The 30 June is the World Day Against Human Trafficking in Persons.
In a statement last year on this day, Secretary - General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon said:
"Around the world, criminals are selling people for profit. Vulnerable women and girls form the majority of human trafficking victims, including those driven into degrading sexual exploitation."
Unfortunately, he is right.
Take the trafficking of children, for example:
Child trafficking is a nefarious enterprise conducted largely in the dark and often sanctioned by the very authorities tasked with protecting children.
The last comprehensive global estimate of trafficking was completed by the International Labor Organisation (ILO) in 2002, and is often used by UNICEF, who cite 1.2 million children as affected by trafficking globally EVERY YEAR!
According to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (2000), child trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of children for the purpose of exploitation. It is a violation of their rights, their well-being and denies them the opportunity to reach their full potential.
A 2014 report by the United Nations indicated that between 2004 and 2011, the number of children detected as victims of trafficking has risen dramatically as a percentage of total detected trafficking cases - from 10% to 21% girl children and from 3% to 12% boy children.
Child trafficking is a huge and growing threat to child safety and well-being worldwide.
And these are only the cases authorities know about.
And they're only the children technically termed "trafficking" victims, rather than victims of other forms of culturally sanctioned servitude, like victims of the Restavek tradition in Haiti or Bacha Bazi in Afghanistan.
It becomes clear that these numbers, as concerning as they are, represent merely the tip of the iceberg. It is conceivable and even likely that tens of millions of children are living in some form of forced servitude, slavery, or exploited situation.
Secretary - General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon in a press release for World Day Against Human Trafficking in Persons continued:
"Trafficked persons are often tricked into servitude with the false promise of a well-paid job. Migrants crossing deadly seas and burning deserts to escape conflict, poverty and persecution are also at risk of being trafficked."
"Individuals can find themselves alone in a foreign land where they have been stripped of their passports, forced into debt and exploited for labour. Children and young people can find their lives stolen, their education blocked and their dreams dashed. It is an assault on their most basic human rights and fundamental freedoms."
Whether it is child asylum seekers being exploited by criminal gangs, or families trafficking their children and girls into underaged marriage, child trafficking is on the rise.
In a report released on 19 January 2016, Europol - the EU’s criminal intelligence agency - announced that 10,000 refugee children are missing, warning that pan-European gangs are targeting minors for sex work and slavery.
A migrant child walks from the Macedonian border into Serbia, near the village of Miratovac. Photograph: Darko Vojinovic/AP
Brian Donald said 5,000 children had disappeared in Italy alone, while another 1,000 were unaccounted for in Sweden. Not all of them will be criminally exploited; some might have been passed on to family members. We just don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or whom they are with.” Donald said.
According to Save the Children, an estimated 26,000 unaccompanied children entered Europe last year.
Europol, which has a 900-strong force of intelligence analysts and police liaison officers, believes 27% of the million arrivals in Europe last year were minors- that's 270,000 children.
"An entire criminal infrastructure has developed over the past 18 months around exploiting the migrant flow"
Brian Donald, Europol chief of staff
Mariyana Berket, of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said: “Unaccompanied minors from regions of conflict are by far the most vulnerable population; those without parental care that have either been sent by their families to get into Europe first and then get the family over, or have fled with other family members.”
The police agency has also documented a disturbing crossover between organised gangs helping to smuggle refugees into the EU and human-trafficking gangs exploiting them for sex work and slavery. He said that longstanding criminal gangs known to be involved in human trafficking, whose identity had been logged in the agency’s Phoenix database, were now being caught exploiting refugees.
Criminal trafficking networks thrive in countries where the rule of law is weak and international cooperation is difficult. I call on all countries to fight money laundering and sign and ratify the UN Conventions against corruption and transnational organized crime, including the latter’s human trafficking protocol.
The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, adopted by General Assembly resolution 55/25 of 15 November 2000, is the main international instrument in the fight against transnational organized crime.
The Convention is further supplemented by three Protocols, which target specific areas and manifestations of organized crime:
- the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children;
- the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air; and
- the Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition.
Countries must become parties to the Convention itself before they can become parties to any of the Protocols.
The Convention represents a major step forward in the fight against transnational organized crime and signifies the recognition by Member States of the seriousness of the problems posed by it, as well as the need to foster and enhance close international cooperation in order to tackle those problems.
We must also provide meaningful assistance to those in need, including protection and access to justice and remedies I applaud the donors who have enabled the UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking in Persons Fund to assist thousands of people. At the same time, I urge greater contributions to help the many million other victims of this crime move forward with their lives.
Every country must join together to overcome this transnational threat by supporting and protecting victims while pursuing and prosecuting the criminals. On the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, let us resolve to act as one in the name of justice and dignity for all.
So what is the global community doing about it?
Not nearly enough.
Most of the work currently being done by those who care for these children is "rescue and rehabilitation" but precious little is done to interdict or disable the trade in and use of children for slavery, especially sexual slavery.
Child slavery is enormously profitable. Because of this many invested political and security organizations around the world are complicit in the crime. The wealth created on the veritable backs of these children is estimated to be $32 billion but, again, that is based only on what is visible of the iceberg "above the water line." The real value could be more than 4 to 5 times that, making trafficking of children far more profitable than the illicit drug trade. This wealth compromises efforts to interdict.
Additionally, as the New York Times reported when the UN research was published, "Even though traffickers do not conduct their business openly, they have little fear of prosecution because many countries do not enforce their laws. Forty percent of the world's countries have recorded few or no convictions."
