Learning to see: Child trafficking and the burden of public awareness

Human trafficking is often referred to, or used interchangeably with, modern day slavery. Most commonly these terms bring up imagery of shackles, complete servitude, and restricted movement. While these situations can be realities, the phenomenon of human trafficking is more complex and can manifest in diverse ways. Given the complexities and diversities of human trafficking, it can often occur in plain view, with little knowledge or intervention from civil society, creating a “hidden crime.” The more informed and knowledgeable civil society is about human trafficking, especially trafficking of children, the more able individuals are to recognize, intervene in, and prevent continued situations of human trafficking.

Trafficking occurs all over the world and across national, ethnic, religious, racial, age, gender, and socioeconomic lines. The United States Department of State determines if a crime or situation is trafficking by examining the process (recruitment, transportation, transferring, harboring, or receiving), the means (threat, coercion, abduction, fraud, deceit, deception, or abuse of power), and the goal (prostitution, pornography violence, sexual exploitation, involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery/similar practices). While there is an argument that an adult could potentially consent to such a situation, a child can never consent to such things. The United Nations and other countries have developed similar definitions of trafficking, based on the 2000 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons.

The U.S. has recently seen a growing problem of children being trafficked to pay off a family or personal debt. Since 2014, the U.S. has faced a humanitarian crisis on the southern border, of unaccompanied children — predominantly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — crossing into the U.S. without a parent. These children come to the U.S. for a variety of reasons, but the principal reasons are to flee local violence (often associated with gangs), and family violence, to escape poverty, to reunite with a family member in the U.S., or a combination of these reasons. If apprehended by U.S. immigration authorities, unaccompanied alien children (UACs) are placed in child-friendly immigration shelters and are given the opportunity to reunify with a sponsor while they go through immigration court proceedings. Sponsors are often relatives or family friends and are screened for safety and ability to care for the child.

In addition to these documented push and pull factors, there has been a growing trend of guides, colloquially referred to as coyotes, recruiting youth (and of course adults) throughout the region and promising the child school, a job, or legal status in the U.S. If the families are unable to pay for the guide’s services, which can cost up to $10,000 in addition to monthly interest, guides have begun to prime that the child can “work off the debt in the U.S.”

If you could see it, would you end it? A public education campaign used a truck to portray the harsh reality of trafficking to sports fans.

If you could see it, would you end it? A public education campaign used a truck to portray the harsh reality of trafficking in women to sports fans.

In 2014, traffickers in specific cases began to petition to sponsor children their group had brought across the border. Due to shortcomings and flaws in the shelter release program, children were released to the traffickers. In a specific case, seven children who had been released from shelters were working on an egg farm in Ohio, paying off the debts they had incurred to travel to the U.S. and the cost to “rent” a bed in a trailer. This case is important to highlight because the children involved did not identify themselves as trafficking victims and neither did the people who interacted with them on a daily basis. The children in this case expressed to family members that they did not like the situation they were in, but were concerned about paying their debt; they did not have the knowledge that they were being trafficked.

The children and their families understood they needed to pay their debt and did not know that there are laws that protect against situations like this in the U.S. The children in this example were left unsupervised, albeit they were threatened if they ran they would be killed, and they were able to travel to stores, restaurants etc. They interacted with fellow co-workers, neighbors, and community members, but the general view was that these children were fine. Only after one of the boys called his uncle, who alerted authorities to the situation, were the children rescued.

Why didn’t anyone recognize the warning signs that these children were in a dangerous situation? Several interviewees reported a “language barrier” or that the children “worked enthusiastically.” Perhaps one reason is a lack of knowledge in the general population about what trafficking looks like in the present day and in different situations. Often trafficking information is disseminated in a sensationalized manner, which overlooks how nuanced it can be. Another potential reason is how complacent the general population of the U.S. is towards certain work environments, such as the agricultural industry and the lack of interest in ensuring a safe working environment or fair wages.

Since the exposure of this issue, especially with unaccompanied minors from Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody, ORR has changed its policies to guarantee the children’s safety. All potential sponsors must get fingerprinted to determine if they have a criminal history. Sponsors are more thoroughly vetted for their relationship and connection the child. ORR continues to expand support services to children who have been released and developed a 24-hour hotline for children and adults to report concerns or ask questions, and is providing education about rights and safety to the children in the shelters prior to release.

The general public needs to be more knowledgeable about what constitutes human trafficking and different ways it can manifest. Also, trafficking myths need to be debunked, such as the fact that “trafficking doesn’t occur in certain neighborhoods or that trafficking victims will attempt to seek help in public.” It’s important to understand the warning signs that a person may be in a trafficking situation can be both obvious or subtle, including a lack of freedom of movement, unfair wages, lack of access to identity documents. Specifically for children, warning signs may include the child not being enrolled in school and/or not living with family members. As a mitigation effort, Polaris Project operates an anonymous national hotline to report human trafficking concerns, both sex trafficking and labor trafficking. The State Department has developed questions that could be asked in private if a person is suspected to be a victim of human trafficking, including “Where do you sleep?” and “Can you leave if you want to?”

While government agencies and non-governmental agencies like non-profit organizations try to prevent human trafficking, protect victims, and punish perpetrators, they are unable to do it alone. Civil society must be knowledgeable, alert to the warning signals and willing to report suspicions or concerns. Through greater knowledge, awareness, and willingness to report, civil society can work together with different agencies to identify potential trafficking victims, punish traffickers, and collaboratively work to reduce human trafficking.

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