- On Challenges, Dilemmas, and Opportunities in Studying Trafficked Children
The following commentary stems from a recently completed research project, supported by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), to examine the experiences of children, mostly girls, trafficked to the United States for sexual and labor exploitation and analyze their prospects for reintegration into the wider society. The cohort of possible study participants was relatively small—approximately 100 children—the project's goals lofty—to expand the knowledge base of the special service needs of trafficked children and set forth policy and programmatic recommendation aimed at preventing child trafficking, protecting trafficked children, and prosecuting their traffickers—the challenges and dilemmas numerous, and the opportunities rare. It is the challenges and dilemmas as well as the opportunities in studying child trafficking and formulating recommendations based on empirical research that I wish to address in this essay. [End Page 903]
According to the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (2000), child trafficking is defined as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of any person under the age of eighteen for the purposes of sexual or labor exploitation, forced labor, or slavery." The US law mirrors this definition and concurs with the general agreement in the international community that, in the case of minors, the trafficking term applies whether a child was taken forcibly or voluntarily (Miko 2004), simply because children do not have volition and cannot consent to being smuggled. I will return to the issue of agency and vulnerability later in this essay.
The UN Protocol and the US law on child trafficking use the definition of a child promulgated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRS), which states that "every human being below the age of 18, unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier" is considered a child. The Convention uses chronological age as the universal measure of biological and psychological maturity and rejects cultural and social meanings attached to local systems of age ranking (La Fointaine 1978). There is no distinction in this definition between a four and a 17 year old. Both are defined as children who need special safeguards and care. In addition, this definition assumes a natural progression from childhood to adulthood, from incompetence to competence and from immaturity to maturity (Bluebond-Langer and Korbin 2007).
In reality the concepts of "child" and "childhood" vary according to social, cultural, historical, religious and rational norms as well as according to one's personal circumstances. There are tremendous differences between a four and a 17 year old. There are also often considerable differences between two different 17 year olds, particularly individuals coming from different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds. Gender differences need to be accounted for as well. The cohort of trafficked children in our study ranged in age from two to 17 years, with the vast majority (83.3%) of the children falling between 14 and 17 years of age when they were trafficked. Approximately two-thirds of all the children concentrated in the 16 to 17 year age range when trafficked. Not surprisingly, the unaccompanied children were older than those who were trafficked with other family members. The majority of the children were girls. There was a substantial difference in the male to female ratio between the unaccompanied and accompanied cohorts. Among the accompanied children, 15 [End Page 904] of the 46 survivors, or 33%, were males, while only two, or 4%, of the 56 unaccompanied children were males.
We were hard pressed to find two children that were very similar and could be used as examples of the proverbial poster victim of trafficking. Even girls who were part of the same trafficking case appeared to be very different. Interestingly, the traffickers treated them differently as well. In one case we examined, four adolescent girls were trafficked together and forced to work in the same bar. The girls with kinship ties to their 'employers' were treated very differently than those who could not claim such a relationship; they could keep money they earned and send some of their income to their families, and...