Counting The Cost of Child Exploitation

Sophie Blanchard

MA student, Criminology and Crime Control 

Department of Criminology, University of Hull

s.l.blanchard-2017@hull.ac.uk

This blog takes a look at the recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) publication of statistics for child victims of modern slavery in the UK. This is the first publication of its kind by the ONS and draws on data from the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), Police Recorded Crime (PRC), Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), Department for Education’s Children in Need Census (CINC), The Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline, amongst other organisations. This ONS publication seeks to provide a deeper insight into the incidences of child victims of modern slavery in the UK.

There is no one data source that accurately quantifies the number of child victims in the UK. The NRM currently provides the best measure of potential victims, although it is known to be an undercount. In this blog we will look at the different sources that support the ONS publication, identify strengths and weaknesses of this type of data collection and aim to provide a summary of the data within it.

How many potential victims have been identified?

In 2021, 5,468 potential child victims were referred into the NRM. This shows a 9% increase from the previous year when 5,028 potential child victims were referred. The number of potential child victims of modern slavery in the UK has increased every year since the NRM was established in 2009. However, it can be argued that the increased number of potential victims being referred is not just because there are more victims but because there is increasing awareness and training amongst first responders.

Whilst the numbers went up for the NRM, the number of potential child victims of modern slavery identified by the Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline decreased drastically. In 2021, the helpline received information about 194 potential child victims of modern slavery, which came from calls, web forms, and app entries. This shows a 43% decrease from the previous year when there were 340 potential victims, although the reasons for this are as yet unclear.

Figure 1: Comparison of PRC and NRM figures, April 2016 – March 2021

YearPolice Recorded Crime child victims of modern slaveryYearNational Referral Mechanism child victims of modern slavery
Apr 2016 to Mar 2017287Jan 2017 to Dec 20172,114
Apr 2017 to Mar 2018679Jan 2018 to Dec 20183,129
Apr 2018 to Mar 20191,327Jan 2019 to Dec 20194,554
Apr 2019 to Mar 20202,547Jan 2020 to Dec 20205,028
Apr 2020 to Mar 20213,239Jan 2021 to Dec 20215,468

When we compare the PRC statistics on child victims of modern slavery and the NRM figures in each 12-month period we observe there is a significant difference (Figure 1). This difference highlights a worrying gap in the amount of identified cases of potential child exploitation and the policing response to investigating these potential crimes.  

What are the ages of the victims?

Figure 2: Age of child victims, 2017-2021

Figure 2 shows the ages of child victims from PRC in England and Wales. The largest age group throughout years 2017 to 2021 are 13- to 16-year-olds. The statistics from April 2018 to March 2019 and April 2019 to March 2020 show the number of victims who were aged 13 to 16 almost doubled.

According to the NRM data for the year ending December 2021, over four-fifths, (82%) of the children who received a positive reasonable grounds decision from the NRM were aged 15 to 17 years old. This could simply be because more 15- to 17-year-olds are referred into the NRM and can be backed up by the PCR graph above which shows 13 to 17-year-olds being the most reported ages.

What are the genders of the victims?

Figure 3: Gender of potential child victims, 2021

According to the Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline statistics, the most common gender of the 194 potential child victims of modern slavery reported to the helpline in 2021 were female (32%), even though the category of unknown genders is higher than both male and female victims (Figure 3). In contrast, the NRM 2021 end of year statistics appear to show that there were 4,314 male and 1,145 female potential child victims, a total of 5,459, leaving 9 potential child victims of unknown gender. These two contrasting data sets make it difficult to produce any useful overview of the gender of children who are both identified and referred into the NRM and of those that fall outside the scope of the NRM statistics. The ONS publication does not make specific reference to an overview of gender in this way because of this challenge. This is an obvious weakness of collecting and sharing data from multiple different data sets.

In the NRM, of those children who received a positive reasonable grounds decision in 2021, 79% were male and 21% were female.

What are the nationalities of the victims?

When looking at the NRM statistics for the nationalities of the potential child victims, UK nationals are the most commonly identified at 2,981. The five most common nationalities of child victims reflect the five most common nationalities of adult victims, if in a slightly different order (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The five most common nationalities of potential child victims, 2021

What types of exploitation were reported?

The main types of exploitation which have been reported through all organisations have been criminal exploitation (county lines are a significant factor here, especially for males) and sexual exploitation. In the NRM data set males were most likely to have experienced criminal exploitation (62%) and for females it is sexual exploitation (42%).

