Photo courtesy of Doha Film Institute

Today is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons

The recent incidents of sexual and economic exploitation of children have sparked many protests and a public outcry targeting the failure of the State to ensure justice to children and their families. While the media and law enforcement agencies have attempted to provide information regarding the law enforcement process against the perpetrators of violence, many activists are demanding answers to the delays and loopholes in justice for the child victims.

Some perceive this sudden surge in cases reported by the media as an escalation of the incidence of child abuse in the country. This is misleading as the true incidence of child abuse in the country is difficult to determine at any given time due to its hidden nature. Sri Lanka has had a very poor track record of identification of the offence of child trafficking. Most cases detected during the last few weeks included elements of child trafficking. During the past decade or so, the State as well as non-State organisations have been working closely with law enforcement agencies and the judicial system to enhance capacity and skills of the Police and other officers in relation to the identification and response to child trafficking, recognizing the complexity and nature of organized crime that it often entails. Perhaps the rise in detection of cases can be attributed to these measures. Whatever the cause, the increase in the detection of child trafficking and exploitation is indeed a good sign and a trend that must continue.

Investigators’ challenge

However, there is a serious gap in the law enforcement system with regards to its ability to investigate trafficking offences. Currently, all investigations should follow standard Police Procedures. There are no special Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) or any other guidance for the investigation of specialized crimes such as trafficking as well as cybercrime. Therefore, the success of investigations would depend entirely on the skill and expertise of the individual officers and the procedures they follow rather than on a standard procedure that any officer investigating such types of complex crimes should be required to take.

Child sex trafficking and exploitation are two strongly interlinked crimes and considered as two of the worst forms of violence children face. Trafficking is the process of making a child available for exploitation. During the process of trafficking and exploitation, children suffer sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect by the hands of traffickers and exploiters. Child victims of trafficking and exploitation are victims of multiple forms of abuse that often take place over a period of time.

Many child victims of trafficking living in child care institutions have been identified by law enforcement agencies only as victims of sexual abuse and rape. The complex nature of trafficking renders it often difficult to detect as it requires investigations and collection of evidence of a crime that may have a long history, involves many parties and requires time, skills and manpower to conduct a successful investigation. Often the crime that is identified is the last incident of violence the child has faced, which is usually recognized as rape or grave sexual abuse. Detection is also challenged by the victims themselves not recognizing that they have been victims of trafficking due to the extent of grooming that the traffickers subject their victims to. Gaps in the implementation of the law, especially the Code of Criminal Procedure Act, were noted in reporting facts to the Magistrates with complete documents and information.

The subsequent result has many implications. On the one hand, the traffickers are rarely caught. They operate freely, shielded from law enforcement. Therefore although those who abused the child, or in some cases commercially exploited the child, are apprehended, the process of supplying children to the exploiters will continue. On the other hand, the child victim who is not recognized as a victim of trafficking will not receive the necessary support he or she critically needs to cope and recover from the trauma and associated risk factors they live with.

The outcome of investigations don’t only depend on the skills of the investigators or the presence of protocols. The extent to which the investigations and evidence is treated with impartiality, independence and integrity is as important. Most investigations on crimes don’t fail because of the skills of the investigators; they fail because of the competing interests and priorities of others who influence the investigation processes.

Trafficking is a complex crime, involving and implicating many parties. In a society where children’s rights are considered inferior to the rights of others, and the powers that adults hold over children make children’s views unheard and needs insignificant, ensuring the best interests of the child victim in the midst of competing priorities, as committed to ensure by the State with the signing and ratifying of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, can be a massive challenge for investigators as well as the judiciary. But it is exactly that challenge, if faced and taken boldly, fearlessly and with integrity, has the power to overturn a culture of impunity, injustice and corruption instigated by the invisible hands of those who try to control the independence of the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary.

What about the child victim?

Children who become victims of trafficking are often sold and exploited multiple times over a period of time. Because of the significant likelihood of a wide spectrum of abuse and associated trauma, child victims of trafficking are at a greater risk of developing serious mental health issues that can result in harmful behaviour towards themselves and others.

