By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Feb 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Human traffickers worldwide are increasingly targeting children and will likely exploit school closures during the coronavirus pandemic to abuse the young, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
Children make up a third of trafficking victims who are uncovered — a share that has tripled in the past 15 years, with girls mainly exploited for sex and boys forced into work, a report by the UN Office On Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found.
About 49,000 victims were detected and reported in total in 2018 — up from 24,000 in 2016 — according to the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, which was based on research conducted before the start of the pandemic.
While worsening poverty and job losses spurred by COVID-19 have left millions of people globally at risk of trafficking, out-of-school children are especially vulnerable, UNODC said.
About 222 million schoolchildren — one in eight pupils — are affected by school closures, according to UNESCO, the UN's cultural agency. The figure hit 1.6 billion in April last year.
"It is particularly alarming that in recent years more and more children are being targeted by traffickers," UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly said during a virtual briefing.
"Already targeted and potentially at risk, youth who are denied their right to education will particularly find themselves easier prey for traffickers," she added.
Trafficking of children is more prevalent in poorer countries where it is linked to child labor, according to UNODC, which said young people are "easier to exploit" when communities are used to sending them to work away from home.
The report said the practice was common across West Africa, with children working on sites from gold mines to cocoa farms.
"In such settings, child trafficking victims may be hidden in plain sight," the report read. "Broad cultural acceptance of child labor can serve as a fertile ground for traffickers."
The United Nations launched the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labor last month, saying urgent action was needed to meet a goal of ending the practice by 2025 as COVID-19 puts more children at risk and threatens decades of progress.
Prior to the pandemic, the number of child workers dropped to 152 million from 246 million in 2000, according to UN data.
UNODC also highlighted that the proportion of adult women among detected victims fell to 50% from 70% over the past 15 years, while the share of men nearly doubled to 20% in that time.
Overall, half of victims were trafficked for sex, 38% for forced labor, and 6% were made to commit crimes, found the report, which identified 534 trafficking routes worldwide.
An estimated 25 million people worldwide are victims of labor and sex trafficking, according to the United Nations, with concerns growing that more will be affected as support services are halted and efforts to secure justice are hindered.
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org) Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.