child trafficking
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This article is written by Rangita Chowdhury of Symbiosis Law School NOIDA. It focuses on child trafficking, its various aspects and the international conventions and treaties that seek to address the problem. 


“…The exploitation of childhood constitutes the evil the most hideous, the most unbearable to the human heart…” Albert Thomas, first Director of the International Labour Organisation

Child trafficking is a serious menace that is prevalent in most parts of the world. It either happens for the sex trade or for child labour. Majority of the victims are girls belonging from the poor and marginalized sections of the society where socio-economic conditions often lure parents to sell off or send their children for better livelihood opportunities. Such false promises from the traffickers often land the children in big cities where they are treated as commodities.

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What is child trafficking

Child trafficking happens when children are uprooted from the safety of their homes and exploited by preying on their vulnerability. They are often persuaded, tricked, or forced to leave their homes and then sold or forced into some kind of work, chiefly sex work. Even though men, women, and children all over the world are at risk of trafficking, children particularly, are the most exposed to such a risk. Child trafficking includes the whole process of locating and recruiting children in transporting and delivering them. It is mainly linked to the demand for easy, cheap and docile labour who are forced to work in deplorable environments. Children maybe forced in situations within the likes of domestic labour, slavery, sexual exploitation along with prostitution and drug couriering, etc. The human rights of these children are grossly violated. Research has been limited to the root causes of child trafficking, but estimates show poverty, humanitarian crisis, and lack of education contribute as major factors. 

Prevention of child trafficking

Migration overflowed all over the world after the fall of the Soviet Union in the nineties along with increase in organizational crimes. This is the time around which human trafficking started to gain momentum and became a matter of public concern. According to the International Labour Organisation, as many as 1.2 million children are trafficked every year. 1 out of 4 victims of child slavery is children worldwide. Trafficking happens because some people are in a position to exert power over others arising out of lack of understanding and education on the part of the latter. 

Prevention of child trafficking is a major challenge worldwide. To prevent trafficking, firstly, the individuals at risk must be educated properly. Most people still don’t know the dynamics of child trafficking, they must be made aware of it. Many non-governmental organisations regularly address these child trafficking horrors. They help in rehabilitation, prevention and legal proceedings. Governments should work in close coordination with such organizations and the flow of information should be more transparent and rapid. Anti-trafficking task forces must be deployed in countries and stringent policies must be developed along with increasing police pay so that officers are less vulnerable to bribes. Major efforts in this regard have been made by organisations like the United Nations, ILO, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to combat child trafficking. 

Treaties & conventions addressing child trafficking

  1. International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children (1921)– When women’s rights movements started gaining momentum in the 19th century, they also started addressing the issues of child and women trafficking and its role in the exploitation of labour and prostitution. This convention addressed the menace of international trafficking of women and children. Article 7 of the convention urged the governments to take legislative and administrative measures to stop the trafficking of women and children in connection to immigration and emigration. 
  2. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) – The historic declaration commonly referred to as UDHR was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 which included all the inalienable rights of a human being on this earth. These are natural rights which although are not legally binding, prove to be very important and their violation can lead to a slew of legal consequences. Since child trafficking is one of the worst forms of human rights violations, it goes against the principles of this declaration. 
  3. The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of (1966) – It is one of the several conventions that address the issue of slavery associated with trafficking, prohibits slavery and slave trades in all forms (Article 8).
  4. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) – Calls upon the State parties to initiate legislative and other meaningful measures for the suppression of women trafficking and their exploitation for prostitution.
  5. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) – This international treaty for the first time in the history of international law, recognized the need for special protection for children and their entitlement to basic human rights. It defines a child as someone under the age of 18 years. Article 35 of the convention states that the government should make sure that no child in their territory is abducted, sold or trafficked. The convention also incorporates rights of rehabilitation along with Article 39 which talks about special measures to help the children recover psychologically and physically and not be bound by their trauma. It also consists of a few specific protocols which help fight child trafficking.
  6. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993) – Includes trafficking in women and forced prostitution as offences of violence against women. 
  7. The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (1993) – Commonly known as ‘The Hague Adoption Convention’, it deals with international adoption, child trafficking and child laundering. It is important because it is one of the first conventions to deal with intercountry adoption, which is often very tricky and deceiving due to differing adoption protocols and practices in countries which can create opportunities for traffickers to enhance trafficking in the name of adoption. 
  8. Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999) – This was adopted by the International Labour Organisation in 1999 as part of ILO Convention No. 182. Once a country ratifies itself it needs to forbid perpetrators from using children below 18 years of age in slavery or practices similar to slavery, like trafficking or prostitution. 
  9. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (2000) – It is part of one of the three Palermo Protocols known as United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime adopted by the United Nations in 2000 to combat transnational organized crime. It is one of the most crucial international instruments designed to combat trafficking. It was implemented to fight the involvement of organized crime in human trafficking with special focus on women and children. Till May 2020, 176 countries have ratified it. The protocol chiefly focuses on three purposes – 
    1. Tackling and preventing the trafficking of persons with particular emphasis on women and children.
    2. Protect and assist the victims of trafficking and help them restore their basic human rights. 
    3. Promoting utmost cooperation among States to help achieve these objectives. 

