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  • Writer's pictureSinit Lijam

The Stark Reality of Child Trafficking

By Paighton Gimotty

Human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and forced labor take place all across the globe– even here in Michigan. Guided by UNICEF’s principles on child protection, UNICEF UM led an internal education initiative to educate its members about this stark reality.

Paighton Gimotty, Ross ‘24, is a UNICEF UM Student Representative and a member of the Education Committee. Paighton has demonstrated a sustained interest in children’s rights and human trafficking awareness. Not only has she helped our members better understand this child’s rights crisis, but she has first hand experience with survivors.

The Stark Reality of Child Trafficking includes both a personal account of Paighton’s experience in Rosarito, Mexico, and a cross-regional perspective on the reality of trafficking today.

In a little house, or “Casa Hogar,” in Rosarito, Mexico, just a 40-minute drive from Tijuana, is the only child trafficking shelter in all of Baja California, a region spanning about a 20-hour drive of coastline. Twenty-seven children from all over Latin America, each with unbelievable stories of resilience, hardship, tragedy, and now hope, live here. From Reina*, who was labor trafficked by her grandparents in their hotel business for years before her escape, to Carlos*, who was sex trafficked for five years with his four siblings by his parents for sex tourists in Tijuana, the walls of this shelter contain 27 lived experiences of trafficking. While some fall into a more traditionally conceptualized idea of what human trafficking is, others show how far public understanding of this phenomenon is from its reality.

What is Human Trafficking? How is it different in Children?

There are myriad factors leading human trafficking to be underreported and under-prosecuted, including myths and misconceptions around this topic. As global citizens, there are many key indicators of human trafficking that are the first step in identifying victims- knowing these, and being familiar with signs of trafficking can help save a life.

Legal History

The U.S. was the first to define Human Trafficking, or “Trafficking in Persons,” under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Its working definition is a crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services, or to engage in commercial sex acts. The coercion can be subtle or overt, physical or psychological. The exploitation of a minor for commercial sex is Human Trafficking, regardless of whether any form of force, fraud, or coercion was used. To clarify, trafficking does not require the victim to be physically transported. Trafficking is not unique to any one community, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality, and is present in any, and sadly, most communities. Children are especially vulnerable and face unique circumstances for recruitment and exploitation. Tragically, in a study done by Polaris, 42% of the survivors in the study were brought into trafficking by a member of their own families. Human trafficking, and specifically sex trafficking, is prosecuted under the terms of force, fraud, and coercion, but in a court of law, any person under age 18 does not need to prove these three criteria in order to receive victim services and protection from their trafficker.

The Media and Problems with Underreporting

In terms of media coverage, there are a myriad of hurdles to fair representation of the issue. The majority of writers and journalists tend to report on young women and girls being trafficked for sexual exploitation, few choosing to cover other forms of exploitative labor. For example, a lot of child victims are forced into begging and agricultural work, and often young men end up trafficked in construction and factory work. In India, in a rescue operation by the anti-trafficking group IJM, nearly 200 children were rescued from living and working inside a brick- facility—almost half under 5 years old. While some were allowed to attend school, IJM learned that most children over age 12 labored alongside their parents. In 2020, there were about 10,836 identified victims of sex trafficking in the United States, compared to 3,583 identified victims of labor trafficking. This does not mean there is actually less labor trafficking, just that it is incredibly underreported.

What Makes Someone Especially Vulnerable?

According to Polaris, the NGO that runs the National Trafficking Hotline, there are different types of vulnerabilities for different forms of trafficking.

While some of these are more or less relevant to children, there are a lot of vulnerabilities that are exploited in children on a regular basis - most centrally, their dependence on someone else to meet their basic needs.

Online Sexual Exploitation and the Pandemic

Since the COVID-19 lockdown began, online recruitment of Children for trafficking has skyrocketed. The internet is a horribly accessible tool for traffickers not only to recruit but to groom and profile their victims. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram are increasingly being used by traffickers to recruit, particularly teenagers.

“Traffickers are quick to adapt their business model to suit their needs and increase their profits, so, of course, they follow online trends…”

- Tiphanie Crittin, UNODC Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer

This poses a hurdle for parents, educators, and caregivers alike in technology regulation and the need to monitor its use and mitigate this vulnerability. Trafficking in Children manifests much more frequently through mediums like online exploitation rather than elaborate kidnapping schemes.

Human Trafficking in Michigan

Human trafficking in Michigan can present itself in a myriad of ways- from exploitative begging to underage sex work. The Human Trafficking Specialty Court in Washtenaw County was established in 2014 in order to change how trafficking cases are handled in Michigan’s legal system. In 2021, District Prosecutor Eli Savitt announced he would not prosecute those classified as consensual sex workers, and thus, since 2021 the court has been less frequently used. One advocate, Bridgette Carr of the University of Michigan Human Trafficking Law Clinic, is in support of instituting “Safe Harbor Laws'' which can protect victims under 18 by protecting them from prosecution under the assumption of victimization instead of compliance. It would help combat harmful ideas about “good” and “bad” victims hinging on survivor compliance, a current requirement often complicated by PTSD and trauma responses during court cases.

What is being done?

The Federal Government, as well as the United Nations, have expressed explicit concern about Human Trafficking, and continue to strive towards its eradication. Publications like the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons ( TIP) report can serve as a gauge of areas of growth and struggle in combating international trafficking. Countless organizations exist on the local and state level to combat and prevent the issue, but more needs to be done. Consider supporting or volunteering at an at-risk youth center, or engage with anti-trafficking through advocacy efforts.

Until there is a sense of personal responsibility instilled in the general public about the role we play in trafficking, there cannot be substantial change. While we don't like to think of ourselves as victimizers, especially when it comes to issues like child trafficking, we inadvertently support systems of unfair labor practices through our purchases. All of us have eaten, purchased, driven, or used something created in some way by exploitative labor, and that is where the conversation needs to start.

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