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Asia-Pacific: Confronting exploitation of children

Publish Date: 13 Feb 2006

Source: Bangkok Post
By Vitit Muntarbhorn

Confronting exploitation of children

Responding to the scourge of child labour and child trafficking in the Asia-Pacific region

Children locked up in brothels for sexual services. Children forced to work in sweatshops under hellish conditions. Children sold as camel jockeys. Child beggars manipulated by adult gangs. Children working as drug couriers. Children used as loans in debt bondage. Children forced into marriage. These are some of the examples of child labour today in a most reprehensible context. While some forms of work are not necessarily detrimental to children, other forms, such as those mentioned, clearly are; they destroy the prospects of childhood and treat children as objects of trade _ slaves _ rather than as subjects with rights. They undermine the child's development.

Child labour has been dealt with increasingly by the international community from two angles. There are those forms of work which are extreme and dangerous for the child _ ''the worst forms of child labour'', which must be stopped immediately.

Then there are other forms of child labour which are of a more moderate nature _ light work such as delivering newspapers. These are to be regulated and/or phased out progressively.

International standards, promoted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), have laid down a minimum age under which a child should not be employed. ILO convention No 138 on the minimum age for work, states a child under 15 years of age should not be employed, with flexible reduction to 14 years in developing countries, while children under 18 are prohibited from performing dangerous work.

Meanwhile, a more recent ILO convention, No 182, on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour, establishes the framework to protect children from extreme forms of child labour. These worst forms require immediate prohibition and elimination. This convention defines ''the worst forms of child labour'' as:

a) All forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom, as well as forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.

b) The use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances.

c) The use, procurement or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs, as defined in relevant international treaties.

d) Work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children, such as harmful work to be determined by the national authorities.

These instruments go hand in hand with the main international agreement/treaty on child rights known as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) _ the only human rights treaty to which all Asian countries are parties.

A child is basically defined under CRC as a person under 18 years of age, and special measures, such as adequate laws and enforcement, are needed to protect them from exploitation, including in regard to child labour and trafficking.

In many situations, child labour amounts to human trafficking, which is basically the transfer of a person into an exploitative situation, such as sexual exploitation and slavery. Often it takes place as part of a clandestine migration process, fraught with the dangers of displacement and intensified by the lack of human security. Child trafficking must be addressed as a crime, while the child in the process must not be treated as a criminal but be seen as a victim.

There is now an international agreement on the subject: the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, with an additional agreement attached to it, known as the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.

A recent publication from the ILO presents the disturbing child labour scenario in the Asian region as follows:

''In the Asia-Pacific region, child labour is widespread and seemingly entrenched. The ILO estimates that the region has the largest number of child workers in the 5-14 age group _ some 127 million with 62 million engaged in work that is considered hazardous _ and that at least 6.6 million children in Asia are victims of unconditional worst forms of child labour. A child trapped in child labour grows up to become an adult with poor prospects of securing decent work, of rising out of poverty, of giving his or her own family a good start in life and of contributing to the economic and social growth of the country.

''Child labour is the result of, and a contributing factor to, entrenched poverty. It arises when parents have insufficient or inappropriate skills to find work and to support their family, and it inexorably results in the next generation of parents being in exactly the same situation. But poverty is not the only factor at play. Child labour also happens when children's rights to childhood are neglected or denied them. It happens in some places just because working at an early age and missing out on school is what children are expected to do because it has always been like that.''

The scenario should be seen in the following context:

1) There are the traditional forms of child labour, such as work in agriculture, which pose an age-old challenge to developing countries and rural situations, compounded by negative traditional practices and taboos. In more developed societies linked with urbanisation, there are more contemporary forms such as children employed in fast food restaurants. The technological side of development has also given rise to new forms of child labour, such as children used for pornography on the Internet.

2) Human trafficking has proliferated in recent years as part of the negative side of globalisation. It is interwoven with the issue of clandestine migration and the management of migration. Often, precisely because official channels of migration are not available or are limited, people resort to underground means which lend themselves to exploitation and abuse by criminal elements. Some frontiers are riddled with traffickers ready to pounce on those who wish to leave their homes to enter another country. Countries are often simultaneously source, transit and destination countries. From the angle of child rights, it is important to protect the child absolutely, irrespective of the consent of the child.

3) The linkage between child labour and child trafficking is made more complicated by the fact that many migration flows are composite flows _ some are due to economic, social and cultural reasons, while others are due to political reasons. A child escaping from persecution in the country of origin in search of asylum in the county next door is a political case. Where that child lands in the hands of a human trafficker and is pressed into prostitution, the child is not only a child labourer and a trafficked child, but also a refugee needing international protection. A key principle in regard to the refugee is that he/she must not be pushed back to the country of origin if there are dangers there.

On another front, human trafficking is often linked with human smuggling, although the two phenomena are not the same; human trafficking relates to the transfer of a person into an exploitative situation which can be within a country or across the border, while human smuggling concerns only a cross-border practice of enabling a person to enter another country illegally. Both are criminal acts, with a third party involved such as a trafficker or a smuggler.

