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Kids As Traffickers
May 11, 2022

When we think of child trafficking, we generally assume the trafficker is an older adult who preys on minors. That has typically been the case, with ages primarily ranging from traffickers in their 20s to in their 60s. However, our peers in the anti-trafficking field in South East Asia have reported that they are seeing an emerging trend of younger people becoming involved – as perpetrators. 

Let’s take a deeper look at…

Kids as Offenders

Our peers in counter-trafficking have noticed an increase in cases where the offenders are young. They can be sometimes as young as 15, 16, or 17 years of age. The early, tentative observation is that these juvenile offenders generally come from very poor socio-economic backgrounds. They live in poverty, they come from broken homes, they might be ethnic minorities suffering from discrimination that makes it more difficult to find work, and/or they may have family pressures pushing them to find ways to earn money. They stumble on sex work as a way to make money quickly, and they want to offer similar opportunities to friends who share the same pressures.

It’s an issue that has gotten very little attention and deserves more systematic study. But if true, it’s both a worrying trend and also one that makes a lot of intuitive sense. We already know that people are often trafficked by someone they know and trust, so it makes sense that traffickers, in general, might come from similar backgrounds as their victims. It’s even possible that what makes people vulnerable to becoming victims could make them susceptible to becoming perpetrators, and the difference might come down to something like which opportunity presents itself.

In the case of juvenile offenders, many might not have enough knowledge or awareness of what trafficking means, that what they’re doing constitutes trafficking, or what the consequences or penalties of their actions might be. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions – obviously, they should be.

But it does raise a question.

Could Prevention Be Used to Counter Both?

Thus far, prevention efforts, including our own, have focused entirely on preventing people from becoming victims. But what if prevention programs could also be tailored to help prevent people from becoming offenders

There are tentative shifts in the conversation, as some practitioners in the field begin to consider what prevention could look like from the perpetrator’s side: for example, teaching youth about what trafficking means, providing resources so they don’t have to turn to trafficking to survive, and raising awareness about the laws and penalties as a deterrent. 

And again, this is an issue that requires a lot more information and better data to know the dynamics more deeply. We want to know how prevalent the problem of youth offenders is. We want to know what kind of backgrounds they come from, their motives, and their pathway into trafficking. If it’s possible to intervene before it happens, we want to know what effective interventions entail.

If further research bears out what preliminary trends suggest, then this could really broaden our understanding of trafficking as a whole. Prevention efforts could become even more robust. And it could strengthen the imperative to counter larger problems like poverty, ethnic discrimination, gender disparities, and childhood abuse.


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