Monday, March 10, 2008

Poor Laws & Law Enforcement Failures Fuel Child Trafficking in China

The Washington Post published a long, personal article on the situation of child trafficking victims in today's edition. The article, entitled "A
Desperate Search for Stolen Children: Lax Protections Leave Chinese Vulnerable to Human Trafficking," goes through the story of families in search of their children who were kidnapped and forced to work in kilns.

Officially, 2, 375 trafficking cases were reported in China last year, a 7.6 percent decrease from 2006, according to the Public Security Ministry.

But the statistics are based on China's narrow definition of trafficking, which covers only the kidnapping, purchase or sale of women and children younger than 14, not older teenagers and men. Activists say the number is grossly understated and that tens of thousands of people are trafficked each year.

Historically, many victims have been women forced to marry lonely farmers, or male babies illegally adopted by couples who wanted a son. But those types of cases are leveling off, while cases of migrants deceived into sexual exploitation and forced labor are increasing, activists say.

That is an incredibly narrow definition of trafficking, perhaps based on historical experience, but nonetheless in need of serious updating if it is expected to be effective in the face of today's trafficking patterns.

As the article follows a father trying to search for his son, and in the process recruiting other families with lost children and tapping into local and internet media. The picture, however inspiring for grassroots activity against trafficking, still provides a sad, stark overview of China's trafficking problem.

In one kiln, Yuan said he saw three children about 16 to 18 years old, still in school uniforms. The families tried to rescue the students but were chased away by a kiln boss and 20 other employees.

The families called the police.

"The police immediately sent out a car taking us to the kiln again," Yuan said. "Seeing the police, the boss agreed to let us take the three children away. We bought them train tickets and sent them home. But the police didn't ask the boss any more questions and they took no further action."

Last June, hundreds of migrants and children were found living in slave-like conditions in illegal brick kilns in Shanxi. The workers making the cheap bricks in China's construction boom were poorly paid, infrequently fed and threatened with beatings and vicious dogs. Some of the children were as young as 8.

State media coverage of the police raids that followed made clear that police collusion had allowed many kilns to operate illegally. Police later raided more than 8,000 kilns in two provinces, rescuing 568 migrants including 22 children. Some victims were reportedly resold to other kilns by officials involved in their rescue.

Since then, government officials have announced several anti-trafficking initiatives, including a national plan of action in December that called for stepped-up enforcement and coordination among 28 government ministries under the Public Security Ministry's guidance.

In recent years, organized criminal networks have become more sophisticated at cheating and abducting migrant workers, including abduction by anesthetizing the often unsupervised children of migrant worker parents, said Chen Shiqu, who heads the office against human trafficking in the Public Security Ministry.

Chen said that police should send officers to investigate the places where people disappear as well as their residences. "They should collect photos of the kidnap victims, look for witnesses and get more evidence on how the person was kidnapped," Chen said.

But trafficking remains difficult to prosecute, and as millions pour into China's cities, the problem has become inextricably linked to migration issues.

China's situation is not unique, and the model for more effective laws is available. Step one should be to broaden the definition of trafficking to include the trends specified in this article, which would mean broadening the type of victim and the means of deception. The trafficking of people from rural areas while trying to find work in bigger cities for abroad is more common than the trafficking of urban residents in many countries, including Ukraine.

However, no matter how modern the laws are, the attitude of law enforcement and the court system are what really matters because if no one is willing to investigate the crime or prosecute the traffickers, the laws do not mean a thing. In this case, the police were even accused of working with traffickers and the bosses of these kilns that use forced labor.

In this State Department article in October 2007, Mark Lagon, Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Human Beings, finds that China has taken steps towards combating forced and child labor, but overall the situation remains poorly attended to.

Early this summer reports emerged of over one thousand farmers, teenagers and children, including some who were mentally handicapped, forced to work for little or no pay in scorching brick kilns, enduring beatings and confinement in worse than prison-like conditions. This was a form of modern day slavery that shocked not only the international community, but prompted an outcry among Chinese citizens and a forceful reaction from the authorities.

In response, the Chinese government organized a joint task force to investigate and punish forced labor practices. By mid-August, the joint task force reported that it had inspected 277,000 brick kilns and other small-scale enterprises nationwide, and had rescued 1,340 workers from forced labor conditions, including 367 mentally handicapped workers and an undisclosed number of children. In connection with the crackdown, Chinese authorities arrested 147 individuals for such crimes as using child labor and physically assaulting workers, with sentences of up to five years in prison. At least four county-level government officials were charged with dereliction of duty, and at least one brick kiln foreman was sentenced to death, one trafficker sentenced to life in prison, and one brick kiln owner sentenced to nine years in prison.

However the report also states that China still has many problems with the protection of victims and a lack of transparency about the actions of law enforcement bodies, especially in relation to the tactics used to combat the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation. The report also criticizes the current laws as being far weaker than international standards. China has been on the Tier Two Watchlist for three years now. Between the two reports, it seems China's policy towards this problem is one of reaction rather than any sort of proactive engagement to combat the issue, particularly inside its borders.

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