Season 1, Episode 5: When Anti-trafficking Policies Hurt
You’re listening to episode 5 of The Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel. This episode will talk about Romanian child beggars in the UK, and how laws created to help them actually hurt them.
Before I begin this episode’s topic, I wanted to apologize for any distracting background noise you might hear. I’m currently attending a conference in New York City, and cannot record in a soundproof studio as usual. If the noise makes it harder for you to hear or concentrate, you can follow along with the shownotes, which are available at thetraffickingdispatch.com.
In the last episode, I discussed several human trafficking statistics, including the “40 million slaves statistic” created by the International Labor Organization, or ILO. The ILO doesn’t just track numbers. They also rank countries based on each government’s anti-trafficking initiatives. Their ranking system is kind of similar to the US Department of State’s system, but instead of using tiers, they categorize countries by letter grades. According to the ILO, an “AAA” grade means that a country has successfully created and implemented anti-trafficking laws, and provide funding for anti-trafficking work. This is similar to being placed in the first tier by the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report, which you can learn about in our second episode. Countries that receive a D grade are not doing so well in the anti-trafficking department. A D grade is similar to being placed in the third tier in The Trafficking in Persons Report.
The UK is in the first tier according to the Trafficking in Persons Report, which is the best tier a country can be in. But according to the ILO’s ranking system, the UK has a grade of BBB. While definitely not the worst grade possible, the UK’s evaluations from both organizations are not equal. Why the difference? Well, the US Department of State’s report only assesses whether a country meets the minimum Trafficking Victims Protection Act requirements. In other words, if they pass anti-trafficking policies and fund anti-trafficking initiatives. It doesn’t necessarily determine whether these anti-trafficking policies and initiatives are effective. The ILO is a little more comprehensive. According to the ILO, the UK has a BBB rating because of their problematic anti-trafficking laws. There is evidence that their laws actually harm trafficking victims and survivors.
But why does the UK pass laws that can harm victims? This is obviously counterintuitive in the fight against human trafficking. But, it’s important to remember that most members of parliament probably don’t hold ill will against trafficking victims and survivors. It’s common for governmental bodies to think that the anti-trafficking laws that they pass will protect their country and victims, but they often end up hurting trafficking victims instead.
The treatment of Romanian child beggars in the UK is a clear example of anti-trafficking policy actually hurting victims. Child begging is one of the less-discussed forms of human trafficking. It often involves gangs forcing children to beg on the streets, because children garner more sympathy from the public. A child may beg on their own, or they may have a minder, usually a slightly older girl or woman, accompany them. The minders often beg and use the child as an accessory to compel people to give them money. However, any money that a child or their minder raise is ultimately given to the gang members or other traffickers, and the children receive little to nothing in return. Many of the beggars are extremely young, and do not receive the nurturing that a child needs. Some beggars don’t go to school, so even when they are teenagers, they are left with few options besides begging. In the UK, many of the child beggars are children of Romanian descent who already live in the area, but some are even trafficked directly from Romania.
Given this information, it seems pretty obvious that child beggars are victims and should be helped. Their minders who use them as begging accessories, and their traffickers are clearly the criminals. Or so we thought. Things get complicated when new information emerges, like the fact that a lot of minders are child victims of trafficking too. Many of the minders are actually the teenage mothers of child beggars. This means they’re also minors and cannot provide legal consent to their circumstances. They are coerced just like their children. However, the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is just 10 years old, and forcing a child under sixteen to beg is illegal. This means that a lot of minders, who are legal minors themselves, end up being criminalized instead of their traffickers. While British law tried to fix the issue of child begging by criminalizing it, their laws actually hurt the childminders who are coerced along with their children into a harmful lifestyle.
But if a victim of child begging isn’t criminalized, then what happens when they are discovered by law enforcement? Well, there’s a good chance that they won’t be helped. The British government has not significantly funded any recovery programs for child beggars, such as therapy, and they also don’t provide legal advocates for them. In 2011, it was discovered that a criminal ring had successfully trafficked 181 Romanian children into the UK for the purposes of begging. While a handful of the children were helped, well over 100 of them went missing from social services after they were discovered, and were “presumed to no longer be in the UK.” This brings up the question: how do so many children go missing?
Immigration is one factor. Many of the 181 Romanian children that were trafficked into the UK were brought over illegally. If they are undocumented, it’s hard for the government to track them down. This means that if a child beggar or minder wants help, they have to track down law enforcement officials that can help them. But we just learned that many victims of child begging are actually criminalized, so why would they seek help from the people that can harm them?
Negative media portrayals of Romanian immigrants have also discouraged the British government from helping child beggars, a majority of whom are of Romanian descent. It’s a widely held belief that child begging is a common and accepted practice in Romanian culture, but this is just a misconception. This stereotype, however, has labeled many victims of child begging as the “new Fagin’s”. Fagin was the villain in the classic novel Oliver Twist who forced poor children to beg on the streets. If minders, who are also often legal minors, are perceived as villains by their society, then their government will be unwilling to help them. If their society, government and law enforcement do not support them, child victims of trafficking will be less likely to seek the help that they need.
Human trafficking is a complex issue, and so are its potential solutions. While the British government tried to eliminate child begging by making it illegal, their simplistic solution actually hurts many victims by criminalizing them and preventing them from seeking help. It often doesn’t even lead to punishing the traffickers themselves. When it comes to child begging, the British government can look into solutions that address the negative portrayals of Romanian immigrants, provide resources for child beggars and minders, and focus their attention on arresting traffickers, not victims.
This episode isn’t meant to attack the UK for their treatment of child beggars, since no country has perfectly resolved the human trafficking issues within their borders. However, it does point out how even highly ranked countries struggle to resolve their own issues. It also shows that in order to solve a complex, multifaceted problem, we need to create comprehensive, multifaceted solutions.
This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on October 29th at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at thetraffickingdispatch.com, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.