4) Most countries already have laws and related policies on child labour and human trafficking, and if not, the legal and policy framework needs to be improved to comply with international standards, such as those mentioned in various treaties. Existing laws vary from the Criminal Code to labour laws, child protection laws and human-trafficking legislation. Yet, the problem lies less with the law and policy but more with the enforcement and implementation process. The latter often suffers from low priority, limited resources, lack of quality law enforcers and corruption.

An approach based on human rights demands much more than laws and policies. It requires effective implementation, responsive and gender-sensitive programmes and practices, quality personnel and mechanisms, adequate resources, extensive information and education, and broad-based cooperation and empowerment both within countries and across borders.

5) The phenomenon of child labour and child trafficking is inevitably linked with demand and supply, with the girl child often the key victim. While anti-poverty strategies are needed to address the supply side, other actions are required to counter the demand side _ the consumers, unethical employers and the exploiters. The demand angle is interrelated with the growth of crime, declining human values, excessive consumerism and a market which is ready to exploit people.

In real terms, one of the best means of keeping the child out of the market is to keep the child at school. It is imperative to enable the child to access at least primary school/education.

6) A key concern is not only the child but also his/her family. Measures to address child labour and trafficking need to incorporate family participation as part of the process. This may have to be linked with more occupational opportunities for families so that they become less dependent on child labour and enable the child to attend school. It is related to social services and social facilities, including subsidies for families and scholarships for the child, so as to attenuate the consequences of poverty. Yet, child labour and trafficking also arise in situations where the issue is not poverty. For instance, it has been found that in some cases family members make use of children for pornographic purposes in developed countries. The situation thus has to be tackled from the angle of criminality and violation of child rights.

7) The employer is obviously a key catalyst in the process of child protection. The issue of child labour and related trafficking thus challenges the government and the community to involve the private or business sector _ the employers _ more strongly in abiding by a sense of social responsibility towards the child. There have been some good practices on this front in the Asian region, such as cooperation between various employers, child labourers, their families and international organisations to reduce the use of children in football manufacturing, to offer children access to education and fair wages, and phase out the use of children under the basic minimum age of employment. Some industries are now adopting various codes of conduct as guidance for an ethical, industry-targeted approach to employment and to prevent the use of child labour.

8) While much will depend upon improving law enforcement, it is essential to develop a variety of checks and balances against malpractice. In this regard, there are formal and non-formal institutions and entities; examples of the former include the courts of law and national human rights commissions. On the other hand, there is an essential role to be played by civil society, including non-governmental organisations, community groups and active media, as part of the non-formal sector, as a vigilant force against child labour and related trafficking. There are many good examples of such groups activating the protection of children in the Asian region, such as rescuing children from brothels, triggering the law enforcers to raid illegal factories, advocating against criminal elements, and pursuing the need for effective prosecutions.

9) There is an equally important role for child participation and mobilisation against exploitation. In some countries, there are child labour clubs and networks among the young to help educate other young persons against exploitation. Sometimes trained adolescents offer services as counsellors for their peers to provide not only physical support but also mental support and guidance to help victims reintegrate into society. Children can thus be very effective advocates of their rights, and they need to be involved and respected as key stakeholders in the process of child protection.

10) International cooperation and national cooperation need to be maximised to counter child labour and related trafficking. Some positive examples include more international treaties on the subject, more regional programming to work together, such as in the Mekong sub-region, and bilateral agreements to promote internal and cross-border cooperation, prevention of the conditions leading to clandestine flows, humane treatment of victims, and safe return to the country of origin.

A key challenge is to ensure that immigration laws and channels do not revictimise the victims by classifying them as illegal immigrants. The preferred approach now being promoted in several countries is to enable victims of trafficking to be exempted from the strictures of national immigration law, to be treated as humanitarian cases, at times granted with a temporary visa, and to use welfare channels for sheltering them and to ensure safe return home.

In the final analysis, a comprehensive response to the challenge of child labour and child trafficking depends upon these four P's as linchpins:

Prevention, such as through anti-poverty action, access to education, family care and services to enable families to send children to school and community mobilisation against child exploitation;

Protection, through the adoption and enforcement of human-rights sensitive laws and policies, victim-responsive and child-sensitive programmes, and capacity-building to produce quality law enforcers, coupled with rescue operations, anti-crime measures and prosecution of the abusers;

Provisions, through victim-sensitive care and assistance, facilities to ensure safe return of the victims to their homes, and adequate social recovery and reintegration, especially to prevent reversion to an exploitative setting;

Participation, through family, community and child participation in activities to protect child rights, adequate space for civil society actors to assist in child-sensitive programmes, and cooperative modalities and arrangements within countries and across borders, involving key actors including governments, communities, employees, employers and the private sector, to foster the promotion and protection of child rights effectively.

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a professor of law at Chulalongkorn University. He is a former UN special rapporteur on the sale of children and is currently a UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. This paper was prepared for the international conference on Child Labour and Child Trafficking in Asia held in the Republic of Korea, Feb 6-8.

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