Even Our Definition of Child Trafficking is Wrong

The Countering New Forms of Roma Children Trafficking (CONFRONT) project looks at the mechanisms of three forms of child trafficking – begging, pickpocketing and sexual exploitation of boys – by focusing on Roma victims. Zsuzsanna Vidra, research fellow at the Center for Policy Studies (CPS) at CEU, paints a gloomy picture of the lack of support system for child victims of trafficking, and of how the institutions that are supposed to protect children often take an active role in exploiting them.

The international CONFRONT project involves four “sending” countries (Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia) and three “destination” countries (Austria, Greece, Italy) involved in child trafficking. The project applied the participatory research method and had a community focus, aiming to learn what the social aspects of trafficking are. In the first phase, Vidra and the research team of six interviewed national stakeholders and institutions, and in the second, they did fieldwork from February to August 2014. Given the high sensitivity of the topic, “four of the six researchers,  who all had previous experience in handling sensitive issues, were of Roma background.”

Although the name of the project speaks of “new” forms of child trafficking, these are new ways only in the sense that, so far, only female prostitution and slavery have been researched extensively. According to international and Hungarian legislation, children are defined as persons under 18 years of age. However, some institutions, namely the Hungarian police, use different definitions, such as “youth” for persons aged 14 to 18. This categorization has consequences both in the identification of victims and assisting them. On the other hand, victims under 18 come under the jurisdiction of the Child Protection Law. There is an anti-trafficking referral system, however, children are excluded from it, they are referred to the child protection system, which is basically incapable of handling these cases.

The child protection system is incapable of handling cases of child trafficking, Zsuzsanna Vidra says. Photo: CEU/Daneil Vegel

“The original project designed suggested we conduct the research in communities, without a clear definition of the word. In the case of girls, one hears about communities or even regions from where girls are taken to the UK, for instance. However, the forms of trafficking we were interested in – begging, pickpocketing and the sexual exploitation of boys – do not follow the same pattern, at least not in Hungary,” said Vidra. “So we had to find new ways to do community research while not exactly looking at one community. We selected three regions, including Budapest, cities with segregated areas with a high proportion of Roma population and poverty. We applied the snowball method, so when we encountered anyone who had some kind of experience or knowledge of trafficking we asked them if they knew others with similar experiences or knowledge. This is how we could combine the community focus and explore the issue outside the community as well.”

The first part of fieldwork was relatively easy, Vidra recalls. They interviewed child protection institutions, social providers, youth detention centers, NGOs, and the local police. “In the second phase, we didn’t look for victims of trafficking, but rather but rather people, informants in the victims' environment. But at the end, we did find victims.”

The researchers also had the chance to talk to a perpetrator, who used to work as a pimp but now gets abandoned children from his neighborhood to rob for him. He gives the children 1,000 Hungarian forints (roughly €3.30) a week, and the children are happy. “There’s no way these children get out of this situation, and this man will never get caught, as the parents of the children are not concerned, and social workers are overwhelmed and can’t go after cases,” Vidra says.

“When talking to participants, we tried to avoid mentioning 'trafficking,' both because it is a horrifying subject and because the public doesn’t even know what trafficking means. According to the everyday definition trafficking means selling people for money. But the legal and sociological definition is coercion and exploitation,” Vidra explains.

The researchers were interested in the situation of children and risks they faced in the community, and what help was available for them. Social service providers, the child and family welfare services, have very limited scope of action, Vidra explains. They can’t prevent children from falling victim to any crime. When a child is at risk of victimization in his or her family, the service can only report it to the child protection authority, which then decides what happens to the child – whether or not to place them under state protection.

However, besides being underfinanced and understaffed, the child protection system in Hungary is not prepared to take on victims of trafficking or, in fact, of victims of any crime. They have no experience with victims of trafficking, no knowledge of how to support victims, despite the fact that the majority of children in state protection has been victimized previously. Although representatives from NGOs dealing with supporting adult victims of trafficking have reported encountering child victims, they cannot do anything as children must be referred to the child protection system. There aren’t even shelters for children. “There is a trajectory leading from a vulnerable family through the social protection system to the child protection system, which does not protect children at all,” Vidra concludes.

Vidra says the police and some institutions are involved in covering up child trafficking. Photo: CEU/Daniel Vegel

Some institutions even try to cover up crimes. Vidra recalls a case in a foster home, where a male teacher was involved in trafficking boys. The children in the home started to talk about it to other teachers. When the head of the institution tried to do something about the matter, she found nobody to testify. So she could only fire the man over a completely unrelated issue, so no mention of trafficking will be on his record.

The general problem in the prosecution of perpetrators of trafficking, Vidra explains, is that in order to start a case it’s the victim who has to go to the police to report the crime. During the investigation and later trial victims have to testify, usually more than once. It is a very counterproductive system and often the whole process stops before it could begin, as victims are frequently too afraid to go to the police.

In 2011, Hungary adapted the EU’s anti-trafficking directive (2011/36/EU) saying the police must investigate suspected human trafficking. “In reality, it never happens,” Vidra says. “They usually just sit back waiting for victims to come.” During their fieldwork, researchers even found examples of direct police involvement in trafficking cases. “We didn’t want to make a case against police corruption, but we heard of stories about abuse of power, soliciting, and more.”

We heard of stories about abuse of power, soliciting, and more, Vidra says of the involvement of police in child trafficking. Photo: CEU/Daniel Vegel

Vidra says the reason that the general public knows virtually nothing about child trafficking is mainly due to our misconception of what the phrase actually means. “It doesn’t only mean babies being sold to rich American parents.” What is even more concerning is that institutions responsible for identifying and supporting victims don’t know the correct definition of child trafficking. This problem is not specific to Hungary though, Vidra says. “There are similar stories anywhere with weak, badly functioning systems.”