Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, and children living in poverty are especially vulnerable to it. Recognising the signs of trafficking means we can help stop the horrendous practice of modern day slavery.

A middle-aged woman rides her motorbike slowly around Nong Ki village in southern Thailand. She roams easily, lazily, before her eyes fix on a small house built alongside a barren piece of farmland. She smiles. Her motorbike comes to an abrupt halt, just metres from where a young girl is playing with a battered old mobile phone. Her clothes are torn and stained.

“My name is Angel,” the woman says. “Would you like a new mobile phone? Do you want pretty clothes to wear? I can give these things to you. I have a job for you. It is an easy job. You will earn a lot of money so you can send some home to help your family. They will be so proud of you.”

The young girl’s eyes widen as she pictures her younger brother eating three big meals each day, like her friends.

Angel holds out a well-worn motorbike helmet. “All you need to do is come with me.”

The young girl glances one last time at her old mobile phone, stands, nods shyly, and takes a step forward.

It’s happening overseas. And it’s happening right here, in our backyard. Every year, men, women and children are trafficked into horrific forms of exploitation. And sometimes, they find themselves in Australia. Our nation is a destination country for people trafficked from Asia, particularly Thailand, Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia.

Last year, the Australian Federal Police investigated 105 cases of alleged trafficking and related offences; roughly one-third were suspected forced marriage cases. The courts also convicted three defendants for travelling overseas to engage in child sex tourism.

But we’re not powerless in the face of this evil. By educating ourselves about the signs and forms of human trafficking, and speaking up, we can help stop it.

How to Recognise the Signs of Slavery

When you’re moving through airports, travelling overseas, or just going about your daily life in Australia, keep an eye out for these signs a person could be a victim or slavery. They may:

  • Be accompanied by a controlling person and does not speak on their own behalf
  • Not have access to their own passport, or identity documents
  • Live and work at the same place, like a restaurant or nail salon
  • Not be allowed to control their own earnings
  • Be new to the country and unable to speak the language
  • Be frightened to talk to strangers and authorities, or be distrustful or suspicious when meeting new people
  • Have signs of abuse, including bruises, scars, or show evidence of having been denied food, sleep or medical care
  • Be dressed inappropriately for their route of travel at the airport, such as wearing clothes in the wrong size or that are not weather appropriate
  • A trafficked child may be dressed in a sexualised manner or seem under the influence of drugs or alcohol; they may appear malnourished or have physical signs of abuse like scars or bruises
  • Work very long hours with little or no time off
  • Not have an employment contract
  • Give answers that seem rehearsed or scripted
  • Live or work in a cramped space

Sources: A21; The Australian Federal Police

How to Recognise the Signs of a Forced Marriage

  • The family has a history of elder siblings leaving school early or marrying young
  • The person is subject to unreasonable restrictions from their family, such as not being allowed out
  • The person has expressed concern regarding an upcoming family marriage
  • The person has extended absence from school, college or the workplace, or begins to display low motivation
  • There is evidence of family disputes or conflict, domestic violence, abuse or running away from home

Source: The Australian Federal Police

What To Do If You Suspect Slavery

If you suspect a person has been trafficked, contact the Australian Federal Police on 131 237 or through this confidential form on their website.

Who is Most Vulnerable to Trafficking?

Child and families living in poverty are especially vulnerable to trafficking. The desperate circumstances they may be facing means they’re susceptible to manipulative traffickers, like Angel, who offer false promises of employment, rewards, or education opportunities. Traffickers tend to target people who are dreaming of a better life, have unstable home lives, and lack employment prospects.

Other high-risk factors include homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse, mental or physical disability, or lack of legal immigration status.

Source: The Borgen Project

Types of Trafficking

Men, women and children are trafficked for a range of different, exploitative purposes, including:

Sex trafficking

Victims of sex trafficking may be forced to work:

  1. In massage parlours
  2. At escort services
  3. In adult bookstores
  4. In modelling studios
  5. In bars or strip clubs
  6. As prostitutes

Forced marriage

A forced marriage is when a person gets married without freely and fully consenting, either because they’re too young to understand, are unable to understand, or have been threatened, coerced or deceived into marriage.

In 2016, roughly one-third of the 105 cases of alleged human trafficking that the Australian Federal Police investigated were forced marriage cases.

Forced labour

This form of trafficking occurs when a person uses force or threats, coercion, abuse of the legal process, or deception to compel someone to work. Migrants are particularly vulnerable to this form of trafficking. For children, this could include work like forced begging.

Source: Trafficking in Persons Report

Debt bondage

Debt bondage (also known as bonded labour or indentured servitude) is the most common form of modern slavery and is closely linked to forced labour. One way traffickers coerce their victims into slavery is by imposing a debt upon them. This could be done through an initial debt that is through an often-misleading term of employment: it could include travel costs, recruitment costs, accommodation and board. Traffickers and recruiters charge exorbitant fees and inflated interest rates, making it almost impossible for a victim to pay off the debt. Victims face dangerous circumstances if they try to leave and often have their passport or identity documents taken to prevent them from leaving. Debt bonds can be passed down from parent to child for generations.

Victims of debt bondage may be forced to work in: - Sweatshops - Nail salons - Commercial agriculture - Construction sites - Restaurants - Housekeeping/custodial work

Source: Anti-Slavery Org; Trafficking in Persons Report

Domestic servitude

This form of trafficking is found in private residencies, where a domestic worker such as a maid or a nanny is not free to leave the place of employment and is abused and underpaid, if at all.

Source: Trafficking in Persons Report; US Department of State

Child soldiers

The use of child soldiers becomes human trafficking when it involves the unlawful recruitment or use of children, through force, fraud or coercion, by armed forces as combatants or other forms of labour, like cooks or porters.

Source: US Department of State

How Compassion Helps Protect Children from Exploitation

Our holistic child development model helps to mitigate the risk of a child being trafficked. Our Child Sponsorship Program and Highly Vulnerable Children’s fund help prevent children from being exploited, as each child is known, loved and protected. Our programs provide children with positive and safe environments where they can learn and play among their peers and loving adults who care for them with dignity, respect and integrity. Critical to this is the close monitoring of child attendance, visits to their home, and training children and their parents in recognising abuse of all forms.

Our local church partners also implement unique programs to help keep children safe from trafficking and exploitation. In northern Thailand, stateless children who are more vulnerable to trafficking are assisted to obtain their official documents; in Bangladesh, parents are educated about the dangers of child marriage; on the coast in Brazil, children learn surfing to keep them off the gang-warfare dominated streets; in Kenya, Maasai girls are encouraged and supported to continue their education: a rarity amongst their tribal group.

Compassion works with our local church partners in the field to identify children who are on the brink of unacceptable situations. Help us empower the local church to assist these children through giving to Highly Vulnerable Children or by sponsoring a child today.

Words by Zoe Noakes; introduction by Richard Miller and Tuangporn Wiroonchatapunth