The Independent Child Trafficking Guardians service (ICTGS) showed that there were 27% more referrals in 2020 than in the previous year (555 in 2020 from 437 in 2019). From the data on exploitation types from October 2018 to December 2019, 379 males and 134 females were referred to ICTGS with a higher number of males who have been criminally exploited (216) than females (17).

Conclusion

Overall, the data that are used and reported within this publication from the ONS are not directly comparable due to the different time periods and the variable recording measures used by each organisation. Some data are separated and cannot be combined and compared with other statistics – not all jurisdictions of the UK are covered by some of the data sources, for example. However, despite the weaknesses and limitations that this report shows, it is a step in the right direction and does provide a somewhat better understanding of the extent of modern slavery in the UK.

In addition, this publication could serve as a useful foundation for gathering data from a much broader set of sources that lay outside the NRM statistics in the future. This would help to give us a far more accurate picture of how many children are being identified as being at risk of exploitation and not just those exclusively referred into the NRM.

Love as Justice: Confronting the Patriarchal Dynamics of Child Abuse

Jasmine Holding Brown,

PhD student, Falling Through the Net Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

J.Holding-Brown-2019@hull.ac.uk

We have all been socialised to embrace patriarchal thinking, to embrace an ethics of domination which says the powerful have a right to rule over the powerless and can use any means to subordinate them. In the hierarchies of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, male domination of females is condoned, but so too is adult domination of children.

(Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks, 2000:74)

Long before Me Too became a viral hashtag in 2017, Tarana Burke, a prolific antiracist activist and community organiser, was working at a youth camp when a 13-year-old sought her out and began disclosing her experiences of sexual violence. Feeling ill-equipped to deal with the information she passed it on to someone else. The girl never came back. Burke felt guilty for rejecting the teenager instead of saying ‘me too’. Burke herself had been turned away from a rape crisis centre without the requisite police referral, and so developed workshops in Alabama’s secondary schools where she asked female students to write ‘me too’ if they needed help. Expecting only a few responses she instead received twenty ‘me toos’ from among the thirty students. A decade later, Burke’s attentiveness to the transformative power of empathy instigated a global reckoning with the pervasive relationship between male dominance and sexual violence. It led, famously, to the dethroning of some high-profile predators.

Bringing abusers to justice is imperative. But justice for survivors requires resources other than outrage and additional reckonings, perhaps less likely to feed popular predilections for scandal, or the entirely counterproductive vilification of front-line workers that accompanies the most egregious child abuse cases. The feminist movement, bell hooks suggests, was the ‘first to call attention to the fact that ours is a culture that does not love children‘, and that child abuse is rooted in the patriarchal systems of dominance that structure society. As a result, children are seen as parental property and denied meaningful civil and political rights. Though caring is, traditionally, the preserve of the feminine, in reality, ‘women are often the primary culprits in everyday violence against children simply because they are the primary parental caregivers’ (hooks, 2000:73). Recognising adult-child relations as patriarchal implicates adults of all genders.

Confronting the patriarchal dynamics of child abuse also requires us to consider the sociological aspects of shame, and how shame conditions attitudes, relationships and practices targeting children. Shaming, hooks argues, provides the foundations for other abuses. It can, for example, be imprinted upon children who fail to perform expected gender roles. Historically, it was affixed to ‘illegitimate’ children. It contributes to the conditioning that makes men far less likely to disclose abuse. It is also felt by those who grow up outside of the idealised family unit. There is a reason, as Lemn Sissay notes in My Name is Why, that parents use the care system as a threat to discipline their children. It reflects the deeply ingrained prejudices regarding the looked after and unparented – ‘a child in care is living proof of the dysfunction at the heart of every functioning family […] It’s a very serious point. It’s almost as though a child in care is toxic, but it’s when we look at children like this that the abuse can happen’.

Far too many young people struggle to elicit care or protection from the adult guardians of state resources within, and outside of, the care system. The ‘adultification’ of children racialised as black denies them ‘the benefits of being viewed as innocent’, while children from communities historically mistreated by statutory services are rightly suspicious that the state will act in their best interests. This is the reason why Gitanmaax members blocked the removal of an Indigenous child in British Columbia in October 2021. In the UK, the struggle for young people to elicit help is compounded by a decade of austerity politics and short-sighted policy making. In 2012, the problem of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale was addressed, in large part, through the tireless work of Sara Rowbotham, a sexual health worker whose evidence was used to convict nine men. Several of their victims were in state care. Two years later Rowbotham was made redundant. In a 2017 radio interview and on the verge of tears she said, ‘it’s really frustrating […] I spent a lot of time thinking it didn’t really make much sense. I really thought that there was one point where I was really on top of my game, I knew what I was doing […] My staff did incredible work with really hard to help young people.’ According to research by the NSPCC it takes, on average, seven years for a young person to disclose sexual abuse. It is entirely unrealistic to expect front-line services, now tasked predominantly with crisis interventions, to meet these child protection needs.