"The exploitation of one human being by another is the basest crime. And yet, trafficking in persons remains all too common, with all too few consequences for the perpetrators."
It is time to end the era of "all too few consequences." It is time for us to stand together and take bold action. We need a global commitment to bringing this dark chapter of our society into the light and we need unprecedented philanthropic and political will committed to stopping the spread of this scourge on our modern society.
Cambodian women who escape a life of abuse, sexual assault and domestic servitude in China are often treated as outcasts when they return home
‘Whenever I go back to my village I feel so ashamed,’ says Phany, who lives in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, after escaping life as a trafficked bride in China. Photograph: Charlotte Pert
When Phany made it back to her home in Cambodia, she thought the worst was over. Like an increasing number of young women lured from garment factories on the promise of better work and brighter horizons in China, she ended up sold to a stranger and trapped in a life of abuse as one of Cambodia’s trafficked brides.
After months of sexual assault and domestic servitude, Phany escaped. What she never expected was that when she returned to Cambodia she would be treated as an outcast, her life still plagued by the horrors she had lived through.
Every year, dozens of Cambodian women are trafficked to China and sold as brides. Although there is no official data available, one Cambodian human rights group, Adhoc, says it received 35 new cases last year. Foreign ministry spokesman Chum Sounry says that in 2015 the Cambodian government facilitated the return of 85 trafficked brides who had managed to reach a Cambodian consulate. Many others who are unaccounted for are thought to be trapped and unable to return home.
“You can be sure that for every woman who escapes her captivity in China and returns to Cambodia, there are dozens more that never make it out,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
China’s former one-child policy and the preference for male children created such skewed sex ratios that some families are unable to find local women for their sons to marry. Poor villages in Cambodia have been increasingly seen by traffickers as a source of potential brides.
They offer young women and their families – whose employment options often range little further than working in garment factories – decent work, better pay and more opportunities in China.
Phany, now 29, worked for six months as a poorly paid seamstress in a local factory. She decided to travel to China with her 20-year-old sister after her cousin introduced her to a Chinese couple who said they could offer her more lucrative factory work.
When they arrived in Shanghai they were met by a Cambodian man who said he was arranging work for them. The next day, the sisters were sold to two men who came to buy wives. One of the men paid cash for Phany and took her away, telling her that he was her new husband. They later registered their marriage, though Phany has never seen the documents.
Phany’s life became a cycle of physical, sexual and mental abuse as she carried out chores under the watchful eye of her husband and his mother.
Unable to communicate through speech, her husband would rely on gestures to give orders, often becoming aggressive if they weren’t obeyed.
“Sometimes even if there wasn’t any problem he’d attack me,” she says, as she mimicked her husband pulling at her hair and kicking her. She says she was frequently raped.
In her six months in China, Phany tried to escape three times. The third time her husband caught her, he hit her repeatedly in the stomach before finally letting her go.
Borrowing money from her parents, she returned to Cambodia. “I felt so happy. It was like being born again,” she says.
Yet when she returned to her community, she was treated as an outcast and blamed for the abuse that she’d suffered. “They didn’t want to talk to me any more,” she says, describing how her family had been torn apart by her experience.
Phany eventually left her village and went to work in Phnom Penh, where she says she can live a more anonymous life.
“I used to not want to get to know anybody because I didn’t want to admit what happened to me,” she says. “Whenever I go back to my village I feel so ashamed. If the people around me wouldn’t look down on me I would want to move back home.”
People who have been trafficked are legally entitled to support services but, with the government focusing on the prosecution of traffickers, this rarely materialises.
“It’s a rule for the government to support victims who have returned but actually [there is] no support,” says Chhan Sokunthea, head of the women and children’s division at Adhoc, which last year helped more than a dozen trafficked women to return home.
Chhan Sokunthea, head of the women and children’s division at Adhoc, bemoans the lack of support for trafficked brides returning to Cambodia. Photograph: Charlotte Pert
Sokunthea says the women who make it back are plagued with shame. They need counselling and recovery programmes but none exist. Many of the survivors supported by Adhoc refuse to seek legal action because of a reluctance to go public with what happened to them and a lack of faith in Cambodia’s justice system. Those who do try to seek justice are often let down.
A number of cases have made it to the court in recent years, but prosecutions are entirely of low-level brokers. Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the ministry of the interior, says the people heading the trafficking gangs are “protected and many are not in Cambodia”.
Nary*, 22, who returned to her home in northern Cambodia in September after four years as a trafficked bride in China, hasn’t spoken to anyone in her community about her marriage.
Unlike Phany, Nary knew she would have to marry to stay in China, but had no idea of the life that awaited her.
“Not only my husband had sex with me but also his father and his relatives. In my first month I was just a housewife but after three months everything changed,” she says. “Everybody came to have sex with me any time they needed to.”
She says that if anyone discovered what happened to her she would be cast out of her community. “If any men know that I was married there, they won’t love me. I try to bury my past because it makes me so angry when I think about it or even when I hear anyone mention China.”
For Phany, pretending that her life in China didn’t exist is the only way she knows to survive. “I think about it but I try not to do that too much. I’m worried that if I do I’ll make myself ill,” she says.
“I have never forgotten what happened there. I still remember even though I want to forget. I try to keep my background to myself so I can change my life, but I don’t know what my future holds yet.”
*Not her real name