Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Child trafficking: what are we really talking about?

The moral panic over child trafficking detracts from important questions about children and childhood, the state, and immigration. We worry about child trafficking, but what exactly is it?

Viviene Cree
20 October 2015
Photo -  Stephen Ryan -IFRC.jpg

A Syrian family proceeds north to Serbia from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in August 2015. Stephen Ryan for the IFRC/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Child trafficking generates great anxiety amongst professionals, parents, and the general public. It is simply an abhorrent idea: how could adults buy and sell vulnerable children? Extensive effort has thus been put into combatting the practice. In the UK, local authorities have drafted guidelines for identifying and working with trafficked children, and child trafficking units have been established across many counties in the country. These and other efforts might suggest that we are faced with a severe and growing problem; a child trafficking epidemic that demands increasing attention and resources. But is that really so? What is the extent of the problem, and indeed, when authorities talk about child trafficking, what do they actually mean? Scrutiny of the policy discourse and available evidence shows that often a very different reality exists than the image of ‘trafficking’ shown to the public.

Child trafficking, according to the UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), is when children are recruited, moved or transported, and then exploited, forced to work or sold. They are often subject to multiple forms of exploitation. Children are trafficked for: child sexual exploitation, benefit fraud, forced marriage, domestic servitude such as cleaning, childcare, cooking, forced labour in factories or agriculture, criminal activity such as pickpocketing, begging, transporting drugs, working on cannabis farms, selling pirated DVDs, and bag theft. It is often asserted that many children are trafficked into the UK from abroad, though children are also said to be trafficked from one part of the UK to another. Figures from the UK National Crime Agency’s third annual Strategic Assessment of the Nature and Scale of Human Trafficking in 2013 (released in September 2014) estimated that of the 2,744 people identified as potential victims of trafficking, 602 were children; an increase of 22 percent from 2012.

All of these numbers might suggest that the phenomenon is indeed on the ascendency, although closer attention to the data reveals that those identified were potential victims rather than actual victims of child / human trafficking. This, alone, should give major pause for thought.

A challenge faced by those seeking to count victims of trafficking lies in the rather woolly definition and idea of trafficking itself. The supposed clarity offered by the NSPCC definition—itself taken from the Palermo Protocol, 2000—often falls apart in practice because it is often very difficult to identify what should be included (and excluded) when we talk about child trafficking. According to the definition, movement or mobility is necessary for trafficking to have taken place (child A is moved from location X to location Y). But is movement of children necessarily harmful? Clearly not, as demonstrated by the ‘mom’s taxi’ phenomenon that is experienced by middle-class children across the world as they are ferried from one supposedly socially-enhancing activity to another. So it’s not actually the movement of children across spaces that’s concerning. Rather, it’s what happens to children during and after the journey.

What if a child’s life is awful before the journey? For example, when a child from a war-torn country moves or is sent by parents to be brought up by friends or relatives elsewhere. Does this constitute child trafficking? In practice, different agencies (governmental and NGO) have defined child trafficking so loosely that almost any form of movement involving a child can end up being described as ‘child trafficking’. Some reports include adoption, fostering, and children going missing from care within their working definitions of trafficking; others include children placed illegally in children’s homes. This lack of consistency means that it is often impossible to know not only what the problem is, but also if it is getting worse, better, or remaining roughly consistent over time.

The second definitional problem relates to the idea of the child itself. What do we include (and exclude) in our definition of a child? Are we talking about children up to the age of 16 (the school-leaving age and legal age of sexual consent in the UK), or 18, or perhaps even 21 years, as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child suggests? Not only does the lack of agreement make giving accurate numbers on child trafficking (if we can neatly pin this down) across the world an exercise in futility, but also the issue throws into sharp relief contested ideas about young people and sex. When is a young person able to understand and consent to their movement regardless of what the outcome of is movement is, and when do they need protection from it? Different perspectives across countries and over time suggest, again, that there is no way of knowing whether this is a problem that is worsening, improving, or staying that same. 

What else is going on here?

It is right that children and young people (wherever they come from) should be protected from harm, but the current scare about child trafficking might best be seen as an example of moral panic. Moral panics exaggerate issues of genuine concern. In doing so, they draw attention away from other important social issues and contribute to wider societal fear. They are not, as Jock Young argued in 2009, one-off disturbances. They reappear in connection with shifts in the wider social order. As my colleagues and I have written elsewhere, the idea of child trafficking is an old concern that first appeared in the late nineteenth century, another time of widespread social anxiety. At that time, concern about the ‘white slave trade’ focused on the (mistaken) idea that young women were being seduced in large numbers and transported to brothels in Europe.

The re-appearance of child trafficking as a social issue today connects with wider concerns about immigration and asylum seekers, children and childhood, as well as the police and social services. It speaks to the language of moral outrage: “how could we let this happen?” It speaks to a feeling of loss; to the notion that childhood has been somehow ‘lost’ or ‘stolen’, and is ‘in crisis’. And it speaks to a widespread sense that the world is increasingly out of control; that ‘something must be done’. In particular, it helps to fuel further anxiety about a supposed widespread practice of ‘modern slavery’; in this case the enslavement of children torn away from the protection of their family, with no regard for the circumstances from which the child has moved or is being moved.

The outcome of this moral panic is that our sights are taken away from more pressing concerns faced by children deemed to have been trafficked. It is far easier to label a child as a victim of trafficking than to argue that he or she is a victim of wider socio-political and economic harms, and that these need to be addressed. Thus we condone highly illiberal and repressive immigration policies that scapegoat and stigmatise both adults and children in the name of protecting children from being trafficked across borders. We also contribute to the increasing surveillance of children and young people, whose lives are evermore regulated and managed in the name of child ‘protection’. Rather than panicking about child trafficking, I suggest that the interests of children and young people would be better served by more compassionate welfare and immigration policies that give support to their families, and by the provision of mainstream youth services that allow them to enjoy their childhoods without constant scrutiny and supervision.

A previous version of this piece was published 11 November 2008.

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