Stuart Hall often referred to the current conjuncture, the conditions of cultural flux that open spaces for social change and, he cautioned, posed a danger to the already marginalised. It is worth remembering that in 2014, the coalition government attempted to privatise child protection services and do away with protections inscribed in the 1989 Children Act. Public and professional outrage defeated the proposals. As England’s local authorities, who are responsible for children’s social care, face a two-billion-pound shortfall in 2022, for-profit solutions to this ongoing crisis will likely resurface.

Until recently, I had not really considered the conjuncture my research emerged from in 2019, when I started a project on the mass migration of 130,000 children from Britain to Canada and Australia. Two years prior, in 2017, historic child migration had made headlines when the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) launched its investigation into the programmes. Gordon Brown (whose government apologised for the schemes in 2010) suggested its findings amounted to the worst child abuse scandal in UK history: ‘bigger than what people have alleged about Savile. Bigger than what people have alleged about individual children’s homes.’ This acknowledgement is unlikely to have made its way into the public domain were it not for the snowball effects of the Jimmy Savile and ‘grooming gangs’ exposés of 2012. (The ‘Savile Effect’ saw an 80% increase in reporting of sexual offences to the NSPCC). This is the critical conjuncture in which the unprecedented scale and scope of the IICSA first launched in 2014, which has, to date, included 15 separate investigations, and has seen 5,440 people testify to its Truth Project. Within the cultural maelstrom of child abuse scandals that have followed, their findings now less scandalising and more anticipated, no sector and few institutions have been left unindicted in their failures to adequately protect children.

The unavoidable reality that child abuse is endemic to our societies cannot be addressed, solely, through repeated inquiry. Nor can the abusive cultures of institutions shoulder all responsibility. The emancipation of the child requires a fundamental reworking of adult-child power relations. Justice, bell hooks writes, ‘is an indispensable part of love’, abuse and neglect negate love, but affirmation and care are its foundations. What might ‘love as justice’ in our relationships with children, and not just our ‘own’ look like? The 13-year-old who never came back to the youth camp was known as trouble, ‘and she was trouble, because she was a survivor’. Tarana Burke did not, at the time, feel qualified to care for the girl who ‘clung’ to her for help. This is not a criticism. Care work can be incredibly difficult and is highly skilled, but it is vital, and must be properly resourced if we are unwilling to accept that justice for children can only be sought retrospectively. When there are no more Tarana Burkes or Sara Rowbothams left, towards whom do we imagine these children will turn?

Caption: Stuart Hall at the first Women’s Liberation Conference Creche, Oxford 1970.

Courtesy of Women Strike UK.


Mothers with lived experience of modern slavery

Ndiweteko Jennifer Nghishitende

PhD student, Living with the Consequences of Slavery Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.

N.J.NGHISHITENDE-2020@hull.ac.uk

When we consider life after modern slavery, we should not only consider survival, but also the prospect of survivors having opportunities to become thriving members of society. My research focuses on women and young persons who have left situations of modern slavery in the UK, and I have recently commenced fieldwork, speaking to women as well as practitioners who support them. I am increasingly becoming aware of the large gap in the manner in which mothers with children are supported, which may severely impact their potential to thrive after exploitation. Many women enter exploitation as mothers, while others emerge out of exploitation pregnant, or with young children, some having their children as a result of the exploitation.

Motherhood

Motherhood requires ‘maternal work’, which comprises daily repetitive tasks towards the raising of children. This ‘maternal work’ is three-pronged in that it encompasses the physical care of children, the emotional and spiritual care of children, and the training of children to be social. This makes motherhood a multidimensional role, in addition to taking care of oneself as an individual. The ‘cultural story’ of motherhood, however, makes mothers out to be strong, independent, and nonthreatening- thus expected to be able to bear almost anything.

Mothers with lived experience of modern slavery seem to be expected to conform to this ‘cultural story’ having to rely mostly on strength to survive. Strength is needed to perform their ‘maternal work’ – physically, spiritually, and emotionally taking care of their children, doing school runs – and during the COVID-19 lockdown, this included home-schooling. This is done in conjunction with moving forward; battling insecure immigration statuses; dealing with insecure, sometimes temporary accommodation; dealing with criminalisation; integrating; working (if allowed and able); dating, or sustaining a marriage; fostering friendships; and so forth.

