2022 04 08
Report on the Child10 and CBSS co-organized side-event to the OSCE 22nd Conference of the Alliance Against Trafficking in Persons on:
ENSURING A CHILD RIGHTS-BASED APPROACH IN IDENTIFYING AND PROVIDING ACCESS TO SERVICES AND JUSTICE FOR CHILD VICTIMS OF TRAFFICKING AND COMMERCIAL SEXUAL EXPLOITATION
Recent studies show an alarming increase in trafficking and sexual exploitation of children and perpetrators are constantly finding new ways of exploiting children. One of the fastest growing arenas for trafficking and sexual exploitation of children is the internet, and technology is increasingly being misused by human traffickers during all the stages of the crime, including recruitment, control, and exploitation of victims.
Technology facilitated trafficking of children poses new challenges both in terms of identification of victims and consequently also their access to services and justice, in part because legal definitions of human trafficking can be an obstacle for applying the official human trafficking framework to victims of online trafficking. Improved early identification and lowering the threshold for access to services and justice for victims who are without official victim status is therefore vital to ensure the rights and needs of child victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Against this background, the need to systematise the services of victims of THB in the form of National and Transnational Referral Mechanisms is crucial, as well as integrating child friendly procedures in these mechanisms to ensure that children are properly protected and assisted.
This amplifies the need for strengthening the international collaboration between frontline officers, social workers and civil society organisations as well as clarifying the role and responsibilities of internet service providers.
During the event, a variety of viewpoints were presented to enhance our collective understanding of how trafficking and sexual exploitation of children is happening both offline and online and how victim identification and access to services can be improved. The speakers also addressed the cross-national aspect of child trafficking and sexual exploitation and how to improve outreach efforts and identification of victims as well as the need to enhance cross-border and cross-sectoral collaboration and cooperation.
The opening remarks were delivered by Mr. Valiant Richey, the OSCE Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings. Mr. Richey highlighted the alarming increase in the rate of child trafficking from 13% to 34% during the last 15 years, despite efforts on part of all stakeholders. He stressed the need to develop better systems, mechanisms and frameworks that would specifically address protection and assistance measures for trafficked children and for states to find durable solutions for all children keeping their best interests in mind. To achieve this, Mr. Richey emphasised the need for cross-border collaboration to ensure smooth information exchange about each and every case. He mentioned the OSCE publication on Establishing National Focal Points to Protect Child Victims of Trafficking in Human Beings as a useful tool which can help states in their cross-border communication.
He also talked about the safety of children and adults in the online space and made reference to the recent OSCE publication, Policy responses to technology-facilitated trafficking in human beings, which provides an analysis of how technology-facilitated trafficking has been approached with regards to policy and legislation within the OSCE region and highlights the shortcomings in the current approach allowing tech companies to self-regulate with voluntary compliance and provides a set of recommendations for states to combat technology facilitated trafficking while respecting privacy and freedom of expression rights.
Morgane Nicot, the Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Knowledge Development and Innovation Team Leader at UNODC was asked the following question during the panel debate:
“In light of recent developments on how child trafficking is occurring, and in particular technology-facilitated trafficking, how relevant is the Palermo Protocol today and how can practitioners in the official sector as well the CSO sector use existing international human rights instruments in this field?”
Ms. Nicot explained the continued relevance of international human rights instruments and framework in the field of child trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation as it sets a common definition and standards for all states. Since the protocol is an international instrument, it sets a minimum framework for all states and sets clearly the liability for human trafficking. She, however, noted obstacles in ensuring minority status for children which is not always possible or easy. Therefore, one of the issues that needs to be addressed is to have a presumption that the victim is a minor whenever a doubt exists.
She also noted that during the past year, there has been an alarming increase in the use of internet for trafficking which is directly linked to the Covid19 pandemic and online platforms are increasingly being targeted for litigation regarding their role in hosting and promoting human trafficking material and most notably producing the form of online sexual exploitation. Ms. Nicot stated that at the global level, the UNODC is supporting state efforts to develop a new international instrument which would address cybercrime and will be quite relevant going forward.
Finally, she stressed that there are numerous international frameworks and instruments which are directly applicable to children being exploited online but for them to be effective, there is a need for a sound and effective national legal framework to support implementation and follow through.
The following speaker, the EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, Diane Schmitt, was asked by the moderator:
Cross-border cooperation can be very challenging: As the EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, how can these challenges be addressed, in general, and in relation to children fleeing Ukraine specifically?