Article 5 of the protocol makes it mandatory for the States to criminalize trafficking in any form, be it attempted trafficking or being a part of any organization which engages in trafficking.

Implementation of this protocol is vested upon the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

10) Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict (2000) – which requires the signatory parties to ensure that children under the age of 18 years are not compulsorily recruited in the armed forces. Adopted under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) as a supplementary protocol. 

11) Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (2000) – Also a protocol to the Convention on Rights of the Child (1989), it stipulates the parties to strengthen international cooperation through multinational, regional and bilateral agreements to identify, prosecute and punish offenders involved in the acts of sale of children, child pornography, child prostitution etc.

12) The Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking(2002) – provides effective policy guidelines on the prevention of human trafficking and protection of victims. These guidelines focus on the integration of human rights perspectives in all regional, national, and international laws, conventions and initiatives dealing in anti-trafficking measures. These thus serve as a reference point in supplementing the efforts of States and intergovernmental organizations to prevent child trafficking and protect the rights of the abused.

Principle international agencies addressing child trafficking

United Nations

The United Nations was established in 1945 after the Second World War with the principal aim of preventing any future wars. It promotes international peace, cooperation and develops friendly relations among States. However, besides these objectives, one of its significant commitments is to stand by the children of the world, particularly the underprivileged ones. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the UN in 1989, is the most comprehensive human rights treaty in history. It has helped transform the lives of millions of less fortunate children across the world.

This convention is in accordance with the principles outlined in the UN Charter. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) recognises childhood as a phase of life that is entitled to special care and assistance. In keeping with this principle, the convention reiterates that every child is entitled to an atmosphere of love, happiness and understanding which is imperative for the complete and harmonious development of his personality. It further recognizes that every child should be brought up in the spirit of the ideals proclaimed in the UN Charter. Freedom, dignity, equality, and solidarity are the key to his development. It also emphasises the need to provide special care, safeguard, and protection to the child during his growing up years, including legal protection. The convention further agrees that international cooperation is a precondition for improving the living condition of children across the world.


The United Nations Children’s Fund has been a permanent part of the United Nations since 1953. It plays a vital role in assisting its development partners, governments and non-governmental organizations to put up effective anti-trafficking responses. The key is reducing vulnerabilities of children susceptible to trafficking. For this purpose, it helps its partners in strengthening laws, policies and initiatives that target this menace. These include legislative review and reforms, the establishment of minimum labour standards, access to education etc. UNICEF also works with communities to revise customs and practices that aggravate children’s vulnerabilities to trafficking. Additionally, it provides training of professionals working with children including social workers, health workers, police and border officials to effectively deal with trafficking.

International Labour Organisation

ILO is the oldest specialized agency of the United Nations, founded in 1919, under the League of Nations. It sets forth international standards of labour compliance which are to be followed by the member countries. It strives to implement accessible, sustainable and productive work while maintaining the dignity, equality and security of the workers. ILO takes a firm stand against child traffickers and supports state and civil society sponsored initiatives to prevent child trafficking. Its 1999 Convention on Worst Forms of Child Labour (No. 182 and Recommendation No. 190) was a huge success towards curbing child trafficking by making it synonymous to the grim practice of slavery. 

Child health and welfare

Health and welfare are crucial for all age groups, more so for children because childhood is the base for the quality of health we enjoy later in life. Child health and welfare are closely related. Those having physical health problems and other chronic conditions are at maximum need for child welfare. These are the same children who are at very high risk of being targeted by child traffickers because of their vulnerability. They do not enjoy the company of their family, are exposed to poor living conditions and are emotionally vulnerable. Volunteers and workers associated with child welfare systems should, therefore, be in a position to identify child trafficking, respond properly to the situation and prevent incidences of trafficking. Though the State is primarily responsible for ensuring the well-being of such children, it is also the duty of the voluntary organisations and the civil society to come forward and complement the efforts of the Government.

Role of international courts and tribunals in child trafficking

International courts and tribunals play a major role in monitoring and reporting trafficking issues. There are several ad hoc international criminal tribunals that often take up child trafficking cases. Trafficking as a crime has been included in the Statute of International Criminal court under Article 7.1(c) and (g).

