Trafficking in dubious numbers

UNICEF's campaign against 'child traffic' is based on questionable evidence and a barely concealed contempt for people in the third world.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Human trafficking has hit the headlines. First, 21 people were arrested in London on 29 July in connection with the ‘torso in the Thames’ case, where a young black boy’s torso was found floating near Tower Bridge in September 2001. The 21, mostly Nigerians, are suspected of ‘people trafficking’, and of smuggling the ‘torso boy’ into Britain and possibly killing him in what newspaper reports refer to as a ‘voodoo slaying’ (1).

The next day, 30 July, the UN children’s charity UNICEF published a report entitled Stop the Traffic!, claiming that ‘the trafficking of people, particularly of children, has become a global phenomenon’ (2). A UK Guardian ‘special investigation’, published to coincide with UNICEF’s report, tells of the ‘thousands of children in Britain who have been brought here for exploitation’ or ‘traded for tawdry sex’, many of whom live ‘under the fear of voodoo….’ (3).

Sounds scary – but what are the facts? According to UNICEF’s report, trafficking happens to ‘over a million children all over the world’. It claims that, ‘There may well be hundreds, if not thousands, of children in Britain who have been brought here for exploitation’, though this may be ‘only the tip of the iceberg’ (4).

But when I spoke to a UNICEF spokesperson, she emphasised the difficulty of getting accurate numbers. ‘The figures can be really really unreliable. For instance, in the UK they don’t make a distinction between arriving children who are just unaccompanied minors and those who have been trafficked.’ So how are trafficking figures worked out? ‘You look at registered cases and anecdotal evidence, and work out a figure in the middle.’

Yet according to the report, there isn’t much factual information in the shape of either ‘registered cases’ or ‘anecdotal evidence’. ‘There is little hard statistical information’, it says, and also, ‘victims are reluctant to report their experiences for fear of being deported as illegal immigrants’. ‘Since trafficking can be a complex series of events…it can be difficult to identify a single case of trafficking’, the report says (5). So how did UNICEF arrive at an easily digestible ‘one million’ or so? ‘It’s a UN figure’, says the spokesperson. ‘And I’m guessing the UN extrapolated reported cases with anecdotal evidence….’

The closer you look at the report, the less credible the figures become. It is one thing to claim that thousands of children move around Africa for work (even if the ‘trafficking’ tag remains questionable in such cases), but thousands in Britain? Where are all these ‘trafficked’ children? UNICEF ties itself in knots by claiming that its figures are partly based on anecdotal evidence, as well as registered cases, while arguing that anecdotal evidence is hard to come by because trafficking ‘is rarely reported and children rarely admit to being trafficked’ (6). As you read the report, the figures seem to crumble before your eyes.

When UNICEF uses the word ‘trafficking’, it seems to cover a wealth of different types of movements and activities. As the report says, ‘Human trafficking is a relatively simple term for an undoubtedly complex reality’. This undoubtedly complex reality can include internal movements, such as when African parents ‘send their children to work in other households, sometimes entrusting them to better-off relatives’, or external movements, like the reported 49,000 children and young people from Benin who have moved to neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire in recent years to work on ‘plantations’ or in ‘domestic service’. Or it can include third world or Eastern European children reportedly being sold abroad ‘to brothels’ or having their organs ‘forcibly removed’ (7).

UNICEF appears to have lumped together labour movements that occur in poverty-stricken parts of Africa and Asia, where children and certainly people in their teens are often expected to work, with isolated horror stories about children being sold for sex. Perhaps it is this kind of ‘extrapolation’ that allowed it to arrive at the figure of one million ‘trafficked’ children a year.

What exactly does the emotive phrase ‘trafficking of children’ mean? UNICEF’s report calls on governments to outlaw child trafficking not only for sexual exploitation, but also for ‘benefit fraud, forced or early marriage, adoption and exploitative labour’.

So trafficking can be anything from the sale of children for sex to their simply being adopted across borders? ‘That refers to cases where people are actually buying children for adoption’, says the UNICEF spokesperson. Then it wouldn’t include the African practice of sending children abroad to be adopted by relatives, in order for them to get an education or a job? ‘No…as long as that kind of adoption was done in a fair way. A lot of children are being sent to a relative in the belief that it is for a better life, and then the relative exploits the child. That’s where it gets really murky.’

