Child trafficking in East Asia and the Pacific

While I was in Viet Nam on mission, to look at programmes being supported by the UN to assist trafficking victims, I met a teenage Vietnamese girl – no older than 16 – at a shelter in Hanoi. She had been trafficked to China for ‘marriage,’ which is often just an arrangement by which girls and young women are sexually exploited or subjected to forced labour.

Sitting in her room with three bunk beds, which she shared with five other girls her age, her quiet demeanor belied the traumatic journey that she had recently experienced. The shelter staff revealed that she had experienced considerable physical, sexual and emotional abuse while in China, and that they had helped to trace her family. In time, they hoped to reintegrate her back into her home and community – although the stigma she would face would be formidable.

During my fourteen years of working on child rights and child protection, including six years at UNICEF, I have seen the effects of child trafficking first hand. Child trafficking is a violation of children’s rights. It denies children the right to be protected from violence and exploitation, and to grow up and realize their full potential.

Child trafficking is currently an issue of concern for many countries in the East Asia and Pacific region. The US State Department will soon release its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, covering the global nature and scope of trafficking in persons and the range of government actions to confront and eliminate it. In the report, each country is placed in one of three tiers based on the extent of their governments’ anti-trafficking efforts.

Current trends

Several trends in trafficking have emerged in the East Asia and Pacific region over the past year. For example, we have seen greater attention on the exploitation and enslavement of men and boys in the fishing boat industry. Recent research and investigations have revealed that boys from Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia have been forced to work for little or no pay, at times over the course of several years, on Thai fishing boats, with many experiencing violence and lack of adequate food, rest or health care. It has also been reported by victims rescued from such vessels that sick or uncooperative workers have been killed or thrown overboard.

However, several positive steps have been undertaken over the past year to address these violations of human rights. One is the adoption by Thai Union Frozen Products, Asia’s largest canned tuna exporter, of the UN Global Compact and the International Labour Organization’s Good Labour Practices. While we have seen some impressive efforts to prevent trafficking in this industry, much more work needs to be done to prevent, identify, reintegrate and provide restitution for victims, and ensure that those complicit in trafficking are brought to justice.

There is also a greater understanding of the critical importance that social services has on assisting the recovery of children who have been trafficked. A 2013 research study supported by UNICEF, ‘After Trafficking: Experiences and Challenges in the (Re)integration of Trafficked Persons in the Greater Mekong Sub-region’, revealed that many child victims could only access health care and education if they remained in shelters and away from their families. Other children were not provided with family support services or counselling on reintegration with their families. Some children reported maltreatment by law enforcement officials during the investigation process, and a few said they had been verbally or physically abused while in shelters.

This shows the need for greater government and development agency investment in and oversight of reintegration support services for trafficking victims. More also needs to be done to enhance the capacity of social workers and community workers to provide tailored and long-term services to victims.

Underlying issues

There are a number of underlying factors driving the trade in child trafficking at the individual, family and socio-economic levels. For individuals, these factors may include prior experiences of abuse or neglect in the family or the community, a lack of citizenship or legal documentation, low awareness of potentially dangerous situations, and a tendency – particularly for adolescents – to engage in risk-taking.
Family-related factors include poverty or financial crisis, family breakdown, lack of sufficient care and support for children in the household, and lack of access to information on labour rights and safe work opportunities.

Common social and economic factors include discriminatory attitudes and practices by individuals and governments against migrants, ethnic minorities and undocumented and stateless persons, weak regulation of employment brokers and employers, weak labour protection legislation and enforcement, social tensions, and armed conflict.

Finally, there are demand-side factors, including the demand for young and compliant workers, for young brides, and for sex with children.

Anti-trafficking measures 

Over the past year, UNICEF has undertaken a range of anti-trafficking initiatives in the East Asia and Pacific region to strengthen legal and regulatory frameworks on anti-trafficking, to improve cross-border cooperation on victim identification, return and reintegration, and to bolster government and civil society capacity on anti-trafficking measures.

For example, in Viet Nam, UNICEF has supported the Government to finalize the 2013 Decree to Guide the Implementation of the Anti-Human Trafficking Law, as well as the establishment of the first ever specialized children’s court. In Cambodia and Laos, we supported the development of laws and guidelines to regulate domestic and international adoption.

UNICEF has also been instrumental in supporting governments in the Greater Mekong region to develop and adopt bilateral agreements on human trafficking. Our financial and technical support has culminated in the progression and adoption of agreements over the past year between: China and Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia, and Cambodia and Viet Nam. We have regularly supported case worker visits between Thailand and Myanmar in order to enhance and synchronize service delivery for victims of trafficking from Myanmar.

In Myanmar, UNICEF worked with partners to train labour inspectors on child rights and the protection of children from exploitative work. In Cambodia, we worked with partners to deliver training on human trafficking to lawyers, judges, prosecutors, police, and social workers. Finally, during the past year we conducted training sessions for senior law enforcement officials from China on child-friendly guidelines for identifying and protecting child victims of trafficking.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child this year, it is my hope that less shelters will be needed to help child victims of trafficking – like the adolescent girl I met in Hanoi – because social services will be able to work directly with children and their families in their homes, tailored to their needs and keeping families intact. Moreover, I hope there will be less of a need for shelters because more children in the region will be effectively protected from violence and exploitation, and will be looking forward to a childhood full of opportunity.

The author
Amalee McCoy is a child protection consultant at UNICEF East Asia and Pacific.

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