Exploiting children in orphanages recognised as trafficking

Disclaimer: This article is more than 6 years old, and may not include the most up-to-date information or statistics. Please verify information with more recent sources as needed, and if you have any questions contact our Press Office.

Guest blog: Martin Punaks from Lumos on the legal recognition of orphanage trafficking by the US TiP report and what it means for children.

Orphanage trafficking in Nepal
The recognition of child trafficking to profit-making orphanages by the TIP report is a potential game changer for children in orphanages around the world.
18th July 2017

Around the world, an estimated 8 million children are living in orphanages, despite the fact that 80% of these children are not orphans. Children who grow up in orphanages are denied their right to family-based care, which – with the right support – is entirely possible. The causes of institutionalisation are complex and varied, but Lumos’ work is increasingly showing there is a link between it and trafficking – and that unscrupulous individuals are making money from the abuse of the very children they purport to protect.

Lumos’ recent research in Haiti highlights numerous examples of orphanage directors paying ‘child-finders’ to recruit children to orphanages through deception or coercion in order to receive donations from abroad. Lumos found evidence of at least $70 million per year being provided by international private donors to just over one-third of Haiti’s 750 orphanages, which equates to one third of all US foreign aid to Haiti.

These vast sums of unregulated money incentivise traffickers to remove children from their families and exploit them.  However, progress is being made in Haiti – as recognised in the highly influential US Government Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which this year upgraded Haiti from Tier 3 (the worst ranking) to the Tier 2 Watchlist, attributing this partly to the increased activity of the Haitian government’s interministerial anti-trafficking commission (TIP Commission).

A further piece of good news is that the TIP Report – for the first time ever – has recognised that orphanages are a destination point for trafficked children, which historically has never been acknowledged before.  At present this has only been recognised in one country – Nepal – where orphanage trafficking was first documented by child rights activists at the end of Nepal’s civil war (1996 to 2006).

Conor Grennan was one of the first people to write about this in his harrowing story of Nepali children being separated from their parents by traffickers and placed in ‘orphanages’ where they were forced to beg on the streets and lie to foreign volunteers that their parents had died. Grennan’s organisation, Next Generation Nepal, has shown how traffickers promise families that children will receive an education if they pay money to take them to urban areas to study in boarding schools – in reality these are fake orphanages where children are abused and used to elicit financial donations from volunteers and donors.

So what made the US Government decide to recognise this phenomenon as ‘trafficking’?  Almost certainly it was partly the result of more than a decade of compelling evidence documented by civil society and the media.  But a key factor behind this decision has likely been a legal argument made by the lawyer Kate van Doore, of Griffith University.

Van Doore focusses on the exploitation component of the Trafficking Protocol, arguing that – in addition to being used for financial gain – children in orphanages are sexually exploited, forced to beg (akin to child labour), kept in slavery-like conditions, and exploited in many other ways. Crucially, Van Doore demonstrates how these arguments also apply to US trafficking law.

The implications for orphanage trafficking being recognised in the TIP Report are wide ranging.  It will encourage the Nepal Government to take action against this form of trafficking. It will influence how donors allocate funds.  It will increase opportunities for the criminalisation of perpetrators under an anti-trafficking mandate, and will allow for children who have been removed from their families and institutionalised to be accepted as survivors of trafficking. Most significantly, it will open the door for similar recognition and action in other countries, including Haiti.

The next step for child rights activists is the Australian Government’s Inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act. This is an opportunity to build on the momentum generated by Lumos, Next Generation Nepal, Van Doore and the TIP Report decision, and recognise the relationship between modern slavery and children in orphanages. It could change the way we view institutionalisation and trafficking.  It could impact the lives of millions of children.

  • Martin Punaks is the Head of the Global Training and Advisory Services Unit at Lumos. Before that, he led programmes to rescue and reunify orphanage trafficked children in Nepal, and worked to raise awareness of the links between institutionalisation, trafficking and voluntourism.
  • Lumos is an international children’s NGO established by J.K. Rowling, supporting the estimated eight million children in institutions worldwide to regain their right to a family life, and working to end the institutionalisation of children globally by 2050.