O’Connell Davidson, J.: Child Migration, Child Rights and Child Trafficking, 2012

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The ‘trafficked’ child has become increasingly visible in public and policy discourse on the suffering of children who move about the contemporary world. Despite the absence of reliable statistical evidence on the phenomenon (Feingold, 2010), the immense scale of child trafficking is routinely declared in governmental and non-governmental publications on the issue, and anti-trafficking campaigners paint a picture of a world in which millions of children are being torn from their homes, then raped, beaten, brutalised and sexualised by organised criminal gangs. This is an emotionally moving picture. Governments, international agencies, child rights agencies and NGOs have expended huge amounts of money, time and energy on combating child trafficking; politicians from across the political spectrum publicly condemn it and call for action against it; large companies and A-list celebrities lend their backing to campaigns against it; ordinary people donate money to help fight it. But other children whose movement is associated with suffering, even death, do not attract the same attention and concern.

Not-so-moving children

The introduction of ever more restrictive immigration policies and tighter border controls by affluent, migrant-receiving countries has led to the emergence of a growing market for clandestine migration services. Many children as well as adults depend on such services, whether they are fleeing to seek asylum or moving for other reasons. Not all forms of clandestine migration are physically dangerous, but death during transit is nonetheless the starkest risk to many irregular migrants. Between 1993 and 2011, the organisation UNITED for Intercultural Action documented 15,551 deaths of refugees and migrants attributable ‘to border militarisation, asylum laws, detention policies, deportations and carrier sanctions’ (UNITED, 2011). Their data are not fully disaggregated by age, but nonetheless show that children are amongst the dead. It is also estimated that between 3,861 and 5,607 people, adult and child, died in the fifteen years up to 2009 as a result of the US Government’s border security policies on the US-Mexico border. More children dying while border crossing was one of the significant trends revealed by a review of deaths of children who were Mexican or Central American residents and who died in Pima County, Arizona during the years 1995–2004 (Bowen and Marshall, 2008). Rape and sexual exploitation is another risk faced by children and women migrating by irregular channels.

Once in the country of destination, irregular migrant children continue to be at risk of physical and psychological harm, not only or always from the criminal gangs that feature in dominant discourse on ‘child trafficking’, but from state actors. Migrant children are held in detention centres which are widely recognised as unsuitable for children; there have been reports of police violence against migrants in detention, including attacks against children and of children being beaten with batons and electrical cables, held in ‘punishment cells’ for up to a week without adequate bedding and sometimes without access to a toilet; of children locked in for 22 hours a day and denied access to education; of children dying as a result of lack of medical treatment, fires, and suicide. Cases of families being separated in detention centres, and of breastfeeding mothers being detained separately from their babies have also been reported (Fekete, 2007).

Children with migrant parents whose immigration status is irregular may witness violence perpetrated against their parents, and may indeed be subject to it themselves, in the process of deportation proceedings. Even without actual violence, deportation is a terrifying experience. And where much research and policy attention has been devoted to the forced movement of children across borders through ‘trafficking’, very little has been paid to the forcible return of child migrants to their countries of origin by state actors. This happens to several different groups of child migrants: those who are deported with their families; those who are deported on their own; and those who have been identified as VoTs, but who are not deemed to be at risk of further rights violations upon return to their home country. Even when child VoTs are involved, such decisions are not always monitored, and data on what happens to children after they have been returned is not routinely gathered (Bloch and Schuster, 2005; Dugan, 2010).

Undocumented migrants, both adult and child, are one of the groups facing the greatest risks of poverty and social exclusion in Europe today (PICUM, 2007). Whether they are with their parents or not, ‘illegality’ represents a barrier to education, services, justice and social protection, and exposes children to additional harms from state actors (Bloch and Zetter, 2009). The list of harms that migrant children and the children of migrants can endure could go on, and extends to those who are legally present in the country of destination but still disadvantaged and deprived of equal protection, education and opportunity by discrimination and racism, as well as to the suffering experienced by children left in the country of origin when their parents initially migrated or fled, and subsequently forced to remain apart from their parents by immigration regimes that deny them rights to family reunion (Madziva, 2010).