Ms. Schmitt emphasised the need to prioritise a child-rights based approach especially given the current circumstances facing Europe. She talked about the crime of human trafficking being a borderless crime and highlighted the alarming numbers of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine with half of the nearly 4.1 million refugees fleeing being children, of which 3500 have been registered as unaccompanied minors. She also noted that cross-border cooperation can be challenging esp. given the situation but highlighted the active and timely efforts of the EU in facilitating cross-border and cross sectoral cooperation as well as continued monitoring and exchange of information to put measures in place to reduce risks and vulnerabilities and increase protection of children. At the same time, she also stressed the importance of working with civil society organisations in the fight against human trafficking who are on the ground and have valuable expertise and information.
In addition to providing critical information and support, Ms. Schmitt highlighted the importance of registering all children so they can be followed across borders and throughout Europe as well as registering those who offer services to refugees. She talked about the need to train law enforcement authorities and border police to improve identification and ensure that victims are provided the help and support in a timely manner.
Ms. Schmitt also highlighted the importance of monitoring the situation online since we have signs that recruitment is increasingly taking place online. She also explained that the EU Commission is currently working on a common Anti-Trafficking Plan to further increase coordination and add to the robust legal framework on prevention, detection, protection, support to victims and prosecution of traffickers.
With regards to commercial sexual exploitation online, she also mentioned an upcoming legislation that will clarify the role and responsibilities of companies possibly including targeted obligations requiring relevant companies to detect and report child sexual abuse material online to relevant public authorities. The Commission is also going to propose the creation of an EU Center to prevent and combat child sexual abuse.
The third speaker, Edi Mujaj, a Senior Adviser in the Task Force against Trafficking in Human Beings at the Council of the Baltic Sea States was asked:
In your experience working with governments in the Baltic Sea Region specifically and supporting them in their Anti-Trafficking work, what are the main obstacles for governments to introduce the necessary protection mechanisms for children?
Mr. Mujaj stressed that the mechanisms for children do not exist or that those mechanisms and child friendly procedures are not integrated with each other to the extent needed. Therefore, it is important for states to set up functioning National Referral Mechanisms (NRMs) with a clear child rights-based approach and to allocate earmarked resources for it, particularly for law enforcement so that investigations can be completed. He also emphasised the role of the EU in assisting or guiding the member states on how to set up NRMs.
He further stressed the need to involve various stakeholders, particularly survivors and civil society organisations when setting up NRMs. In addition, he noted that law enforcement and other agencies sometimes lack sensitivity when it comes to the exploitation of children as there are still notions on what a victim should look like and how they should behave which becomes an obstacle in identifying victims and supporting them. Mr. Mujaj also made reference to the Barnahus model and noted that it is not being implemented in the way that it should and mentioned an upcoming project of the CBSS which will explore how child friendly procedures such as the Barnahus model can be integrated with National Referral Mechanisms. For information about the Barnahus model, you may refer to the report here which focuses on whether Barnahus, or Barnahus like services, currently do or might play a role both in enhancing the identification, support and assistance provided to children who may have been trafficked and in supporting criminal investigations into cases of child trafficking.
The next speaker, Nadine Finch, an Associate at Child Circle was asked:
From your practical and research background, how can we improve the child rights based approach in National Referral Mechanisms (NRMs) – and especially when it comes to children on the move?
Ms. Finch shared insights from her practical and research experience. Amongst other things, she discussed how the NRMs today are insufficient due to several reasons. One is that the NRMs are often embedded in other systems like the system for child protection or common justice. This makes it difficult to see the full picture of the situation of the child trafficked which can lead to lack of identification. She also highlighted the fact that the lack of cooperation between professionals from different sectors such as the police force, the social services etc. is making the identification processes more difficult due to the fact that the different professionals have different insights and understandings of trafficking processes that needs to be applied together for a more durable identification and support system. For example she explained that a social worker might have a higher chance to identify a child trafficked for sexual exploitation due to the fact that they meet child victims of sexual abuse in their role but might not identify a victim of exploitation of other forms.
Talking of solutions to improve the child rights-based approach in NRMs, Ms. Finch again stressed the importance of collaboration between different sectors and professions. She highlighted the Barnahus model, where different professions such as the police, social services and health care sector are gathered in the same location to facilitate support to the child victim. She pointed out the need for cooperation and collaboration across sectors and professions is essential to ensure that all relevant stakeholders are specialised and equipped with the knowledge, skills and data to identify the needs of trafficked children and be able to provide reasonable, adequate and adapted support to them.
