An Enemy of Childhood

Child trafficking robs kids of their childhoods, exposing them to horrific trauma and stunting their healthy development. It destroys tens of millions of children's lives and is a painful reality that is difficult to comprehend.

Though it's hard to face, we must understand why child trafficking exists in order to help law enforcement stop this child abuse before it starts.

What is Child Trafficking?

Child trafficking is “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of children for the purpose of exploitation” (UNICEF). Twenty-five percent of trafficked victims are children1, and children are trafficked for sex four times more often than adults1.

Child exploitation typically involves selling children or their “services” for money. Services can mean forced labor, sex, marriage, soldiering, organ removal or criminal activity.

What's the Difference Between Child Trafficking and Human Trafficking?

The distinction between child trafficking and human trafficking is simply age. Victims of child trafficking are minors — 18 years of age or younger. The different terms exist for reporting and tracking purposes.

What is the Average Age of a Child Trafficking Victim?

Victims of child trafficking are typically between 12 and 14 years old1. The age of young people trafficked often depends on the source and the type of exploitation (e.g. forced labor, physical abuse, commercial sex acts in brothels, criminal activity, etc.).

What are the Different Types of Child Trafficking?

Sadly, exploitation is not constrained by age. All the activities forced upon a trafficked adult can be and are forced upon exploited children.

The commercial sex trade is the largest arena in which children are exploited, but forced child labor, such as working in mines and quarries or in agricultural work (e.g, fishing, forestry, livestock herding, crop cultivation, aquaculture, etc.), is also common2.

Other areas of child exploitation include:

  • Domestic servitude and domestic slavery (e.g., nannies, cooks, cleaners, elder care, etc.) forced marriage, bonded labor, etc.
  • Forced soldiering.
  • Criminal activity.
  • Benefit fraud (i.e., illegally claiming financial benefits from welfare programs).

What Causes or Contributes to Child Trafficking?

Financial gain drives the crime of child trafficking. As long as there is money to be made, children will be trafficked, even with law enforcement working to end the evil.

Poverty is the largest contributor to child trafficking because impoverished children are highly vulnerable. Many families in poverty struggle to meet basic needs, and they often lack citizenship documentation and education. Some lack legitimate employment opportunities and even face homelessness. All of these circumstances can leave families desperate for income and vulnerable to the false promises and lies of traffickers.

Humanitarian disasters, political instability, underdeveloped economies, mental disability, immigration status, lack of birth records and the normalization of crime are among many other influences inflating the numbers of trafficked minors. Other factors include:

  • Weak or no law enforcement mechanisms: Because trafficking is so profitable, some countries feel no incentive to prosecute child traffickers. Other countries may want to prosecute traffickers, but they don't have the necessary resources to hold criminals accountable.

  • Cultural norms: Forced marriage is a common practice in some cultures and isn't seen as unusual or criminal.

  • War: If parents are killed during armed conflict, they leave children orphaned. Without family members to protect them, children and homeless youths are vulnerable to kidnapping and exploitation.

  • Lack of education: Illiteracy and limited understanding of the horrors of child trafficking place young people in harm's way. And if they lack hard skills that employers value, young people have limited work opportunities. This can cause a number of children to volunteer their services to traffickers in ignorance.

Using a collection of court case summaries, the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2020 reports the following risk factors as circumstances traffickers have taken advantage of2.

  • Economic need (51%).
  • Child with a dysfunctional family (20%).
  • Intimate partner as a trafficker (13%).
  • Mental, behavioral or neurological disorder (10%).
  • Immigration status (10%).
  • Child deprived of parental care (9%).
  • Limited education or knowledge of a foreign language (6%).
  • Physical disability (3%).

Where is Child Trafficking the Most Common?

Child trafficking is most common in countries and regions of the world with underdeveloped economies.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that sex trafficking is the most prominent form of child trafficking in Central America and that commercial sexual exploitation is also highly prevalent in East Asia and the Caribbean2.

The sexual exploitation of children occurs in Sub-Saharan Africa as well but not as often as labor trafficking. “Africa ranks highest among regions both in the percentage of children in child labour — one-fifth — and the absolute number of children in child labour — 72 million. Asia and the Pacific ranks second highest in both these measures — 7% of all children and 62 million in absolute terms are in child labour in this region.”3

But child trafficking isn't only in low-income countries. In the United States, approximately 17,200 child sex trafficking victim cases were reported to authorities in 20214. Nevada, Mississippi and Florida have the highest rates of child trafficking on a per capita basis5.