That’s because UNICEF makes it murky, by raising questions about the reliability of the adopters and encouraging suspicion of adoptions from Africa – just in case. ‘The West African cultural practice of sending children to live with extended family…is being used to mask trafficking’, claims the report. ‘Between 8000 and 10,000 children, many from West Africa, are being privately fostered in the UK. Many could be being abused or exploited, without anyone even knowing that they are in the country.’ (8)

This displays a barely concealed contempt for Africans who send their children abroad. ‘There was the Victoria Climbie case’, said the UNICEF spokesperson while we were discussing adoption from Africa, as if that tragic case is somehow symbolic of African children moving to Britain. The tragedy of Victoria Climbie is that she was murdered by her great aunt and her great aunt’s boyfriend, not that her parents sent her abroad for a better life. Yet in UNICEF’s eyes, it seems there is a slippery slope between adoption and trafficking, and between sending your child abroad with the best intentions and their being abused, exploited or murdered by relatives.

UNICEF is also concerned about ‘trafficking’ for exploitative labour – but again, things appear ‘murky’. The newspaper headlines tell of children sold as prostitutes and slaves, yet when I asked the spokesperson what constitutes exploitative labour she said: ‘It covers anything that means the child does not have what one considers to be an acceptable life.’ For her, an acceptable life would ideally include ‘still living with their families and getting an education’, even if the children still have to work. That might look like an ‘acceptable life’ from the comfort of UNICEF’s London offices, but it is unlikely to cut it in parts of the world where young people have little choice but to work – and little choice but to move in order to find work.

The spokesperson says exploitative labour can be long hours in factories or other work that is ‘unacceptable for young people’. What about a girl who comes to Britain on the promise of work as an au pair, and who works long days and nights? Would that be trafficking for exploitative labour? ‘That would be exploitative, yes. It’s difficult, there is no black and white. You could say that all labour is exploitative.’ So for all the sex slavery headlines, exploitative labour can simply mean work – gruelling, badly paid, thankless work, certainly, but possibly an attractive option for young people for whom the alternative is to stay in the third world.

A central problem with UNICEF’s report is its definition of a child. The report bemoans the way that many studies refer to ‘women aged 16 to 24’ from the third world, when ‘16- and 17-year-olds are actually children’ (9). Maybe they are in Highgate and Hampstead, and other parts of the comfortable West where childhood now seems to extend into the twenties or early thirties. But in parts of Africa and Asia, 16- and 17-year-olds are to all intents and purposes adults.

UNICEF’s model of children as vulnerable dependents, based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, does not speak to the reality in countries like Benin or Sierra Leone, where children from an early age are seen as important contributors to family income. There, childhood is short, and adult responsibilities come early. Poverty dictates that children work for a living, so that they can support themselves, their parents and siblings. That might be ‘unacceptable’ to UNICEF – and to those of us who support development in the third world – but it is harsh reality in Africa and Asia. No amount of handwringing or moralising over ‘trafficking’ will change that.

The storm over ‘trafficking’ seems largely to be a result of UNICEF imposing its own worldview on to events in the third world. So movement between cities and territories for work comes to be seen as ‘trafficking’; horrible jobs are viewed as ‘exploitative labour’ and talked about in the same breath as ‘sex slavery’; teenagers and young adults are described as ‘vulnerable children’ who should ideally be at home with their families.

By interpreting third world migration and labour movements from this Western, prejudiced viewpoint, UNICEF sees a world riven by slavery, exploitation, duped parents, evil adults and victimised children. Its findings, and the media’s ‘trafficking exclusives’, are really old news dressed up in modern outrage and condemnation of third world practices. Such moral outrage might provide a cheap thrill for some in the West, but it could cause big problems for people in the third world.

Of course, we all would prefer for third world children to have comfortable lives, to stay at home, for their parents to have well-paid jobs, and for Africans and Asians to move around the world through choice rather than life-and-death necessity. But UNICEF’s report does nothing to make these things more likely – indeed, it is likely to make things worse for both children and adults in the third world. It calls for closer scrutiny of movements between territories that involve adults with children, and effectively encourages suspicion of third world children being adopted by relatives in the West.

The end result will be to make movement even more difficult for those who rely on it for their lives and livelihoods – without doing a thing to challenge the conditions that make such movement necessary.

(1) 21 held in hunt for torso boy’s killer, Scotsman, 30 July 2003

(2) Stop The Traffic! End Child Exploitation (.pdf), UNICEF, July 2003

(3) The teenagers traded for slave labour and sex, Guardian, 30 July 2003

(4) Stop The Traffic! End Child Exploitation (.pdf), UNICEF, July 2003

(5) Stop The Traffic! End Child Exploitation (.pdf), UNICEF, July 2003

(6) Stop The Traffic! End Child Exploitation (.pdf), UNICEF, July 2003

(7) Stop The Traffic! End Child Exploitation (.pdf), UNICEF, July 2003

(8) Stop The Traffic! End Child Exploitation (.pdf), UNICEF, July 2003

(9) Stop The Traffic! End Child Exploitation (.pdf), UNICEF, July 2003

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Topics Politics


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