The point is that children who migrate, especially if they move through irregular channels, can be exposed to many of the same risks and dangers that anti-child-trafficking campaigners identify as the harms of trafficking – violence; sexual abuse; HIV infection; forcible separation from their family; incarceration in appalling conditions. They too can be terrorized, driven by fear, face discrimination, suffer psychologically, experience low self-esteem and suicidal feelings. Summing up the wrongness of trafficking, Unicef (2007) states ‘Not only does trafficking violate every child's right to be protected and grow up in a family, it also deprives them of education and opportunity’. But immigration regimes can also do all of this to a child and more. Why are the harms inflicted on children by traffickers so much more loudly decried than those resulting from immigration policies?

Children, Migration, Rights and Agency

To speak of child migrants is to bring together two very different cultural categories – the child and the migrant. Children are typically imagined as defined by their innocence, passivity, dependence and vulnerability. ‘Immigrants’, by contrast, especially ‘illegal immigrants’, are popularly attributed with agency, also with cunning and other negative qualities. Dominant discourse on ‘child trafficking’ circumvents the collision of these two incongruous sets of stereotypes by establishing trafficked children as real children and not migrants – they are described as having been removed, transported and put to use – i.e., as passive objects, not active subjects. Trafficked children are presented as deserving special and particular care and protection because they (unlike the stereotypical migrant) are non-agential, vacant, and inert. They are ‘unwilling or unknowing victims’ (Unicef, 2010). Indeed, migration is now often explicitly rejected as the background context for the ‘trafficked’ child’s situation by NGOs and policy-makers, who instead frame trafficking as ‘child abuse’.

When making claims about the vast size of the problem, anti-trafficking campaigners list the many different settings in which trafficked children are found (labour exploitation, domestic servitude, enforced criminal activity, illegal adoption, underage, servile or forced marriage, benefit fraud, etc.). However, almost without exception, they also emphasise the link between ‘child trafficking’ and sexual exploitation by starting that list with child prostitution. This is not because there is any evidence to support the idea that trafficked children are to be found in huge numbers in the sex industry, but rather because a focus on migrant children in prostitution helps to unequivocally construct the children concerned as passive victims, and allows campaigners to draw parallels between their situation and that of children who are physically and sexually abused. Framing trafficking as ‘child abuse’ obviates the need to engage with difficult questions about children’s choices, preferences and interests. It can be stated with absolute certainty that no child would ever choose to be battered or raped, and that no child would ever be better off being battered and raped abroad than they would be if they remained at home. But do these absolute certainties really apply to the millions of children that Unicef and others describe as ‘trafficked’?

In anti-trafficking campaign materials, the bad things that happen to children occur once they have been separated from their family. This suggests that trafficked children are taken from an environment within which they were free from exploitation, their dignity was protected, and their physical and mental development assured. Yet research on the factors that make children ‘vulnerable to trafficking’ invariably points to the very opposite conclusion, linking that vulnerability to having been orphaned, sexually and physically abused, forced into marriages, victims of police and social brutality, caught up in war, and/or being poor, lacking education, vocational skills and job opportunities. These are pretty much identical to the factors that have more generally been identified as triggering children’s independent migration (Whitehead and Hashim, 2006), and migration even into what are, in absolute terms, poor and exploitative working conditions can improve rather than diminish some children’s life-chances. Labour migration can, for example, allow children to escape settings in which they enjoy few of the basic rights set out in the CRC and are expected to undertake extensive and heavy labour without pay for their own families.

Certainly, children can be exposed to abuse and exploitation during the migratory passage and at the point of destination, but this is not the experience of all child migrants, and even those who are poorly treated may still end up living and working in conditions that they regard as preferable to those they left. To condemn all forms of independent child migration as ‘child trafficking’ would be to pathologize and penalize a means by which many children access a range of benefits that would otherwise be unavailable to them, as well as to entirely discount the views of many migrant children themselves. And yet without a neutral, standard measure of ‘exploitation’ it is not easy to draw clean lines between ‘child trafficking’ and other forms of movement. As a result, in a number of contexts, barriers to all forms of independent child migration have been set in place in the name of protecting children from trafficking.