Tomislav Ramljak, the Executive Director of Center for Missing and Exploited Children Croatia and Child10 Awarded Member 2022 was asked by the moderator:
What do you find are the main challenges in child victims of trafficking’s access to services and justice, in particular in regards to the growing online dimension, and how is the cooperation between the CSO sector and the official sector in this field based on your experience
Mr. Ramljak expressed that victims of sexual exploitation are not treated in the same way as victims of other forms of violence. He identified that a major challenge for child victims when it comes to accessing services is classifying the crime as trafficking which would grant the child more rights than if the crime were classified differently.
He mentioned that the penalty for crimes of sexual exploitation against children via the internet are quite small, particularly in Croatia, which can often take the form of community service, probation or minimum imprisonment. He stressed that there is a need for additional training of prosecutors and judges in cases involving technology as well as a need to highlight the severity of the trauma of sexual exploitation of children online. With evidence of children not previously identified as belonging to a risk group becoming victims, Mr. Ramljak emphasised the need for better cooperation between the state and civil society organisations as an important first step in addressing the problem as well as increasing awareness and prevention work.
The final speaker, Gabriella Kärnekull Wolfe, who is a Survivor leader and the new Swedish Ombudsman against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, was asked:
What do you find is key when talking about improving the official protection system for child victims and children at risk?”
Ms. Kärnekull Wolfe emphasized the need for survivor inclusion in order to benefit from their first-hand knowledge of the reality of commercial sexual exploitation and the obstacles that victims face when trying to access protection, support and justice.
She also expressed the need to view all children as children up until the age of 18 and to give them equal rights to support and protection, irrespective of the circumstances around their exploitation, ethnicity, gender and age. This is especially true for older children whose exploitation is far too often viewed as something the child engages in of free will. This highlights an attitude problem in society but also a judicial problem seen in most countries’ criminal law where the exploitation of older children is investigated under laws on prostitution rather than laws on trafficking and sexual abuse. This results in victims not receiving crucial protection and support services.
Finally, Ms. Kärnekull Wolfe stressed that all the efforts and mechanisms in place to combat commercial sexual exploitation of children will fail if only some victims are viewed as victims and assistance is only offered to those who meet the standard of the perfect victim.
Questions & Answers Session
The panel discussion was followed by a brief questions and answers session. Some of the questions that the panel had time to address included,
1. Why have governments been hesitant in holding private sector tech companies accountable for misuses of their platforms for exploitation and trafficking and what role civil society can play in this regard?
Responding to the question, Mr. Richey highlighted the following reasons for the historical lack of political will to regulate tech companies: 1) the prioritisation of “freedom to innovate” – in other words the belief that regulation would stifle innovation by the private sector 2) strong lobbying by some segments of the tech sector; 3) prioritisation of specific ideas about privacy which has typically manifested as consumer privacy rather than prioritisation of privacy rights of exploited children. However, making reference to the recent OSCE publication addressing technology-facilitated trafficking, he expressed that there is an accelerating shift towards state-led regulation.
2. What measures can be taken on an international level to protect children and youth from the harmful effects of pornography consumption considering that pornography is so easily accessible online?
Responding to the question, Ms. Nicot mentioned that discussions were underway to address this issue, however, concrete measures have not yet been identified. Mr. Richey highlighted the need to introduce and implement better and broader age verification systems so children do not end up on sites that host harmful content. He also stressed that this is not only a tech company problem but one that relates to societal and educational systems. He stressed the need for societal engagement such as early childhood education, robust education around gender equality and mainstreaming open communication around consent and equality throughout educational systems.
3. Can a common procedure to determine the age of children be put in place for those who have no personal documents?
Responding to the question, Mr. Richey acknowledged the need to have certain principles in place to guide this issue. He stressed that in cases of doubt, there needs to be a presumption that the victim is a child rather than a presumption that they are an adult as the mistake of categorising a child as an adult has far worse implications. Unfortunately, this is often not done in practice as there is a trend in some countries of focusing on the potential abuse of such systems rather than focusing on the best interests of the potential child.
Ms. Nicot echoed Mr. Richey’s response, and further added that, especially when it comes to trans-regional movements, the process is now going beyond just technical tests to include culturally sensitive and psychological assessments as well. However, down the line, all the processes should be focused on protecting the victims assuming that they are children as long as there is any doubt that they might be.
If you wish to watch the event you find it published here.