A suspended future

Women generally consider their children to be their lives, and some mothers find solace in vicariously living through their children by throwing themselves into their upbringing. After all, a mother’s love is ‘supposed’ to know no bounds, and part of her ‘maternal work’ is to protect her child. Because the support available for those who can access it is limited, mothers with lived experience of modern slavery may have to pause or suspend their own lives in favour of those of their children. Some would, for instance, skip their therapy sessions  and other important appointments, but would ensure to take their children to the doctor when needed.

However, children grow up and move out. What happens then? A mother I recently interviewed could not answer me when I asked her about what she wanted the next few years of her life to look like. Her children are her life and soon they will grow up and leave the nest, after which she will be left to deal with her past trauma that was deferred to raise her children.

Work

The benefits of being able to work have been well documented. The inability to work, on the other hand,  has been found to affect individuals negatively, as it can impede social integration and increase destitution, impair confidence, cause loss of skills, accentuate isolation and increase vulnerabilities. Working is important in restoring mental wellbeing and a sense of dignity and self-worth and the provision of a meagre weekly allowance does not address the mental health implications associated with living without work.

Mothers with lived experience of modern slavery express a strong desire to work, but there are various compelling challenges that prevent them from doing so. The issue of work affects mothers differently and it is not simply a matter of having the right to work or the capability. Usually, these mothers are lone parents, and encounter problems surrounding childcare. Some women are British survivors for instance who are unable to work due to insecure childcare. Others may be international survivors with the right to work but face other layers of difficulty in addition to childcare – women may have language barrier problems or long gaps in their resumes that are hard to explain to potential employers because of time spent in exploitation.

In addition to childcare, some mothers are also faced with skills deficits.  Some may have spent many years in terrible working conditions performing unfulfilling tasks that may have stunted their productive abilities. Others may have entered exploitation while they were still children and as such were deprived of the opportunity to gain certain skills. One of the women I interviewed relayed to me that in the quest to obtain skills and thus gainful employment, she would take her babies to class with her, sometimes having to breastfeed during lectures and subsequently having to repeat modules multiple times.

Effects on children

With World Children’s Day commemorated on Saturday, 20 November 2021 (and on 20 November of every year since 1954) to ‘promote international togetherness, awareness among children worldwide, and improving children’s welfare’ it is apt to recognise the impact on the children discussed within this context. Children emerging out of exploitation with their mothers are being let down by the system, even though the need to extend particular care to the child has been emphasised in various international and national human rights instruments. Insufficient support for a mother invariably means insufficient support for the child.

Further, some children are affected by their mothers’ experiences. Those with their mothers and are exposed to their mothers’ hardships may face the possibility of stunted growth and development and/or mental health problems. Children are at times forced to grow up too quickly – taking on responsibilities such as taking care of younger siblings and sometimes even suppressing their feelings to protect their mother’s emotions.

Others are affected by being left behind – a significant number of migrant women have children and are usually unable to migrate with them, because of a lack of safe and legal pathways to migrate and other factors. Some then decide to leave their children behind, in the care of relatives, friends, or nannies, although most feel guilt and remorse  for doing so.

While existing studies suggest that the circumstances surrounding each cohort of children left behind are highly variable, some children struggle without their mothers and some may become withdrawn or perform poorly in school.

The way forward

Although I am in the early stages of my data collection, I have found that the journeys of these mothers and those of their children have barely been researched. Data needs to be collected to inform solutions. More needs to be done, to ensure that women and children in this category are given equitable treatment to not only survive but also thrive, given that their background conditions are complicated. As a mother myself, I know that thriving mothers have a better chance of raising thriving children.

Caption: Mother and child photo from Pexels, copyright free.

Living with the consequences of slavery

Isabel Arce Zelada

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

i.d.arce-zelada-2020@hull.ac.uk

Jen Nghishitende

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

n.j.nghishitende-2020@hull.ac.uk

Mavuto K. Banda

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

m.k.banda-2020@hull.ac.uk

Five months in, our three newest PhD students, Isabel Arce Zelada, Jen Nghishitende and Mavuto Banda, reflect on their collective agenda and their individual research projects so far.

We started our PhDs in the midst of a pandemic and as a cluster we have had little opportunity to work together and understand how our projects interlink. However, through various zoom calls and physically distant interactions we are beginning to understand where we belong in this cluster as a team as well as individually. As a cohesive unit we found that we each speak about the way various institutions constantly ask groups of people with different experiences of exploitation to present themselves as victims. This establishes a uniform ‘humanitarian’ response to problems that involve a multiplicity of experiences, and in the process creates and recreates the model of what a victim is and what they need. At the core of all our projects are individuals who constantly have to prove themselves to be victims in order to get some level of assistance. As such, we are, as a collective, critically investigating what we mean when we say ‘victim’ and what solutions we need to achieve to assist this group of individuals. 

