Trafficking in human beings is one of the fastest growing and lucrative criminal activities in the world today. Women and girls make up 80 per cent of identified victims in the EU. Worldwide, the international labour organisation has estimated that 1.2 million children are victims of trafficking at any one time.
Although internal trafficking within the EU tends to dominate the statistics, thousands of victims are trafficked from non-EU countries. As we have witnessed in the past week through the tragic loss of life in the Mediterranean, this can present particular risks to victims. Once in the EU, children are particularly vulnerable to re-trafficking.
A recent BBC report (11 March) highlighted the scale of child trafficking in China. The investigation uncovered an illegal market in children, with babies often being openly sold online. As many as 400 children a week are abducted in China, according to figures produced by the US state department. Once abducted, children tend to be either sold for adoption or forced to work for criminal gangs.
A baby boy in China can sell for up to €15,000. Girls tend to be sold for much less, as result of the longstanding cultural preference for sons. Like many other countries where women and girls are less valued by society, they are often seen and used as commodities, rendered more vulnerable and consequently are easy targets for the traffickers.
Orphanages are central to illegal adoption, with some operating at a profit through charging foreign nationals the equivalent of thousands of euros in fees. China's public security ministry has reported that 382 babies were rescued after four websites were found to be selling children under the guise of adoption.
Corruption often plays a key role. Trafficking gangs who bribe local law enforcement and political authorities can operate with relative impunity. Poverty, lack of law enforcement and the clandestine nature of the crime make it difficult to find and bring to justice the perpetrators. The role of the internet today also increases the challenges for law enforcement authorities.
As well as adoption, trafficked children end up in sexual and labour exploitation. This takes on many forms including prostitution, forced marriage, pornography, begging, domestic labour, agricultural labour and even warfare. Traffickers exploit the vulnerability of children who cannot always assess risks or articulate their worries.
In Europe, and globally, children are trafficked for exploitation in an increasingly complex and interlinked criminal network, in which opportunistic traffickers exploit changing circumstances. As a result, our response must be dynamic and constantly evolving.
We need to consider the complex ways in which this problem affects Europe. For example, the forced labour of trafficked children is integrated within global supply chains which are accessed by European businesses. While there is no single overarching root cause of child trafficking, factors such as poverty, instability and unequal gender relations create the conditions for exploitation.
Alongside prevention strategies, our approach must put the best interest of each individual child at the forefront. It is difficult to comprehend the level of suffering endured by children who have been trafficked. The mental and physical effects can be lifelong and lead to further poverty and social exclusion. However, children cannot be supported if we do not have in place the means of identifying them effectively and early on.
A number of European and international legislative instruments on human trafficking exist, including the landmark 2011 EU directive on human trafficking. This directive requires member states to adopt a gender perspective and a child-rights approach. It puts equal stress on protecting victims, prosecuting traffickers and, crucially, preventing trafficking in the first place.
Law enforcement authorities including Europol need to work in cooperation across Europe to prevent trafficking, identify affected children and provide assistance and protection to child victims of trafficking. Children who have been trafficked need long-term, sustainable and comprehensive plans for recovery and reintegration into society.
A recent Eurobarometer survey found that combating human trafficking is considered a priority in several member states. European citizens recognise that this is an urgent area of concern and want stronger intervention.
We have, in the form of a directive, a clear definition and a comprehensive and integrated framework for combating human trafficking. It is now time to fully assess the implementation of this act, particularly the protection it has offered children.
Children everywhere have the right to be protected from trafficking. It is clear to me that we must work harder to guarantee that right.