Strong empirical and anecdotal evidence reveals that human traffickers view children that lack families as the ideal target. The 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report from the US Department of State offers a particularly vivid picture of this reality worldwide.
The annual report again underscores a simple truth: if we care about human trafficking, one powerful way to turn abstract indignation into concrete action is to welcome orphaned children and foster youth into consistent relationships and loving homes.
The report again highlights a wide range of trafficking risks around the world, from forced labor to sexual exploitation. Page by page, the reader is confronted with the world at its most broken…as well as hopeful trends as governments, NGOs and leaders seek to combat this evil.
The immense vulnerability of children who have been left without parental care – whether as a result of death, abandonment, neglect or incapacity – is inescapable. Consider this sampling of quotes from country-level analysis:
- Burkina Faso: Burkinabe children—including orphan street children—are transported to Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and Niger for forced labor or sex trafficking.
- Burundi: Traffickers exploit orphaned girls, often using underage males as facilitators.
- Cambodia. [Children in exploitative orphanages] are at further risk of sex trafficking and domestic servitude as a result of poor government oversight of adoption processes.
- Cameroon. Criminals subject homeless children and orphans to sex trafficking and forced labor in urban areas.
- Croatia. …[T]raffickers targeting children from state orphanages…
- Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). Traffickers exploit Swati girls, particularly orphans, in sex trafficking and domestic servitude, primarily in Eswatini and South Africa.
- Haiti. A study released in 2018 found significant numbers of children in orphanages are likely victims of trafficking.
- Hungary. Children in state-run homes or orphanages were vulnerable to trafficking, both while living in the home and upon their required departure at age 18.
- Iraq. Iranian and Afghan refugee children, street children, and orphans in Iran are highly vulnerable to forced labor…Orphaned children are vulnerable to criminal begging rings that maim or seriously injure the children to gain sympathy from those passing on the street.
- Latvia. Children in state orphanages are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking.
- Lesotho: [T]raffickers increasingly exploit children, especially orphans who migrate to urban areas, in sex trafficking.
- Liberia: Orphaned children are vulnerable to exploitation, including in street selling and child sex trafficking.
- Lithuania: The approximately 2,800 children institutionalized in approximately 90 orphanages are especially vulnerable to trafficking.
- Malaysia: Traffickers exploit Malaysian orphans and children from refugee communities in forced begging.
- Moldova: Children, living on the street or in orphanages or left behind by parents migrating abroad, remain vulnerable to exploitation.
- Romania: Perennial problems of abuse and neglect of institutionalized children and the lack of proactive identification in government facilities left children in placement centers and orphanages vulnerable to trafficking.
- Russia: Traffickers lure minors from state and municipal orphanages to forced begging, forced criminality, child pornography, and sex trafficking, and use by armed groups in the Middle East.
- South Sudan: These groups, including orphaned children, are at increased risk of trafficking and other forms of exploitation within South Sudan and neighboring countries.
- Sri Lanka: The former head of the government’s National Child Protection Agency (NCPA) uncovered allegations that one state-run orphanage, in collaboration with tuk-tuk drivers, used children from the orphanage in a child sex trafficking ring.
- Thailand: Children in orphanages are vulnerable to trafficking.
- Ukraine: The approximately 104,000 children institutionalized in state-run orphanages are especially vulnerable to trafficking.
Of course, this danger faced by children outside of healthy families is not just in far off places. It lurks within the U.S. foster system, too. In testimony before Congress, a young woman who spent her childhood in U.S. foster care explained why children without families are so vulnerable. As “T” Ortiz described, “[T]raffickers/pimps/exploiters have no fear of punishment because they rely on the lack of attention that occurs when these young people go missing…There are no amber alerts, no posters, when youth from the foster care system go missing.”
Just as significant, the absence of consistent love and affirmation can make these young people all the more eager for the false affection and belonging that traffickers promise. “T” described this reality in heartbreaking words, explaining why she was so drawn to the man who exploited her. “For myself, as unfortunate as it is to say, the most consistent relationship I ever had in care was with my pimp and his family.”
This explains why studies consistently show that between 60 and 85 percent plus of child victims of trafficking in the US come from the foster system. Whether in the US or around the world, children growing up without families are the most vulnerable beings on the planet.
Of course, it is important to acknowledge – even as we point decisively toward the ideal of safe, nurturing family – that some residential care situations are vastly better than others. Likewise, in many parts of the world, residential care currently represents the best alternative to life on the streets or in an abusive home. Indeed, the Trafficking in Person Report mentions numerous cases where – however imperfect – local orphanages apparently represented a government’s best current resource for lodging children rescued from trafficking. Until we have established truly viable alternatives, simply closing orphanages may put children at risk of harm on the streets or in exploitative homes.
What we can express with confidence, however, is that social science, scripture, and common sense all point unequivocally toward family as the very best place for a child to grow. Safe, permanent, nurturing family must be our unequivocal goal for every child whenever that is possible. And when it isn’t, we must press toward solutions that are as close to that ideal as we can. Children that lack family have a trafficker’s bullseye painted on their backs.
But the opposite is also true: when a child has a strong relationship with a caring adult – and especially when they live within a permanent, loving family – human traffickers are far more likely to see them as out of reach.
If we care about human trafficking, we must care for orphaned children and foster youth.