Isabel

In asylum processes the idea that the nation-state is providing safety to a person seeking persecution has a long and complicated history. As an institution asylum has always led to wide networks of power in which many other institutions are involved. In the UK, the rise of nationalistic sentiments, detention centres and hostile environments have led to an awkward paradox in which the UK saves the asylum seeker, yet also condemns them for a role in the demise of the British nation. At the same time, the asylum system keeps its humanitarian role by supposedly saving the true refugee. I am therefore researching the many violent tactics of distrust and retraumatization that are present in the UK asylum process. 

Jen

My research deals with women and children who have survived modern slavery in the UK and as such, I will be focusing on those people who have already either been accepted or rejected as ‘victims’ by the UK Home Office. In recent years, the spotlight has been placed on survivors’ accounts, their tales of slavery and their eventual escape or rescue; scant attention has been placed on what happens to survivors after slavery, especially in the long term. My research will therefore examine the long term trajectories of survivors in the UK, all the while looking at the laws, policies, and processes that are in place to assist them with rehabilitation and reintegration into society in order to  regain their rights and dignity.

Mavuto

My research looks from a different perspective at the children that have become the victims of modern slavery. In adhering to Fairtrade standards and safeguarding their corporate image, Malawi’s commercial agriculture has banned the employment of under-18 year olds in its plantations, as it seeks to prevent and rescue children from the evils of ‘child labour’. Once the work of under-18 year olds in commercial tea and tobacco plantations had been defined as ‘child labour’ this ban became necessary. My study therefore aims at exploring the impact of ‘child labour’ bans in commercial tea and tobacco estates with respect to youth employment and livelihoods in rural communities of Malawi. It will try to understand the socio-cultural dynamics of life in Malawi, and how communities view children’s participation in the labour market.

Henry Ford once said, ‘Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.’ Our continual working relationship will therefore lead to the collective success of our cluster as well as our individual successes in our research projects. We also look forward to hopefully meeting and working with everyone soon in person at the Wilberforce Institute. Our shared hope for the future is that victimhood, with the pressures of presenting oneself as the perfect victim, is scrutinized, and the assistance that is needed is given without requesting trauma as payment for it.

Protective medical mask on laptop. https://www.flickr.com/photos/156445661@N02/49799314177

Criminology, climate change and the ‘useable past’

Saphia Fleury, ‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

What are the harms inherent in human migration? Who are the victims and who is responsible? Does it make a difference whether somebody is fleeing environmental catastrophe rather than persecution or conflict? These are some of the questions I am grappling with in my PhD research, which seeks to understand the difficulties faced by migrants, particularly children, in the context of climate change.

My approach is somewhat unorthodox. I am trying to answer these questions by looking to the past, using case studies that are not directly connected to changes in the Earth’s climate. The first case study concerns the ‘boat people’ migration from post-war Vietnam (c.1975-1992), which is generally ascribed to political causes but also had environmental roots. The second is that of Montserrat, specifically the evacuation of more than half the island’s population following a series of catastrophic volcanic eruptions between 1995 and 1998. In what sense can these histories be considered ‘useable’, and provide an insight into future climate migration? For me, the answer lies in a perspective called eco-global criminology (EGC).

Like all branches of criminology, EGC is concerned with harms, victims and perpetrators. It seeks to predict future risks (to the environment, humans and animals) and develop solutions to prevent the worst environmental crimes occurring. Unlike many other branches of criminology, however, it is not limited to harms which are illegal. It also scans the global horizon for acts which are ‘lawful but awful’, which hurt the environment and by extension humanity, but are not strictly criminal. An important aspect of EGC is the transnational nature of these harms, and climate change is a truly transnational problem.

The two case studies, Vietnam and Montserrat, represent geographical regions with a history of major human migration and environmental degradation. In both cases, the people who fled their homes in the twentieth century, including large numbers of children, experienced human rights violations at the hands of the state and other actors.

Many of the children who fled volcanic eruptions in Montserrat came to the UK. Their arrival here often occurred after multiple relocations on their home island and in the Caribbean region. On arrival in the UK, some spent months, even years, in insecure and poor quality accommodation. The policies designed to prevent them leaving Montserrat in the first place, and later to protect them on their migratory journey, often failed to uphold their human rights. As a result, many of the children faced issues including poverty, insecurity, racism, trauma, family separation and a lack of educational attainment.

