Child trafficking: Protecting children in a society on the move
Governance and Social Policy | Law and Rights | Social Welfare | Subscription-only Content
Rather than treating child trafficking as an isolated issue, the government of China should respond by creating comprehensive and integrated child protection mechanisms, Save the Children’s Kate Wedgwood, He Ye (何叶) and Sun Tiezheng (孙铁铮) argue in the following excerpts from a recent presentation to the Foreign Correspondents Club in Beijing.
Trafficking is hard to define simply. The stereotypical image is of young women or girls sold into sexual slavery, but the reality is more complex.
In international law, trafficking was first defined by the 2000 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, (known as the “Palermo protocol”). This does not restrict trafficking to cases of force or deception but also inculpates “the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability.” Thus, consent can never constitute a defence to a charge of trafficking. Deception or lack of consent may not be present at all stages. The victim may consent to be transferred for work or arranged marriage, but not to the actual nature or conditions of the work to be done. For instance, the victim may have agreed to work in the sex industry but not to be held in slavery-like conditions; or she may have agreed to work in a factory but not in a brothel, etc. Trafficking may include: child labour, including domestic work; begging; criminal work like selling drugs; servile marriage; illegal adoption; recruitment to serve in armed forces.
China’s definition, numbers
A much narrower definition of trafficking is offered by Article 240 of the Criminal Law of the PRC (1979, revised 1997). This outlaws the abduction, kidnapping, purchase, sale or transfer of women and children for the purpose of selling. The Article does not include deception or abduction of people with no intention to sell them but for direct services like forced labour or sexual exploitation. It also refers to children as people less than 14 years of age, rather than the UN’s definition of children as those under 18. Finally, Chinese criminal law takes no account of men who are trafficked.
This narrow definition helps to explain the surprisingly low figures for human trafficking that Chinese officials give. The Ministry of Public Security reports that in 2006 police uncovered a total of 2,500 trafficking cases. But this refers only to cases cracked by the police and which fit China’s definition. (For example, in May 2004 the Yunnan provincial government said 571 children had been abducted in the province between 2001 and 2004 and that the police had located and returned 537 of them. But parents were reported as saying that only very few children abducted from Kunming had been found.) In 2005, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed its concern that Chinese data gave no clear indication of the number of children trafficked.
Many cases are reported by Chinese media. In 2004 media reported arrests in a case where 76 baby boys were sold in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia and another where 200 children, mostly boys, were kidnapped in Kunming, Yunnan. In 2005, 16 people were arrested in connection with the kidnapping of 31 baby girls, aged from newborn to 3 months. Reports stated that they were to be sold to foreigners for CNY 800 to 4,000 each.
But there is no clarity over prices paid for trafficked children. In December 2004, about 40 parents petitioned central government to crack down on child trafficking and help find their missing children. They wanted Beijing to pressure local governments to report children suspected of being stolen. Most of the parents were migrant workers from Dongguan, Guangdong, and lost their children in that city. Most of the children abducted were boys, from newborns to 12 year olds. In an article reporting this incident, police were quoted as saying a baby boy can be sold for between CNY 10,000 and 20,000 on the mainland, whilst a girl generally fetches only a few thousand yuan.
Causes and patterns
Trafficking is a complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon that may assume many forms which are probably determined more by demand than by supply. It can include slave marriage, sex work, sweatshops, domestic work, agricultural labour, child beggars, and so on. Some cases are clear-cut “trafficking” whilst others may be better defined as illegal migrant labour.
China is a source, transit and destination country for women, men and children trafficked for sexual exploitation and forced labour. Most trafficking in China is internal but there is also significant trafficking of Chinese citizens to many parts of the world, particularly women and girls into commercial sexual exploitation in Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan.
In the 1980s and early 90s most women and girls were being trafficked for marriage. More recently employment is increasingly the dominant cause, with illegal adoption also on the rise. The lack of girls for marriage in eastern rural areas is fuelling demand for girl babies to be raised as future brides for the sons of better-off farmers.
We know from our own research and other sources that many children and young people (or their parents) are enticed by promises of a better life or one which will enable them to support their families. Some children are kidnapped; others are sold or hired out to adult controllers who use them in different ways. Some are sold for adoption, but most are used to beg or to work on the street—selling flowers, singing, shining shoes. Some children disappear into sex work. Newspapers report deliberate maiming of children so that their begging brings in more money.
