Human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children is a major and growing crime throughout the world. As more and more people access the internet, the trafficking, abuse and exploitation of children is not restricted to physical arenas but can be executed or facilitated anywhere at any time. The accelerating use of digital tools by traffickers puts enormous stress on the slow-moving laws and regulations in society. This is making the online sphere an arena where perpetrators can reach and exploit children with very limited consequences. Children’s rights are violated through the loopholes in the law – making them slip through the safety net that are supposed to stop the abuser and create a safe environment for the child.

UN Office on Drugs and CrimeUNODC reports that an estimated one-third of all victims of human trafficking in the world are children and economic recession due to the pandemic will make them even more vulnerable (2021). The UN also states that the socio economic crises caused by the pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities and vulnerabilities of the most disadvantaged children which has amplified the risk of them being exposed to trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Trafficking of children is a heinous crime comprising of two distinct stages: the Act and the Purpose. The Act is the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or reception of a child, including the exchange or transfer of control of the child” and the purpose is “exploitation”. Globally countries are detecting and reporting more victims of human trafficking. A growing concern in the work against human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children is the use of online channels  which  provide perpetrators new ways of abuse and trafficking opportunities.

It is also estimated that one-third of all  internet users worldwide are children. This widespread use coupled with the ease of exploitation online creates an unsafe environment for children and makes them easy targets for perpetrators online; over the last decade, extensive internet integration in daily life and expanding use of mobile devices have enabled offenders to misuse technology with the aim to contact, groom and abuse children.

In 2018 Facebook made 16.8 million reports to the US National Center for Missing Exploited Children – more than 90 percent of the total amount of reports that year. These referrals included, besides child abuse images and videos, more than 8000 reports related to attempts by offenders to groom children online to, among other things, meet and abuse them in person.

Europol reports that there have been increased opportunities for perpetrators online during the pandemic as children are more vulnerable due to isolation, less supervision and greater online exposure. According to members of ECPAT International, restrictions imposed by governments to curb the virus have had a heavy impact on children resulting in an  increase in trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation online as a result of facilitating communication technologies; The technologies have enabled live streaming of abuse, grooming and commercial and non-commercial sexual exploitation.

Given the ease of access to vulnerable potential victims, the online arena has thus become a procurator that connects the perpetrator with the victim. The online arenas also provide new ways of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children such as the purchase of live-streams to view children being abused  in real time. In these cases children are being trafficked and abused live by a perpetrator on screen and the abuse is streamed by thousands of perpetrators behind the screen.

Another issue in this online exploitation of children is the risk of documentation of the abuses in images and films that are spread throughout the internet – causing the children to relive their abuse over and over again.

In 2019 reports of child sexual abuse had reached nearly 17 million cases worldwide, and new reports state that the pandemic has exacerbated the situation even more. Europol has reported an increase in online activity by perpetrators during the outbreak of COVID-19. After most of the countries in Europe introduced different levels of lockdowns, national child helplines in European countries reported an increase in reports of exploitation of children.

Trafficking and sexual exploitation of children, exacerbated by online arenas, needs to be comprehensively addressed by all actors. During early 2021 the EU Commission has released the new EU Strategy on Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings 2021-2025 that emphasizes the importance of tackling the digital business model of traffickers as the Covid-19 pandemic has led to traffickers increasingly moving online for every phase of trafficking. Also, the new EU strategy on the rights of the child 2021- 2024, underlines the increase of how “…traffickers use Internet platforms to recruit and exploit victims, children being a particularly vulnerable target group”.

Ending this heinous crime is one of the most urgent issues of our time and can only be eradicated by a collaborative approach where different sectors work together in strong partnerships. Therefore in 2022, Child10 will focus on how online arenas affect modern trafficking and sexual exploitation of children and support organizations throughout Europe who are dedicated to ending and preventing these issues and protecting the victims as well as children at risk.