For all its failures, the evacuation of people from Montserrat was, to some extent, an example of planned and assisted relocation. For the boat people on the other hand, grave uncertainties, including a high chance of death, attended their irregular departure from Vietnam. Thousands were turned away by neighbouring states, resulting in many migrants perishing at sea. Others faced serious human rights abuses in camps and holding centres as they awaited resettlement.

By understanding the patterns of risk and harm that affected these migrants, EGC can help us to predict the risks that displaced persons may face in the future. Importantly, it also gives us the opportunity to prevent harm, by putting in place policies and programmes today that allow people to adapt to their changing environment, and/or protect them if they are forced to move. Vietnam and Montserrat are already experiencing climate change-related degradation and are forecast to experience worsening impacts in the coming decades. It is therefore possible that both countries will see a significant uprooting of their populations in the near future.

Today, Montserrat faces an increasing risk of strong hurricanes and, thanks to the destabilising effects of heavy rainfall, further volcanic activity. EGC can use the lessons of the past to plan for the future; to propose better policies to help Montserrat’s current generation of children remain in their homes, or in the worst case, to migrate safely and with dignity. Similar comparisons and lessons can be drawn from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, where wartime environmental destruction led to massive food insecurity and was one push-factor in the boat people migration. Today, as flooding, drought and salinisation sweep through the Delta, similar issues threaten to uproot and scatter the rural poor. These examples of the ‘useable past’ provide the benefit of hindsight, and EGC compels us to anticipate and mitigate future harms to prevent another human tragedy.

In 1959, the environmentalist Peter Farb suggested that ‘life is like a delicate fabric’, presenting a romanticised vision of the interdependencies of the human and natural worlds. But his ultimate conclusion had a more ominous overtone:

The wonder is not that so many threads are necessary in the fabric, but rather than the fabric manages to exist at all. (P. Farb, Living Earth, 1960: 164)

When environmental harms pull at these threads, there is a grave risk that the structure will ultimately disintegrate. Both Vietnam and Montserrat have faced historical periods when the fabric of life certainly appeared to be falling apart, with both the natural world and human society hurtling towards a dangerous threshold. Climate change represents a similar existential threat today. Using an EGC approach may help prevent repetition of some of humanity’s past mistakes, as a small contribution to our collective battle against the gravest risk we face.

15 May 1984 – Vietnamese refugees wait to be rescued by the USS Blue Ridge from a 35-foot fishing boat 350 miles northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea 
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:35_Vietnamese_boat_people_2.JPEG 

Ethical considerations in child migration and exploitation research

Jasmine Holding Brown

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.holding-brown-2019@hull.ac.uk

Saphia Fleury

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

James Baker

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.baker-2019@hull.ac.uk

As we begin our second year, and prepare to dive into the primary sources for our research, we take a step back together to consider the ethical issues raised by our research on child migration and exploitation.

Saphia

My research involves interviewing adults who were evacuated to England following volcanic eruptions on Montserrat in the 1990s. These former child evacuees may have faced deeply traumatic experiences, including the destruction of their homes and communities and the deaths of people close to them. Moreover, relocation itself can be a traumatic process, so the semi-structured interviews that I plan to undertake may raise very sensitive issues, which can lead to re-traumatisation.

With this in mind, I wanted to equip myself with the tools to support my participants in case the interview process raised difficult memories. I did this in two ways.

Firstly, I undertook training from ECPAT UK on interviewing child migrants. Although my participants are no longer children, the training focused on conducting interviews with refugees and asylum-seekers and covering traumatic subject-matter, so contained useful pointers on how to prepare the interview space, address power imbalances between the interviewer and participant, and generally make the interviewee feel at ease. It introduced the Cognitive Interview Method, which allows the interviewee to hold images in their mind for long enough to recount a full and accurate history to the interviewer, while avoiding re-traumatisation. The training is available for free online.

My second strategy for supporting my participants was to produce a list of mental health support services, most of which are free to access. The NHS website contains a list of all the helplines and support services available. I chose the ones likely to be of most relevance to my participants and attached it to my Informed Consent Form.

Of course, interviewees have the right to withdraw from the study at any time and their experiences will be pseudonymised to avoid them being identified from my research. While I cannot exclude all possibility that my participants may find the interview process difficult, these methods should lessen that risk to an acceptable level.

Jasmine

My research involves accessing archive materials relating to the welfare of children sent from Britain to live in Canada on Vancouver Island, and Indigenous children forced to attend residential schools on the same island between 1920 and 1960.

