Global trends in child trafficking and sexual exploitation of children
Human trafficking has long been recognized as one of the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprises and is estimated to be a $150 billion-a-year global industry. According to the US State Department 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, an estimated 25 million people worldwide are victims of labour and sexual exploitation. The global Covid-19 pandemic has plunged already at-risk populations into increased vulnerability and the resulting recession is expected to further increase those at risk of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation globally.
Trafficking of children
Children account for about one third of the detected victims of trafficking. While children may be trafficked for forced labor regionally, particularly in low-income countries, most child victims globally are trafficked for sexual exploitation. From a global perspective, most trafficking victims are detected in their countries of citizenship, but from a regional perspective, wealthy countries are more likely to be destinations for detected victims trafficked from more distant origins. Western and Southern Europe and countries in the Middle East, for example, record sizable shares of victims trafficked from other regions; whereas such detections are relatively rare in most other parts of the world. For example in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, 99% of detected victims originate from the region while in Western and Southern Europe, only 25% originate from the region where they are detected. Most of the victims who are trafficked out of their region of origin come from Sub-Saharan Africa or East Asia.
Trafficking in numbers
Most of the human trafficking victims detected across the world are female; mainly adult women, but also increasingly underage girls. In total, 46% of the detected victims of trafficking are women and 19% are girls; 20% are men and 15% are boys. Over 30% of all detected trafficking victims are therefore children. But there are regional differences, e.g., in Sub-Saharan Africa, child victims accounted for the majority (55 %) of the victims detected. The vast majority (94%) of the detected victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation globally are female and 72% of child victims detected for sexual exploitation are girls.
Methods of trafficking
Traffickers are known to exploit potential victims’ vulnerabilities during recruitment and employ deception and manipulation which quickly escalates into violence. Many victims, therefore, belong to extremely poor households, dysfunctional families, have been abandoned with no parental care or portray some kind of risk-behavior.
The “Loverboy” method
The “Loverboy” method is a form of recruitment used by traffickers, in particular when it comes to sex trafficking of minor girls. The traffickers operate by trying to make vulnerable young girls or boys fall in love with them. Once they have the victims under their influence, they exploit them, for instance in the sex industry. During the last few years, social media has provided loverboys with new ways to establish contacts and create relationships with young girls and boys and persuade them to leave their communities. The Loverboy method is mainly reported in Eastern European countries, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Albania but also in Nigeria and Germany.
Another form of exploitation that has recently been reported in central and northern European countries is peer-exploitation and involves commodification of girls’ bodies for petty cash, often referred to as pocket money. The perpetrators are children themselves, and according to law enforcement some of them have no prior sexual experience, and the victims do not necessarily belong to a risk group or demonstrate any risk behavior. This phenomenon seems to indicate a shift in attitudes amongst youth towards a normalization of the commercialization of girls’ bodies and reports indicate that the easy access to, and normilization of, sexist and harmful gender stereotypical pornography, has contributed to a rise in young women and girls ending up in risky and exploitative situations on online platforms such as Only Fans.
Technological advancement has further exposed millions of children to traffickers. As more and more people access the internet, the trafficking, abuse and exploitation of children is no longer restricted to physical arenas but can be executed or facilitated anywhere at any time. Keeping abreast with technological shifts, traffickers now use the internet to operate in multiple locations at the same time. While adults are targeted through free-standing webpages, due to its high level of anonymity and widespread use by children, social media is often used to target them. The accelerating use of digital tools by traffickers puts enormous stress on the slow-moving laws and regulations in society, thereby transforming the online space into an arena where perpetrators can reach and exploit children with very limited consequences.
Furthermore, use of technology like deepfake is putting children at risk of being duped into performing sexual acts in front of a camera for an adult perpetrator. Through morphed images and videos created by deepfake technology, perpetrators can make unsuspecting children believe that they are talking to and engaging in sexual activity online with someone their own age, when in fact, a perpetrator is watching and often recording them on the other side.
Human trafficking, and especially that involving children, remains to be one of the most underreported crimes globally and real figures could be much higher. One of the reasons is the difficulties in victim identification and too many cases go unreported.