Child Trafficking Statistics

  • 72% of trafficked girls are exploited for sexual purposes2.
  • 21% of trafficked girls are exploited for labor purposes2.
  • 66% of trafficked boys are exploited for forced labor purposes2.
  • 23% of trafficked boys are exploited for sexual purposes2.
  • For every 10 victims detected globally, five are adult women and two are girls2.
  • One third of all detected trafficking victims are children — 19% are girls and 15% are boys2.
  • In low-income countries, children make up half of trafficking victims and are mainly trafficked for forced labor2.

Migrants and their children make up a significant share of detected human trafficking victims in most global regions2.

  • 65% in Western and Southern Europe.
  • 60% in the Middle East.
  • 55% in East Asia and the Pacific.
  • 50% in Central and South-Eastern Europe.
  • 25% in North America.

How Does Child Trafficking Affect the Economy?

Child trafficking is a multibillion-dollar global industry, with some estimates suggesting it generates $150 billion per year. While it makes money for criminals who perpetuate its existence, everyone else suffers from it economically — businesses, employees, governments and societies.

Businesses that use trafficked persons siphon money from legitimate business transactions. This prevents those funds from going toward more productive activities or investments. Trafficked persons are forced to work outside of the normal economy, robbing governments of tax dollars that are used for the common good, like building roads and bridges or paying teachers' salaries.

Trafficked children don't have health insurance. If they need treatment from wounds inflicted by physical abuse or the use of force, the medical bills may be paid for with government funds that would normally go elsewhere, such as to infrastructure. The lack of needed funds may go unaddressed as a result, or taxes may be raised to make up the difference.

Child trafficking's domino effect on economies is both devastating and far reaching. The same can be said about its effect on trafficked children's well-being: physically, mentally as well as emotionally.

How Does Child Trafficking Affect the Victims?

Suicidal tendencies are common among those trafficked. This is a product of the trauma that victims experience, which can also lead to other mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety. Victims of sex trafficking are at higher risk of sexually transmitted infections, such as AIDS, gonorrhea and chlamydia.

Trafficking victims who escape their captors — or are rescued — may find it difficult to trust people, including those they have no reason to fear. Past false promises and torment lead to that distrust.

Food may be kept from victims, which can lead to developmental issues as victims are robbed of the key nutrients their bodies need to grow.

How Can Child Trafficking Victims be Identified?

To combat trafficking, we need to identify common signs of victims. Visible bruises, burn marks, excessive thinness and gang-related tattoos are some common indications that someone may be a victim of child trafficking. Victims may also refuse to answer questions or no longer show interest in activities they used to enjoy.

Many children living without their families in a community may also indicate that child traffickers are operating in that region. Realizing that traffickers are in the community, along with extra awareness of the signs and behavior patterns of victims, can help fight the problem.

How Does Compassion International Combat Trafficking and Sexual Abuse?

The trafficking of children is an immense and overwhelming problem. So, at Compassion, child protection is one of our highest priorities. We tackle this challenge one child at a time, providing individual, holistic care through a child development program delivered primarily through child sponsorship.

Child sponsorship is an effective way to fight poverty, and this combats many of the circumstances that leave children vulnerable to trafficking. Recognizing that poverty is more than a lack of money, Compassion addresses the individual physical, economic, emotional, educational, social and spiritual needs of children — enabling them to thrive, not just survive, in safe environments.

We partner with thousands of local churches in low- and middle-income countries to identify impoverished children who are potential victims of exploitation. Our church partners combat the causes of child trafficking by expanding the circle of caring adults who actively participate in a child's life.

Each staff member, leader and volunteer at our partner churches is trained in child protection, safe practices, and responding quickly and appropriately to all forms of reported child abuse. They in turn train caretakers in child protection and preventing child abuse. Centers also empower children to be active agents in their own protection, teaching age-appropriate child protection curriculums to every participant in our programs. This support, attention and training makes children less vulnerable to criminals who are soliciting, recruiting or abducting.

Our church partners intervene quickly when abuse is reported and help previously exploited children heal and recover. In addition to helping with legal action, our staff works to restore a child's overall well-being — physically, mentally and spiritually — through high-quality medical care, counseling and safe, church-centered activities.

When you sponsor a child, you join us in advocacy and protection for millions of vulnerable children who are not yet able to speak for or protect themselves.

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1 “Child Trafficking Statistics.” Child Liberation Foundation, 20 Apr. 2020,

2 UNODC, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2020 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.20.IV.3).

3 Nations, United. “World Day against Child Labour.” United Nations, 2020,

4 “Child Sex Trafficking Overview.” National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. 2022.