Using child welfare records as ‘historical’ sources, particularly when they relate to living persons, raises significant data protection concerns. As a result there are legal restrictions under which such records are held, and, access granted. In addition, the use of pseudonyms and removal of all identifying details will ensure that these individuals remain anonymous and their formative experiences confidential.

Historically, research concerning Indigenous peoples has often hurt more than it has helped Indigenous communities. Consequently, it is important to reflect upon the positioning of the research and the researcher. As a non-Indigenous person, who did not grow up in Canada, it is crucial that I consider this ‘outsider’ perspective. The Canadian Tri-Council Policy on ‘Research Involving the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples’ is an important guide. In addition, there are numerous useful resources created by Indigenous groups, scholars and activists that can help inform more ethically sound practices. This ‘Indigenous Perspectives Guide’, produced for educational purposes is a good starting point for those unfamiliar with Indigenous history.

Western academics, and perhaps anthropologists in particular, continue to reckon with the racist, colonial elements of their heritage: the violence committed in the name of research; the enduring relevance of racism; and the ‘scientific racism’ that was extremely prominent in the context of this study. Records of one of Vancouver Island’s residential schools suggest that children were underfed, given illegal and untested food supplements and denied dental treatment as the subjects of government malnutrition experiments. It is critical then, that this research engages with the origins and legacies of these practices and the philosophies that informed them, research that was not just unethical but inhumane.

James

My research topic concerns the forced emigration of British children to Australia during the mid-twentieth century. I am currently investigating how the education, heritage and museum sectors have preserved the memory of the child migrant experience, while focusing on how child migrants themselves have defined this narrative and the extent to which these migrations are viewed as being a part of British history.

Many British children who were raised on farm schools were subject to abuse and exploitation throughout their childhoods. They grew up in unfamiliar surroundings thousands of miles from home, and it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that the British public became aware of the suffering that was inflicted upon former child migrants. While it is my duty as a researcher to offer these former child migrants a voice and to galvanise the reconciliation process, any research must be undertaken with caution.

During my research, I intend to offer former child migrants and those who have championed the child migrant cause the chance to be interviewed about their experiences. It is not my intention to rigorously investigate the experience of growing up in Australian farm schools, but instead to look at whether the voices of former child migrants have been fully listened to in the years that have followed and the challenges that lie ahead in ongoing justice campaigns. While I do not seek to create emotional discomfort, this subject matter can prove traumatic for interviewees.

Research protocols for interviews must be strictly adhered to. Interviewees must be provided with consent documentation which includes the right to withdraw participation, to have interviews paused or terminated altogether, and to understand how any data will be used. As the principal investigator, I need to complete a full risk assessment and obtain ethical approval before conducting interviews, as well as to carefully consider the questions I intend to ask. This will not necessarily guarantee the emotional wellbeing of research participants, but it will ensure that the emotional wellbeing of my participants is the top priority of my primary research.

As we move into the next stages of our research, we must continually reflect on the practical application of our ethical values, ensuring that the wellbeing of our subjects, whether our research addresses them directly or indirectly, always takes precedence.

Image source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/anonymous-person-with-binoculars-looking-through-stacked-books-3769697/

Universal Children’s Day: A time to pause and reflect upon our ongoing research on children

Dr Elizabeth A. Faulkner

Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

e.a.faulkner@hull.ac.uk

PhD students researching child exploitation at the W.I.

Charlotte Russell  c.russell-2018@hull.ac.uk

Jasmine Holding Brown j.holding-brown-2019@hull.ac.uk

Saphia Fleury s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

James Baker j.baker-2019@hull.ac.uk

The 20th November is Universal Children’s Day (also known as World Children’s Day), as this was the date in 1959 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child and in 1989 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereafter the CRC). This November then marks the thirty-first anniversary of the recognition of children’s rights and offers an opportunity for researchers working on child exploitation in the Wilberforce Institute to take a moment to pause and reflect together upon the role of children’s rights within their research. PhD students James Baker, Saphia Fleury, Jasmine Holding Brown, Charlotte Russell and Dr Elizabeth A. Faulkner (Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery) all work in the area of ‘children on the move’, interrogating both historical and contemporary abuses of children’s rights in situations where they are forced for a range of reasons to leave their homes and cross national borders.