Detaching ‘trafficking’ from migration, invoking ‘child abuse’, and contrasting the condition of ‘trafficked’ children against abstract universal ideals rather than the situation that they actually left obscures the potentially positive effects of migration. It encourages policy measures that further restrict the opportunities of those children whose life chances are already most limited (Bastia, 2005; Kapur, 2005). Behind such measures is also the assumption that children must always better off staying at home with their families. But for children who belong to families that are unable to protect and support them until the age of 18, or whose parents are abusive and neglectful, and who live in a society that does not have the means to support a welfare system that can supplement or substitute for poor parents, the right to leave the family and to independent existence may be more important than the right to grow up in a family. Equally it should be noted that parents or guardians who are debarred from social rights, or whose social rights are highly circumscribed because of their immigration status, are not in a position to mediate their children’s access to education, health care, justice, and other protections. What good is it to assert a child’s right to be dependent if their adult carers can be refused social rights of citizenship?


The hyper-visibility of ‘child trafficking’ and the invisibility of other harms to child migrants in policy discussion mirrors and reinforces a preoccupation with human rights violations that result from the intentional acts of other individuals (Benton, 2006: 28). Border deaths, the suffering of children and parents forced apart by immigration rules and/or denied access to health care, education, decent and safe housing and working conditions etc., are not legible as rights violations, but rather appear as the ‘collateral damage’ of immigration policies that were not specifically designed with these ends in view. Challenging this perception is not easy in the current political climate. Popular sentiment about migration in many European countries could be caricatured as ‘immigration controls good, immigration bad’. Child trafficking talk plays to this simplistic formulation as it renders invisible both the positive aspects of migration for children, and the damage done to children by immigration policy. But children’s rights as set out in the CRC are held to be universal and are underpinned by the principles of non-discrimination and the best interests of the child. The child whose rights are violated as a consequence of a state’s efforts to maintain sovereignty and manage immigration ought to matter as much as the child whose rights are purposefully violated by an individual actor. Those concerned to promote the rights of the child need to make, not evade, this argument.


Bastia, T. (2005) ‘Child trafficking or teenage migration? Bolivian migrants in Argentina’, International Migration, 43: 4.

Benton, T. (2006) ‘Do we need rights? If so, what sort?’ in L. Morris (ed) Rights. London: Routledge.

Bloch, A. and Schuster, L. (2005) ‘At the extremes of exclusion: Deportation, detention and dispersal’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 28:3, 491-512.

Bloch, A. and Zetter, R. (2009) No Right to Dream: The social and economic lives of young undocumented migrants in Britain. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Bowen, K. and Marshall, W. (2007) ‘Deaths of Mexican and Central American children along the US border: The Pima County Arizona experience’, Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 10: 1, pp 17-21.

Dugan, E. (2010) ‘Children deported from UK alone with no safety checks’, Independent, April 11.

Feingold, D. (2010) ‘Trafficking in numbers: The social construction of human trafficking data’, in P. Andreas and K. Greenhill (eds) Sex, Drugs and Body Counts. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press.

Fekete, L. (2007) ‘Detained: Foreign children in Europe’, Race & Class, 49: 1, pp 93-104.

Kapur, R. (2005) Erotic Justice: Law and the new politics of postcolonialism, London: Glasshouse.

Madziva, R. (2010) ‘Living death: Separation in the UK’, Forced Migration Review, No. 34.

Unicef, (2007)  Child Trafficking: More Precious than Gold www.unicef.org.uk/campaigns/campaign_detail.asp?campaign=2&thesource=yt

Unicef (2010) End Child Exploitation, http://www.unicef.org.uk/campaigns/campaign_sub_pages.asp?page=3

UNITED (2010) United for Intercultural Action: European network against nationalism, racism and fascism, and in support of migrants and refugees. www.unitedagainstracism.org

Whitehead, A. and Hashim, I. (2005) Children and Migration. Background paper for DFID Migration Team. Unpublished.

This paper summarises the argument developed in O’Connell Davidson, J. (2011) ‘Moving children: Child trafficking, child migration and child rights’, Critical Social Policy, 31, pp 454-477.

Julia O’Connell Davidson, University of Nottingham, 2012