Families in east and central China want more children because it gives them more status and labour power. Better-off families appear not to mind being fined. They don’t, however, want a disabled baby. Couples commonly believe that more children mean more income: an extra pair of hands to help on the land—even if they migrate, it will still mean more income. More children are thought to improve the adults’ prospects of being looked after when they are old.
As a result, it is believed that some communities in western China have become like “baby factories.” There are also examples where remote, uneducated, illiterate women, threatened by an official with being fined for having an above-quota child, will be encouraged to hand over the baby in return for being let off the fine.
Demand may be growing because of rising infertility in urban areas. Some babies are clearly being trafficked to meet demand from childless couples.
The distinction between voluntary migration and trafficking is often slight. Many victims leave their communities willingly in response to an offer of work outside. Some are duped and end up in exploitative or harmful employment or in the sex trade. The risk of contracting HIV/AIDS from paid sex, and male clients’ growing awareness of this risk, may creating demand for younger girls in brothels. (There is certainly evidence of this pattern in Thailand.)
A range of factors make some children particularly vulnerable. Among these are extreme poverty and debt; low levels of basic education; limited job opportunities; family dysfunction; a community’s ignorance of risks associated with migration and ignorance of the law, and poor law enforcement. Young people separated from their families and/or without proper legal identity are particularly vulnerable.
The case of Xinjiang
Our research in Xinjiang reveals a distinct profile of trafficked children in the Autonomous Region. They are overwhelmingly male, pre-adolescent, ethnic Uighurs from poor families in southern Xinjiang. Although these children are put to work in conditions of servitude, Article 240 of the Criminal Law does not count them as having been trafficked.
Many “brokers” are themselves Uighurs who present themselves as legitimate businessmen recruiting young workers, mainly for service sector jobs in prosperous, eastern areas. They target very poor families with many children.
The broker takes the child away promising to send money to the children’s families every year. Sometimes the family receives a significant down-payment to convince them. As far as the family is concerned, their child has voluntarily gone to “Inner China” to work. Parents do not consider their child to be trafficked or engaged in illegal activities.
When children arrive in their new environment they find themselves dependent on the perpetrators and in many cases they become enmeshed in an organised criminal network. Many are forced to engage in crime—typically, pick-pocketing, theft or drug dealing. Unfortunately, many children become accustomed to a lifestyle that they could not afford in their place of origin and go on to become brokers or recruiters themselves. Recidivism is high for children who are arrested and returned to their families.
Although less common, some Xinjiang children are directly sold by family members into indentured servitude. In even more rare cases, children are abducted and taken against their will and their family’s wishes.
In Xinjiang and elsewhere, when children are picked up by the authorities, they are kept in Street Children Protection Centres or in temporary detention until a relative or authorised person comes to claim them. This can be a serious problem if the child is too young to know where she or he comes from. Unidentified children may stay in a Centre for a year or more, and if relatives are unlikely to be found the child may be transferred to the local Child Welfare Institute (orphanage).
We know from some children that it isn’t uncommon for the gangs, finding that the child has been detained, to go to the police and secure the child’s release by pretending to be a relative or official come to pick up the child. Besides, children under 16 are deemed below the age of criminal responsibility and so are often released shortly after their arrest, whereupon their adult controllers easily resume control over them.
What needs to be done?
Governments and communities need to develop multi-sectoral responses to curb the growth of trafficking. National policy and regulatory reform, to bring China’s definitions and practice in line with the Palermo protocol, are likely to prove a lengthy process, but local policy to protect children can be developed more rapidly.
For example, Save the Children piloted a registration system in a village in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna Prefecture. This requires all recruitment scouts who come to the village to register with the local government office and all persons planning to migrate to inform the office and participate in classes to prepare them for migration. Village-level directives prohibit any young person who has not completed compulsory education from leaving his or her place of origin. This model was commended by the Regional Women’s Federation and preparations are under way to replicate it in a number of counties in Guangxi and Yunnan.