The State child protection system in Sri Lanka is governed by archaic colonial laws that have not moved forward with the times despite many attempts to revise and revive them. The result has been systemic unresponsiveness to the growing evidence of mental health and psychosocial issues child victims of violence face, as well as the nature of support they need in order to recover, cope with and overcome traumatic abusive and exploitative experiences as well as short and long term impacts.

The current systemic response for the care and protection of child victims of trafficking is guided by the Children and Young Persons Ordinance (CYPO) (1939). The CYPO does not provide for a mental health assessment of child victims of violence. It is universally acknowledged that children who are subject to abuse and violence are likely to require mental health support. The current practice of the medico-legal examination conducted by medical officers according to Section 122 of the Code of Criminal Procedure Act only involves examination of the physical health of the child, with guidance for referral to mental health practitioners only if the medical officer identifies that the child requires mental health support. If the child is institutionalized for care and protection, the care institutions at times offer some level of psychosocial support. This is usually woefully inadequate to meet the needs of victims and the lack of sensitivity and skills of caregiver staff in care institutions exacerbate children’s mental health issues.

There are serious and complex mental health concerns among children, aggravated by extended periods of neglected specialist mental health support. This has resulted in poor recovery, enhanced behavioural problems, poor educational attainment, failed attempts at reintegration with families and protracted trauma. Moreover, the most concerning impact on child victims of trafficking stems from trauma bonding that entails manipulation, grooming and creation of dependency. Child victims of trafficking rarely identify the traffickers as perpetrators, and refuse to acknowledge the harm and wrong that has happened to them. Targeted and long term psychotherapy is required in most such instances to ensure the child is able to recover and move on.

Importance of ‘why’

While it is important to ensure that victims are provided with justice, it is equally important to understand and eliminate the root causes behind this phenomenon. However, this aspect has got little attention compared to the other, although it can determine the entire incidence of the crime and its future trends. According to recent research conducted by Save the Children, one of the greatest push factors to trafficking of children is poverty and poor living conditions. This is reflected in the case of Ilashini, where the underage girl from the estate area was sent to work in a Colombo home to earn money for her family and suffered great ill treatment that eventually resulted in her death. Families who are indebted and have no other means to pay off the loans are pushed to sell their children to traffickers to settle the debts. This issue is also seen in the small and medium scale tea industry where children are given to the estate owners to use for domestic labour to repay debts owed to the estate owner.

Apart from meaningful social protection schemes, child protection case management deserves a mention as an important yet poorly used deterrent. Many good practices have emerged from the work of the Department of Probation and Child Care Services as well as the NGO sector and civil society on identifying and responding to children at risk of violence and other child rights violations. If practiced properly, child protection case management methods can address risks and vulnerabilities of children through well-coordinated interventions. However, case management also require funding, especially to support families that require immediate assistance to protect their children from high risk situations. Save the Children provided the government with funding to support child protection case management in such situations, which proved to be invaluable assistance in most cases. With Save the Children’s financial assistance ending in 2021, the government must adopt measures to allocate budgets for this purpose if child protection case management is to be a useful method of prevention of violence against children.

What might work to tackle these issues?

Police investigations and the judicial process

  • Develop and implement a Standard Operating Procedure for investigations pertaining to cases of child trafficking and exploitation
  • Use Police powers to detain suspects up to 72 hours and thereafter where necessary up to 15 days with permission from Magistrate to ensure the Police has sufficient time to gather required evidence
  • Properly implement the Code of Criminal Procedure Act in reporting matters to the court (Section 115 & 115 (1)
  • Train a set of lawyers to help the Police conduct the investigations when human trafficking incidents are revealed

Support child victims to cope and deal with trauma

  • Institutionalise mental health and psychosocial support initiated through a mental health assessment for every child victim of violence by qualified mental health practitioners
  • Probation and Child Protection Officers to use the mental health assessment of the child victim to plan and provide access to mental health and psychosocial support to the child. This must include after care and follow up if and when child victims of trafficking who are placed in temporary alternative care are reintegrated into their family/community

Prevent child trafficking and exploitation

  • Technically and financially strengthen child protection case management mechanisms for early detection and prevention of risks before they escalate to violence
  • Target vulnerable families through social protection schemes who are at risk of compromising their children’s protection for their survival

The writer is Senior Technical Advisor – Child Protection at Save the Children