Child trafficking: 'it can happen to anyone,' warns Geneva NGO

One child out of four is trafficked all over the world: 130 people are trafficked every hour worldwide and 80 per cent of them is children. (Credit: Youth Underground)

This month in Geneva, some streetcars bear the faces of children from seven to 18 taking part in a campaign for Youth Underground, the largest non-UN organisation working to prevent  human trafficking and focused on juveniles. The Swiss non-profit’s message is that trafficking “can happen to anyone at any time”, especially during this pandemic which it says has been a “dreamland for predators”.

Rasha Hammad, founder and chief executive of Youth Underground, told Geneva Solutions:

“People have the preconceived idea that it happens to people with a certain background, of not very high standards, less educated, mostly girls, minority groups, low income countries. That's not the case. It happens to boys, it happens to girls, it happens in all educational, economic and social levels. Everyone is at risk, even in a modern country like Switzerland.”

Why talk about youth trafficking? Human trafficking is the second largest and fastest growing criminal trade after arms, generating around $150m in illegal profits per year, according to the UN’s International Labour Organization. Some 130 people are trafficked every hour worldwide and the majority of them are children, with some as young as one month old, figures cited by Youth Underground show. In Switzerland, the illegal trade is also a prevalent problem, with an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 victims of human trafficking as young as 14 years old.

The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has also driven human trafficking increasingly underground. With 1.5 billion children studying online recent lockdowns have made it even easier for traffickers to be in touch with students of all ages. According to the 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report released by the US Department of State, predators have been able to capitalise on the chaos and find innovative ways to engage in conversations, exploit their image on porn sites or blackmail them.

What is human trafficking? There is much misinformation about what trafficking is, and can be broadly defined as the trade or exploitation of a person for money for somebody else's gain.

“The person who is trafficked is a commodity, a money-making machine for the trafficker,” says Hammad. “The difference between a human being and drugs is that you can only use drugs once and it’s over. But the thing about human trafficking which is so tragic is that a person can be used over and over again for a sex act and that makes money.”

Trafficking can take different forms:

  • Sex trafficking: Sexual exploitation is the biggest generator of money, earning around 66 per cent of the global profits of human trafficking. The ILO estimated that around 3.8 million adults and one million children were victims of sex trafficking in 2016 around the world. 

  • Labour: the latest Global Estimates by the International Labor Organization (ILO) indicate that 152 million children are in child labour globally: almost one in 10 worldwide. In cotton, cocoa or tobacco fields for instance very young children are used because their hands are small.

  • Domestic servitude: working at home with no time limits.

  • Organs sold on black markets for profit.

How do traffickers operate? The rise of digital technologies and the internet have given traffickers increasingly sophisticated means to exploit people, with children vulnerable. Websites, chat rooms, social media and online video games are all used by predators to recruit or groom children and teenagers, while being able to hide their identity. 

A person, for example, posts pictures on social media and is approached by someone with a fake profile who starts a “grooming” process to gain her or his trust, explains Hammad. Through their contact information, the trafficker may attempt to access their computer, and take images that will go viral on porn sites. In other instances, they may even succeed in luring the child into meeting in person. Hammad:

“It happened many times. I know a few survivors who have been through this process. It’s not a quick thing, after a few months they gain the trust of your child, they meet and once they’ve met they’re taken and they’re used.”

A voice for the youth. January is human trafficking prevention month in the United States but it resonates all around the world. Youth Underground, a firm believer of youth empowerment, believes children’s voices can be more powerful than any adult message. 

Back in 2010, when Rasha Hammad started working on children’s human rights for the NGO End Human Trafficking Now, where she created the first platform dedicated to their voices. She discovered a real need for a safe place to express themselves about anything related to human rights, be it bullying, self-esteem, abuse at home, or trafficking. The platform became Youth Underground. Based in Geneva, with teams in Europe and the US, the NGO works with organisations all over the world and visits schools and universities to raise awareness among students. 

Hammad says Youth Underground’s key words are education, empowerment and protection. “I truly think that a child with knowledge can make a difference. Some parents are scared that the facts can be too graphic but it’s happening whether you’re telling your child or not. Children are hungry for information. Knowing the truth is empowerment.”

One of the pictures of the campaign against youth ttrafficking: "Abusing a child is like killing him but letting him suffer all his life," says this poster. (Credit: Youth Underground / Nicholas Peart)

Youth Underground gives presentations in schools to kids from the age of 13 years old. But it would like to expand its presentations to a younger audience. Hammad:

“The youngest are the most vulnerable. We don’t need to be graphic about sex trafficking, we can have age appropriate conversations to teach them how to protect themselves.”

The non-profit also provides a platform for young people to spread the message to their peers, posting stories every Sunday on social media, for example, to help others understand how trafficking works and how to avoid it.

Jerome Elam, from Florida, for instance, came to Geneva two years ago upon Youth Underground’s invitation, to talk to children in schools. Exploited by the second husband of his mother at the age of five, he explained how he was trapped in a pedophile ring and abused by the same people, lawyers, priests or businessmen, he would see at church on Sundays. Hammad:

“There are stereotypes of what a trafficker looks like. It can be anyone, that’s the danger. We teach the basic signs of child security.”

Youth Underground also teaches children and parents how to recognise signs that their friend or child might be subject to abuse. For example, if a child is a loner all of a sudden, begins to neglect their appearance, shows an over-interest in sex, or is picked by strangers.

The organisation has also been advocating for tougher punishments for human trafficking. Traffickers in Switzerland, for example, get away on suspended sentences, instead of being sentenced to 20 years in prison, the maximum sentence for trafficking. Of the 22 convictions of human traffickers in Switzerland, only 11 resulted in prison time in 2016.

“Harsher punishment is what will make a difference because it's such an easy money. It’s big business so if traffickers know that they will only end up with one or two years in jail, they will just go on or have a middleman do the job for them. It’s money, power, and control.”