An aluminium pot factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Reporter#11455/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.
Human trafficking is generally associated with negative connotations: slavery, harsh working conditions, criminal activities, sexual exploitation, and smuggling. These issues become even more worrying and emotive when the people involved are ‘children’. This makes it difficult to have rational discussions about what is actually happening and about the measures that could be taken to ameliorate the situation, if required. My starting point in this piece is that human trafficking—adult or child—is very closely associated with labour migration. Unless we recognise the overlaps between the two, any response may worsen the situation of people considered as ‘trafficked’.
The 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child legally defines childhood as the first eighteen years of life. The 2000 UN protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons especially women and children—from now on, simply ‘the protocol’—confirms that anybody under the age of eighteen is a child. This delineation in turn defines the mobility rights of both groups, as it is thought that only adults can knowingly consent to movement. Indeed, the protocol uses consent to distinguish between migrating and trafficked adults, however it considers children who cross borders for work as trafficked by default. This perception is compounded by the fact that many are compelled to find work in precarious, unregulated and exploitative sectors of the economy.
This universal age threshold has been widely contested because it does not take into account cultural variations in who is considered a child; nor does it recognise differences between children of different ages (i.e. very young children and adolescents). Neither the UN convention nor the protocol recognises that childhood is culturally defined. Consequently, they fail to acknowledge that conceptions of childhood, which vary across cultures, not only impact views on child mobility but also affect how children themselves experience migration. For these reasons, there are a number of problems with framing all cross-border movements of children for work as ‘trafficking’.
First, trafficking is generally framed as a criminal activity that involves criminal gangs and high levels of violence. This is only rarely the case. Many children move with the help of family members or other people considered trustworthy, rather than organised criminal gangs.
Second, many have highlighted the difficulties in identifying a victim of trafficking. Those who attempt to make these distinctions wrongly end up dividing migrants into two groups: ‘victims of trafficking’, who deserve our sympathy, and (undocumented) migrant workers, who should be punished for breaking migration rules. This is less a problem for migrant children because they are all seen as ‘victims of trafficking’. However separating migrant workers into two categories essentially undermines the right of all people to be offered protection from exploitative labour. Like adults, children who seek work abroad do so in an attempt to take care of themselves, to survive or to help their families and siblings. Not recognising these needs means that there is no possibility to recognise the protection of their rights in a working environment.
Third, cases of ‘trafficking’ are usually ‘solved’ by repatriating individuals to their countries of origin, which more often than not returns them to the situations that led to their migration in the first place. Without an improvement in the situation the cycle will most likely continue. This is true of children as well.
Fourth, being labelled a ‘victim of trafficking’ is often associated with stigma, which, if anything, is likely to worsen the situation that the ‘victims of trafficking’ face when they are returned to their countries of origin. Governments of countries of origin are not doing enough to deal with these problems.
Fifth, criminalising children’s migration for work drives any kind of work involving underage migrants underground. This makes the children more vulnerable, exposes them to even worse working conditions, and hinders the reach of protection mechanisms.
Finally, the current approach to children’s mobility entirely disregards children’s agency, yet research demonstrably shows that children, and particularly adolescents, exercise agency in their migration decisions.
These points do not mean that all forms of child mobility should be permitted, nor that exploitation should be condoned. The point I would like to highlight is that ‘child trafficking’ is generally the symptom of a more widespread problem—simply tackling the symptoms will not improve the situation. To provide realistic solutions to child trafficking and children’s exploitation we need to move away from considering all forms of child mobility as trafficking and start distinguishing between different types of movements of children. This would necessarily also require the participation of the children involved.
This article is based on observations drawn from ethnographic research on Bolivian migration to Argentina. To read more, see my article in International Migration, ‘Child trafficking or teenage migration: Bolivian migrants in Argentina’.