The European Court of Human Rights has shelled out many judgements relating to human rights and child trafficking. In the popular judgement of Ranstev Vs Cyprus and Russia (2009), the court laid down the obligations of States to investigate and prevent trafficking-related issues with due diligence. 

Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States also consider trafficking cases. The International Tribunal for Natural Justice set up the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Human Trafficking and Child Sex Abuse in 2018. The commission is dedicated to exposing the actual magnitude of child sex abuse and trafficking occurring in the whole world. Human Rights Commissions in different countries and states also play an important role in adjudicating cases relating to a violation of human rights linked with trafficking and related issues. 

Child trafficking for sexual exploitation – criminal offence

Child sex trafficking is the trafficking of children for the purpose of a commercial sex act. The traffickers often target children who do not come from a stable emotional or financial background and are more vulnerable to susceptibilities. They often lure the children with a false sense of trust and then engage them in prostitution by abusing them emotionally, physically, and psychologically. 

In international child sex trafficking, the traffickers transport children across international borders to sexually exploit them in another country. Technological advances have also paved ways to assist traffickers in commercial sexual exploitation of children. There are different websites which can now be used to advertise or schedule sexual encounters with children. 

Prostitution law differs in countries. Sex work is legal in some countries whereas it is illegal in some. Sex trafficking is not identical to prostitution. The former is done under compulsion while the later is someone’s choice of occupation. Sex trafficking is criminalised in all the countries but continues to grow as an industry. 

Article 5 of the Trafficking in Persons Protocol makes it mandatory for the signatory States to adopt measures which criminalise the act of trafficking for any purpose or intent. Article 6 of the protocol also provides for assistance to victims in all stages of a trial, be it emotional assistance, direct assistance, or providing them with relevant information. 

Legal and policy framework to prevent child trafficking around the world

The accepted principles and guidelines on human rights and human trafficking have been developed by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to provide practical, rights-based policy guidance on the prevention of trafficking and the protection of trafficked persons. It aims to facilitate the integration of a human rights perspective into national, regional, and international anti-trafficking laws, policies, and interventions.

The Guidelines and their implementation are within the broader framework of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and other relevant conventions and treaties.

The international treaties, conventions and agreements as referred earlier also provide a broad policy guideline to the different States and partners in tackling the issue of child trafficking.

An effective policy addressing child trafficking should essentially address the following vital elements:

  • timely identification of victims and their protection
  • Ensuring for them a safe environment
  • providing them with social services, health care, psychosocial support 
  • reintegration with family and community, wherever possible 

The magnitude and complexity of child trafficking

Today, we all recognize the trafficking of children as an acute violation of children’s rights and also the worst form of child labour. The international community is very well aware of how serious and complex the problem is and how badly it exploits millions of children and families in many countries around the world.

It is also well recognized by all that the phenomenon, if not controlled, will continue to proliferate in an unabated manner. Thus, tackling this menace will require an intensive and spirited effort from various quarters.

However, the nature of the problem is very complex. Tackling trafficking is easier said than done as it involves a combination of several events that takes place in the child’s home and at the transit and destination points. It can be local, regional, national, or international, and though mostly children from rural areas are trafficked for exploitation and land up in urban centres. Another important aspect is that children from poorer countries are mostly trafficked to relatively affluent nations. Recruiters, intermediaries, counterfeiters, transporters, employers, brothel/inn operators, and even friends and family members – all play a part in the racket. Sometimes it is the children themselves or their families who take the initiative to migrate and who approach recruiters, for financial reasons, having no idea of the fate that awaits them.

 While commercial sexual exploitation is the most important trigger, a number of recent International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) studies in Asia and Central and West Africa have shown that many children are also trafficked for other forms of labour exploitation. These include domestic service, armed conflict, service industries (restaurants, bars), and various other hazardous forms of work (for example in factories, agriculture, construction, fishing, begging). 

Another important point to consider is that trafficked children may not be used for a particular purpose only. Those landing up factories, domestic service or restaurants, maybe later forced into prostitution; or children trafficked for prostitution may be resold more than once. Thus unless the close relationship between trafficking and sex trade is well understood, we may not be able to address the issue properly.

Children are easier to abuse: they are less assertive, rarely stand up for their rights, and can be forced to put in longer working hours quite easily. They can be made to work with less food, poor accommodation and few or no benefits. This easy supply of cheap and docile labour makes them a soft target for exploitation, mostly in the fast-growing commercial sex-sector.

The important supply factors for child trafficking are poverty and the desire to earn a living or help support the family. Lack of education, both among the children and their parents, political animosities, natural disasters; cultural attitudes toward children and girls in particular; and inadequate local laws and regulations are also contributing factors.