Basic education for rural children, especially those from poor, ethnic minority areas, needs to make children aware of risks so they can protect themselves. Migration is inevitable for many poor, rural children in school today. It is therefore logical for the school curriculum to include “safe migration” education.
Such an initiative is now being piloted in middle schools in Pingxiang, Guangxi with support from Save the Children. As well as migration awareness (covering legal and employment rights and preparation for change in the new environment), children are taught about safety at home and in the community (including road and fire safety), parent-child relations, self-confidence and self-esteem, health, hygiene and nutrition, HIV/AIDS and awareness of violence and abuse. We hope to be able to replicate this approach not just to other areas but also to younger children.
A comprehensive and integrated child protection system is desperately needed in a country where the scale of migration is huge and where growing numbers of children are trafficked or living on the streets. Local child protection committees need to be established along with children and youth centres where children, irrespective of their background, can go for support and protection.
This is not unrealistic. The Youth League is currently planning to develop more than 3,000 youth centres across the country. In its work with the Women’s Federation, the Youth League and Civil Affairs authorities, Save the Children has been supporting the creation of “children’s activity centres” as a starting point for developing local child protection systems. If these centres and the Youth League’s youth centres are linked up, they could form the basis for an integrated protection system. Professional social work training will be needed to ensure effective support for the protection system. Work on this has already started.
In the late 1990s, the Government of China (the Ministry of Public Security and the Women’s Federation) started to work on anti- trafficking with Save the Children and other agencies such as UNICEF and the International Labour Organisation. ILO and Save the Children efforts are largely funded by the UK Department for International Development.
Since 2001, police at different levels have stepped up their anti-trafficking work. The Ministry of Public Security reports that, from 2001 to 2005, 28,000 human trafficking cases were “cracked down” and 55,000 women and children victims were rescued.
By 2001, four provinces had set up centres to help transfer and reintegrate rescued victims. Some community based prevention models have been established in south-west China.
The Public Security authorities have strengthened cooperation with neighbouring countries, especially in Southeast Asia, to combat the rising trend of cross-border trafficking. In 2005, a campaign on the borders of Guangxi and Yunnan led to the arrest of 53 traffickers and the rescue of 38 Vietnamese women who had been forced into sex work. Fifteen trafficking gangs were raided and 115 Vietnamese victims were returned home. Also in 2005, Guangxi Public Security Bureau set up a centre to aid foreign victims.
In September 2005, China’s Ministry of Public Security had the first high-level official meeting with Myanmar authorities regarding cooperation in fighting cross-border trafficking.
China has also been involved in a Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking (COMMIT) process that started in 2004 with a memorandum of understanding signed by Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and China. COMMIT’s two most important achievements to date are the approval of a sub-regional plan of action (2005-2007) and the development of 11 project proposals covering policy, protection, prevention and prosecution. Signatories have also undertaken to develop their own National Plan of Action (NPA) against trafficking in all its forms.
Yet in China progress on developing an NPA and committing sufficient resources to combat trafficking has so far been quite slow. This may in part because, according to the reporting criteria, the number of cases is relatively low. It is also seen as a regional issue mainly affecting southwest China (even though the number of children being trafficked from Xinjiang is high if the UN definition is applied). Thus, although anti-trafficking offices may exist within the Public Security system in the southwest, they are not allocated sufficient funds to work effectively.
Meanwhile, however, an important achievement has been the revision of the 1992 Law on Protection of Minors, which comes into effect on June 1, 2007. Save the Children was the only NGO involved in the revision process, which was led by the Rights Department of the Youth League. The Youth League is increasingly visible in the protection of minors and it seems that the lead on child protection is passing from the Women’s Federation to the Youth League. In response to this shift, Save the Children is working increasingly closely with the Youth League, both in both our child trafficking prevention and our work on children in conflict with the law.
Towards integrated protection
Save the Children was the first organisation to start community-based prevention of child trafficking in Yunnan Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. In 1999, we signed an agreement with Yunnan Public Security Bureau to cooperate on trafficking prevention in the prefectures of Honghe and Wenshan. This was the Public Security Bureau’s first experience of a community-based prevention approach.
