Is independent child migration a form of child trafficking?

By Mark Capaldi, Head of Research and Policy for ECPAT International.

A question I repeatedly get asked in my work is, how many trafficked children are there in the world? To be honest, I have a standard response that recounts the challenges of accurately estimating the nature of this underground, criminal activity.

Much of my professional life has been spent working on issues around ‘child sex trafficking’, visiting rescue, recovery and reintegration projects, overseeing research projects. It’s a huge and alarming issue.

Mother and son share a seat on the Manila to Bulacan bus. It's common for a child to sit on their parent's lap to make room for more passengers.
Mother and son share a seat on the Manila to Bulacan bus. It’s common for a child to sit on their parent’s lap to make room for more passengers. (c) Flickr / Creative Commons

Yet at the back of my mind – as I read the myriad of UN and NGO reports that graphically depict the coercion, violence and abuse that these children suffer – is whether there is another side to the story? Is the significant movement of children in search of work just automatically assumed to be child trafficking?

I decided to do a PhD and spent five years studying independent child migration in Thailand. I was looking at children 15 years or older (generally the legal age that they can work) who have voluntarily migrated, mainly from Cambodia and Myanmar, looking for a better life.

I was fortunate to be able to interview 76 children and youth and virtually all of them had crossed the border into Thailand without the right legal documents (called ‘irregular migration’). As most of these children ended up in poorly paid jobs often working long hours without much time off, the work would be considered exploitative.

As they are still children then by international legal standards they would therefore automatically be classified as child trafficked victims. But this was not how these children saw themselves.

Through listening to their stories I realized how much they valued their migratory experience – they were able to earn money to send home to their families and they felt that they were learning new skills; in their own words, they seemed happy and they were clearly demonstrating significant levels of resilience, competencies and agency. And as I carried out my research I realized that there were thousands of similar children working in restaurants, factories or even construction sites that felt the same way.

Of course, I do not wish to minimize the vulnerabilities and dangers that children can face in their migratory journey or to deny the presence of awful exploitation and worst forms of labour that these children can so often fall victim too. But I also learnt there is a large cohort of migrant children who have positive experiences. Migration and trafficking is on a continuum with the worst forms of trafficking at one end.

Perhaps we need to look beyond the stereotypical assumptions to not automatically label all migrant children as trafficked so that our anti-trafficking efforts are more focused and targeted on those who really need it whilst other child migrants can benefit from more safer and legal approaches to seeking work.

View Mark Capaldi’s research findings here (PDF).

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