Human trafficking is the exploitation of children and adults for profit. In 2016, there were an estimated 40.3 million people in slavery worldwide. Traffickers use force and deception to exploit victims, who are then moved within – or across – country borders. Victims can also be exploited in their own homes.
The 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report describes 'human trafficking,' 'trafficking in persons,' and 'modern slavery' as interchangeable terms that refer to sex and labor trafficking. It's a global industry that generates $150 billion for criminals.
Globally in 2016, there were an estimated one million children in forced sexual exploitation.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children defines child sex trafficking as:
"…a form of child abuse that occurs when a child under 18 is advertised, solicited, or exploited through a commercial sex act. A commercial sex act is any sex act where something of value – such as money, drugs or a place to stay – is given to or received by any person for sexual activity."
There are misconceptions about how child sex trafficking occurs: children being forced into the back of a van by strangers does happen, but these are not always trafficking cases, and victims are more likely to know their traffickers. Family members, romantic partners, and friends are usually behind the commercial sexual exploitation of a child.
And traffickers don't always use force – deception and threats are common ways they lure victims, grooming vulnerable children over time.
Child trafficking can happen to any child, anywhere. It's a complex issue, and risk factors may vary from country to country. Poverty is a driving factor, as is lack of education, gender inequality, coming from an abusive or broken home, and spending time in the foster care system. Other drivers include harmful religious and cultural practices, ineffective legislation, discrimination against minority groups, war, and natural disasters. (UNODC, aspe.hhs.gov)
All Corners of the Globe
Every country is affected by child sex trafficking, and it happens to boys as well as girls. And while trafficking may look different in each place, the crime is the same.
The online sexual exploitation of children has hit alarming rates in the Philippines. Hundreds of girls and boys – including a two-month-old baby – have been rescued from squalid sex dens where sex predators pay to watch children being abused online.
The Philippines has become the global epicenter of the live-stream sexual abuse of children due to high levels of poverty, increased internet access, and the low cost of technological devices. English is also widely spoken, which means western child sex predators can easily negotiate with traffickers and direct the live abuse of children from the other side of the world.
This sickening trade in children has been called a ‘Modern Face of Human Trafficking’. The International Justice Mission says it's usually a 'family-based crime.' Their review of 217 rescue cases where victims knew their trafficker revealed 41% were the biological parents, and 42% were other relatives.
When it comes to child sex trafficking, there's a common misconception that it only happens in developing countries. But this heinous crime knows no borders – any child can fall victim to a child sex predator.
In 2020, there were 17,000 NCMEC reports of possible child sex trafficking across all U.S states.
It is often those who are the closest who do the most harm. Girls in the U.S have been forced into sex trafficking by their boyfriends or male school friends, and children in the foster care system are some of the most vulnerable to being trafficked.
Emily's story illustrates how children from broken families are easy targets for predators, who use romantic relationships to coerce their victims into commercial sex work.
Orphanages are another hunting ground for traffickers. In Romania, traffickers target girls who are about to turn 18 and leave the relative safety of their facility. Victims are groomed with promises of love and security and a better life abroad. However, victims soon find themselves alone in a foreign country and enslaved in a life of violence and exploitation.
Being sold by boyfriends or husbands is also a common entry point into sex trafficking rings for girls in Albania. Poor rural girls and women are the most vulnerable to this brutal crime.
Seya was 14 when she fled her violent family home only to be sold by her boyfriend into a sex trafficking ring. She was raped by several men each day and 'international clients' who paid more to abuse her at night.
But it's not only men profiting from the rape of children. In Colombia, women have made money from the sale of children at sex parties. O.U.R. was involved in the arrest of a well-known Cartagena beauty queen who recruited girls as young as 11 through a fake modeling agency before trafficking them for sex with men.
Boys fall victim to sex predators too. Singer Luis Armando Campos was a semi-finalist on The Voice Mexico. Alone and vulnerable after his parents divorced, the 14-year-old was befriended by a well-known music producer who promised fame and fortune. Mario Enrique Miranda Palacios used his authority and power to force Campos to work as a sex slave for four years. Campos fled when he was 18 and now works as an anti-trafficking activist.
Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.) was involved in another high-profile raid in February 2021 in Thailand. Danudetch Saengkaew, the owner of one of Thailand's best-known child modelling agencies, has been accused of using the business to recruit and then sexually abuse children before distributing videos and images of his sickening crimes. Documents seized revealed more than 8,400 children had been with the agency since 2013, and about half a million files of child sex abuse material were found.
There are an estimated 2,000 victims of modern slavery in Australia. Between 2016 and 2017, 47% of modern slavery referrals to police related to forced marriage, and 13% were for sexual exploitation. However, Anti-Slavery Australia believes only one in five victims is detected.
Despite the criminalization of early and forced marriage in 2013, the number of cases is escalating. The common trend is for Australian girls to be sent overseas and forced to marry, and the perpetrators – usually the child's family – face human trafficking charges if caught.
Modern slavery is a $13.1 billion industry in Africa, and $8.9 billion comes from sexual exploitation. Thousands of women and girls have been enslaved in West Africa by an ancient practice known as 'trokosi.' If a family member commits a crime, a pre-teen or teenage girl is sent to a shrine to atone for their relative's sins. Girls are forced into domestic servitude and used as sex slaves by the priests. The practice continues in Ghana today despite being made illegal in 1998. It has also been reported in Benin and Togo.
A more brazen form of child sex abuse happens in The Gambia. This small West African nation is a popular beach destination for western tourists. Sex predators travel to The Gambia for the sole purpose of sexually abusing children. Sex trafficking networks promote child sex tourism through European and Gambian travel agencies. Predators abuse the poverty of vulnerable children by befriending and grooming their families, making financial donations, and using 'sponsorship to justify relationships with victims.
A 2013 report from Egypt exposed the evil practice of trafficking girls as young as 11 under the pretext of marriage. Wealthy male tourists – often on holiday with their wives and children – trawl the streets in their luxury cars looking for children to 'marry.' 'Marriage brokers' are quick to seal the deal, even offering a delivery service where buyers can view a selection of child brides at their luxury hotels. These sham marriages can last anywhere from a couple of hours to years. Once predators are done with their ‘wives,' the girls are returned to their families and sold to the next buyer. Some girls are married 60 times before their 18th birthday.
The Fight Against Child Sex Trafficking
Trafficking children for sexual exploitation is a highly lucrative, 'hidden' crime. Those victims lucky enough to escape with their lives face a long and challenging road to recovery. Some children will have been exposed to HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, and extreme physical violence and torture, resulting in severe mental health issues.
O.U.R. not only rescues children from sex traffickers, but also supports them in the healing process. Partnerships with in-country aftercare centers and safe houses ensure each child survivor receives the quality holistic care they need.
If you'd like to join the fight to eradicate child sex trafficking, visit our website to find out ways that you can help. Together we can make a real difference in the lives of vulnerable children around the world.