Alongside the local registration systems for employers and intending migrants and the school-based education outlined above, collaborative efforts have included pre-migration classes and the use of village broadcasting, blackboard newspapers, brochures, storybooks and folk songs to promote “3-antis” awareness (anti-trafficking, anti-AIDS, anti-drugs) in accessible, local languages or dialects.
We also support the return from overseas of trafficked Chinese girls and women, in cooperation with the International Organisation of Migration, the Thai Bureau Against Trafficking of Children and Women, and the Yunnan Women’s Federation and Public Security Bureau. Our role is to assist family tracing and assessment and help local partners develop systems to support the reintegration of the returnees. We have supported the reintegration of 40 Chinese women who were trafficked across borders into the sex industry.
In 1999, when we first began to work on trafficking, we developed with the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women a Chinese version of their “Human Rights in Practice: A Guide to Assist Trafficked Women and Children,” and this is still widely used in China. In addition, we routinely support capacity building training for partners, have offered suggestions on the draft NPA, and in 2004 co-hosted, with UNDP UNIAP and China’s National Working Committee on Women and Children, a conference on trafficking in five provinces.
However, our experience has increasingly convinced us that child trafficking cannot be treated as an isolated phenomenon but needs to be addressed in a more holistic way through the development of integrated protection systems. This conviction has grown out of our work in a number of fields and provinces where the lack of child protection mechanisms is a common denominator. Over the last decade, this work has included:
Research, training and capacity building work with national and local Civil Affairs authorities responsible for street children and children in the care of government. This has including sponsorship and technical supporting for in-service social work training (at Beijing University) for Civil Affairs officials working with children, as a move towards creating a cadre of child protection social workers in China.
Support for the National Youth League’s Rights Department in its work drafting the recently revision Law on the Protection of Minors.
Work in Ruili (Yunnan) and Fuyang (Anhui Province) on HIV/AIDS, with particular attention to children affected by the epidemic.
Work in Hefei (Anhui) and elsewhere on “children in communities” with a focus on vulnerable groups including orphans, disabled children and those at the interface between migrant and settled, urban communities.
Work with national and local Civil Affairs authorities to develop national guidelines for fostering.
Work in Kunming (Yunnan) to develop community supervision and support for youngsters in conflict with the law
Work in Yunnan to introduce child protection standards in schools, which is particularly important in rural areas where more and more children have to board but is also important in cities where evidence suggests playground violence is on the rise
Support for Chinese networks of scholars, lawyers and social activists engaging with issues of child abuse and children in conflict with the law
Child participation is a key, cross cutting theme in all of these areas, promoted through activities such as child-led research projects and Children’s Forums where children voice their concerns, ideas and policy recommendations. Our projects generally also include the establishment of children’s activity centres that, as well as creating a useful, community resource—eg, a safe and stimulating after-school environment for children whose parents are still working—also serve as a platform for peer education and exchange, including the development of performance and visual art groups.
Our work in these areas clearly interlocks around the common issue of child protection—understood as involving i) universal access to services ii) children’s and parents’ knowledge and understanding of risks and iii) responsive and coordinated local government agencies. Consequently, Save the Children is now advocating the creation of a National Committee for the Protection of Minors that can be mirrored at provincial level and below and that can support the development of child protection systems in migrant children’s places of origin, transit, and destination.
Save the Children feels that the National Youth League is capable of playing a lead role in a National Child Protection Committee that would includes the Women’s Federation and National Working Committee on Children and Women as well as other government bodies such as the Public Security, Justice, Education, Health and Finance administrations. The numerous children and youth centres that now exist across the country should be networked to provide a strong foundation for such a system.
Child trafficking, migration, street children, and HIV/AIDS are interwoven issues. With government committed to ongoing, large scale migration and urbanisation, the situation for children at risk is very likely to get worse, not better, in the short term. Multi-sectoral responses are urgently needed. Education, health and protection service providers need to work closely together at all levels. Children live in communities and this is where the different strands of provision and protection need to come together in integrated services with a local focus. The community is the site of services to realise children’s rights; the government must provide a framework to ensure the quality and effectiveness of services and to monitor standards.
Kate Wedgwood is Save the Children Country Director for the PRC and DPRK. Sun Tiezheng is National Coordinator for Youth Justice and Child Trafficking. He Ye is Child Trafficking Programme Manager