of 13 year-old Mei. She and two of her classmates were trafficked after agreeing to a daytime outing with two men they met. They soon realized they had been tricked and the men were planning to sell them into wedlock. Mei managed to escape and alerted police who rescued the other two.

Although this story has a happy ending, many do not. Each day, children are being trafficked into prostitution or begging, slave-like servitude often as domestic workers, and other forms of exploitative and forced labour.

Trafficking appears to be a growing "dark" industry, but efforts to reveal this underground trade in human misery and find new ways to combat it, are providing rays of hope. Through a project of the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), the ILO is raising awareness among children, their parents and community leaders about the dangers of ill-informed and unprepared migration. The ILO Mekong Sub-Regional Project to Combat Trafficking in Children and Women, is operational in five countries: Cambodia, China's Yunnan Province, Laos, Thailand and Viet Nam.

Early indications are encouraging. Following an ILO-funded awareness-raising exercise in a village in Northern Thailand, five previously unreported cases of child trafficking and exploitation were revealed. Four have now been resolved. In some targeted villages of Yunnan Province of China, ill-prepared and uninformed migration dropped by more than 50 per cent following similar interventions. And in Cambodia, one of the project's micro finance initiatives supplied cows to villagers, providing them with a new source of income which allows their children to remain in school. This "cow bank" allowed the entire village to benefit by "borrowing" the cow during calving season. The villagers were allowed to keep the first and third calves, while the mother and her second calf were returned to the cow bank to continue the cycle with other villages.

Stopping trafficking is a slow process. But the ILO is increasingly engaged with governments and social partners in south-east Asia and worldwide to address its structural causes - striving to provide opportunities for decent work and establish legal migration channels for labour supply to reach demand.

Now, through the work of the ILO and others, governments, authorities, and families rich and poor, are realizing that human trafficking and the exploitation of children robs their nation of a brighter and more productive society - one where parents can support their families through decent work, and where children complete their education, offering the promise of a more prosperous future for all.

Note 1: Labour Migration Survey in Khammuane, Savannakhet and Champasack 2003.