Trafficking of children thus takes different forms in different regions, depending on the coincidence and combinations of factors, agents, and mechanisms involved. All this has resulted in a rapid increase in cross-border trafficking in recent years.

The consequences of trafficking are far-reaching. In the worst cases, it can be responsible for a child’s disappearance or death, or can permanently damage his/her physical, mental and emotional well-being. It can result in drug dependency, can snap family ties and deprive children of their rights to education and healthy childhood. Sexual violence, physical and emotional torture and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including HIV/AIDS are also common, trafficked girls incur the risk of pregnancy, early motherhood and reproductive illnesses that might affect their ability to bear children. 

Progress made in the fight against child trafficking

The fight against child trafficking, amongst others, should essentially focus on:

  1. Sensitization of civil society
  2. Effective strategies for prevention
  3. Speedy inquiry and timely prosecution
  4. Care of victims

The nodal UN agency entrusted in the fight against child trafficking is the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. It works on the criminal justice element of the crimes that are linked with human trafficking and smuggling of migrants. The foundation of this work is laid in the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and its protocols on trafficking in persons and migrant smuggling. 

The principal initiatives undertaken so far by UNODC are:

  1. GLO.ACT: which is a Global Action to Prevent and Address Trafficking in Persons and the Smuggling of Migrants. It is an initiative in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNICEF. It has a number of components and It assists countries in developing effective counter-trafficking and counter-smuggling responses.
  2.  The Human Trafficking Knowledge Portal: which works to disseminate information on the operation of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. It explicitly works on the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, principally Women and Children. It also has a database on documented court cases on human trafficking and relevant legislations. Another such portal is the Smuggling of Migrants Knowledge Portal which documents court cases on smuggling of migrants.
  3. The UNODC Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking: is concerned with providing humanitarian, legal and financial aid to the victims through various organizations- governmental, inter-governmental and civil society bodies. It works to provide organizations to work under a single umbrella and provide meaningful solutions for curbing human trafficking. 

Other than UNODOC, ILO has also played a very prominent role in the prevention of child labour and trafficking. It has always resolutely stood against all forms of forced labour, be it child or adult. UNICEF has also played a great role in trying to eliminate this social scourge. 

Though UNODC, UNICEF ILO and various other governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental bodies have come together to eradicate forced labour, a lot of work still needs to be done. The ILO estimates that more than 150 million children and teenagers are victims of child labour around the world, (India being one of the worst offenders) and more than 10 million children and teenagers aged 5-14 are involved in trafficking and bondage.

A number of international, national and regional non-governmental organisations are also actively involved in fighting human trafficking like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International

The road ahead 

In spite of the progress made so far, combating child trafficking still requires programmes and interventions that should be wide-ranging and capable of addressing both the causes and the processes associated with the phenomenon. 

Interventions must not only target children but the entire ambit of the process. It has to involve families, communities, recruiters, traffickers, exploiters and essentially the entire society. The dynamics of trafficking have to better understand and policy frameworks and guidelines should be drawn up both at national and local levels. 

Reducing the vulnerability of at-risk children is of paramount importance. Concrete interventions have to be launched to reduce the vulnerability of their family members and their immediate communities as well. The root causes of vulnerability, including poverty and social attitudes, are needed to be addressed first. Stringent laws targeting child trafficking need to be introduced and these should be implemented sincerely. The Executive should be faithful in its duty, corruption and bribery should be identified and nipped at the bud. Trafficking involves movement across international borders and hence the issue must be addressed at bilateral, sub-regional and international levels. Adequate bilateral and sub-regional initiatives should be taken by the affected nations. Suitable programmes should be launched. 

The ILO plays a vital role in data collection and strategic framework design, capacity building, prevention, interception, withdrawal and reintegration of trafficked children. Affected countries should utilize the expertise of ILO and support and complement their initiatives at all levels. Every country should address the problem of child trafficking as a matter of urgency. 

The civil society should be properly sensitized and made to understand the enormity of the problem. Common people should be suitably integrated into the efforts of the State. NGOs and other organizations working in this field should be taken into confidence and involved in the different programmes and initiatives of the State.

Finally, the international community must support all initiatives to counter child trafficking, both within and across countries by taking up time-bound measures, programmes and plans, and by enhancing collaboration at local, regional and international levels.


Child trafficking is an age-old problem which often has adverse, immediate and long-term problems for the victims, their families as well as the society in general. Efforts to counter this social evil must be properly coordinated at all levels and all policies and initiatives must be strongly implemented so that stern action is taken against the perpetrators to deter them from committing similar crimes in future. 



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