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Is it poverty or human nature which perpetuates child trafficking?

In Nepal, a quarter of a million people are victims of exploitation
In Nepal, a quarter of a million people are victims of exploitation

Two rescued girls have recently been in the news – one a Nepalese ex-slave, the other a blonde-haired Roma child in Greece. Thousands of miles apart and in countries of different income levels, do their stories shed light on the common causes of child trafficking? Laurinda Luffman investigates.

This month, a new Global Slavery Index was launched to highlight places around the world where modern-day slavery and trafficking are at their worst. Out of 162 countries measured, Nepal ranked as the fifth worst country for the proportion of its population enslaved in some way. It is estimated that more than a quarter of a million Nepalese people (out of a population of around 31 million) are victims of practices such as debt bondage, forced marriage, the sale of children, human trafficking and forced labour.

Treated “like an animal”

In Nepal today, sadly it’s still common for young girls from poor rural communities to fall prey to various kinds of exploitation or trafficking. One type of child exploitation is a form of bonded labour which has traditionally occurred in Nepal’s mid-western and far western regions. In these poor areas, girls from the Tharu community (one of Nepal’s most marginalised indigenous groups) have been given away to wealthy families (often in the capital, Kathmandu) to perform household work. Known as kamlaris or kamalaris, the girls are meant to be given an education in exchange for their labour, but are frequently treated as nothing but slaves.

In recognition of this fact, the Nepalese government abolished the practice in July this year and promised to free any remaining kamlaris. Speaking to a US newspaper, one ex-kamlari girl said that the family for whom she worked from the age of six treated her more “like an animal”, as if she was “not human”.

Two Nepalese childrenCommenting on such cases, campaigners say the only way to eradicate slavery and the selling of children is to tackle the extreme underdevelopment of poor regions such as those in western Nepal. But surely the Nepalese girl’s comments also reflect how easily certain ethnic groups or people of a different cultural background can be viewed by others as inferior or unworthy of equal treatment.

Is poverty alone to blame?

On the Global Slavery Index, wealthy Western European countries certainly rank extremely low for the number of enslaved people. Greece, for example, ranks 150th out of 162 countries, with an estimated 1,500 people suffering from some form of slave-like exploitation. And yet even in a country like Greece, systematic failures of the state are believed to have led to a number of cases of trafficked children.

This situation has been highlighted by the recent story of a young blond-haired girl known as Maria. Found in the care of a Roma couple who are not her biological parents, Greek police are trying to establish if Maria is the victim of child trafficking. Criminal gangs in Europe are thought to be bringing hundreds of children from the poorer Balkan countries into Greece, where they may be subjected to forced labour, sexual exploitation or sold to wealthy couples.

The widespread media interest has led to other blonde-haired children in the Roma communities of Europe being investigated. So for example, a Roma family in Ireland were genetically tested and found to be the biological parents of a blonde child member of their family. Commenting on the perceived ‘witch hunt’, a spokesperson for the Roma Rights Centre in Bulgaria explained to the BBC that “not all Roma communities have dark skin; there are Roma who have light skin and green eyes”.

Roma woman with sonSuperiority complex

Roma families across Europe, even in wealthy countries such as Ireland, often live in marginalised communities and have low income and education levels compared to society as a whole. But experts in criminality say the Roma are used by traffickers not only because of their relative poverty; they are also used because of their isolation, since traffickers like to operate ‘under the radar’ of the state.

Frequently ostracised by the wider community, Roma groups regularly face discrimination or are seen as ‘inferior’ by ordinary members of society. Even in a highly developed Western European nation such as Ireland, it is reportedly a struggle for many Roma to receive social benefits or to access health services because families are unable to meet official criteria for ‘habitual residence’ or obtain a medical card.

Therefore, while there is no doubt that poverty is the key cause of trafficking and exploitation of children across the world, we should perhaps also bear in mind that human nature and our willingness to judge other groups as inferior, also play their part.

SOS Children has been helping vulnerable children in Nepal since 1973. Find out more about our work.

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