As identified by Price and Cohen (1991) the CRC guaranteed the child’s ‘individual personality’ rights and set the minimum rights which states should recognise for children. But though the CRC is often celebrated for its universal acceptance (with the USA being the only State that has failed to ratify), questions still arise around its provenance and representation. Notions of the child and childhood have been heavily influenced by Western discourses and a romanticised ideal of childhood. The perception that ‘West is best’ is perpetuated in the CRC which can be interpreted as a new imperialism brandished under the guise of ‘children’s rights’, serving as an effective tool to ‘beat’ the Global South, in addition to deflecting from the continued Western dominance within the field of children’s rights. There are other problems too – within this construct children are residential, fixed and inherently local. What then does all this mean for us as researchers investigating ‘children on the move’?

The research of Jasmine and James considers historical exploitation and abuse of children perpetrated in the twentieth century in the form of British and North American ‘child saving’ schemes and the British ‘assisted child migration schemes’ to Australia.  Focusing on the early twentieth century prior to the drafting and adoption of the CRC, children were arguably invisible in the international legal system. Approximately 7000 children were taken from British (and some Maltese) orphanages and sent to work in Australia’s agricultural sector, living in farm schools thousands of miles from home, and many became victims of maltreatment, involving aspects of physical, verbal and sexual abuse. When such cases were reported to authorities by child migrants they were seldom believed, and even if they had been, children’s rights at the time were far less developed than they are today. In this way, justifications for such projects, which emerge from ideals of ‘saving children’ and of advancing British views through education, destruction of culture and populating colonies with ‘white British stock’, are interwoven into the legacy of children’s rights. It is striking how the welfare of children, or ‘children’s rights’ as we might now conceptualise them, can be tied so effectively to the ‘national interest’ in ways that ultimately harm children, assimilation through education being a particular case in point. 

If we look at children taking refuge from persecution and the consequences of conflict, this has been a matter of international concern since Eglantyne Jebb  (the founder of Save the Children), in 1920, declared that ‘the world’s children stand in urgent need of better protection’. Despite the fact that the treatment of children affected by armed conflict – the rights of refugee and asylum-seeking children  – had been dealt with by the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Additional Protocol of 1977, they were not separately recognised in an international instrument until the adoption of the CRC in 1989 through Article 22. The research of Charlotte and Saphia considers the contemporary movement of children, with the former focusing upon children within European refugee camps and the latter upon child migration in the context of climate and environmental change.

Charlotte’s research advocates for the amplification of children’s voices in line with the rights afforded under international law, with the aspiration of addressing the impasse between policy and practice regarding the enjoyment of rights afforded by the CRC. The voices of children provide a link between the contemporary and historical aspects of this research, as each of the doctoral research projects seeks to centralise children.

Saphia’s research catalogues the inadequacies of the international legal framework to address children who migrate, whether domestically or internationally as a consequence of climate change. In contrast to any other international human rights treaty, the CRC provision for the protection of refugee and asylum-seeking children remains largely absent from mechanisms designed to tackle the human impact of climate change and environmental degradation. (Pobjoy, 2017; Myers & Theytaz-Bergman, 2017). The recognition of the rights of migrant children in the two Global Compacts on Refugees and Migrants has been lauded as the first intergovernmental agreement to recognise climate-related migration. However, the Compact (not legally binding) is far from flawless despite making a departure from the traditional international legal architecture that has been implemented to protect refugees. The protections afforded to environmentally displaced persons are not systematic and competing priorities in migrant protection may ultimately bury the issue of climate migration. There are also difficulties when we consider the rights of children that fall outside the traditional view of children as weak, passive and vulnerable in the context of contemporary migration, such as adolescents who have decided to migrate in search of economic opportunities, as this strikes at the heart of the international legal framework.

Children are victims of some of the most devastating examples of state sanctioned and private human rights abuse, within the context of international law. Migration is the field where children’s rights come face to face with and clash with the sovereignty of states, in particular their prerogative to decide on entry, residence, and expulsion of non-nationals. The conflict between the interests of the nation state and the rights of children opens an interesting space for research into the exploitation of ‘children on the move’ during the past two centuries and beyond. We look forward to continuing our research and further discussions on the exploitation of children and the global challenges connected thereto.

“Children’s Rights” by LindaH is licensed under CC BY 2.0
https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/2643bf16-3190-496d-827d-de8e4843eedf

Children Falling Through the Net

James Baker

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.baker-2019@hull.ac.uk

Saphia Fleury

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

Jasmine Holding Brown

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.holding-brown-2019@hull.ac.uk

Charlotte Russell

Wiseman PhD Research Scholarship

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

c.russell-2018@hull.ac.uk

The Wilberforce Institute is home to a number of students whose PhD research focuses on child migration and exploitation, in both historical and contemporary contexts. Four recently came together to explore the connections and the points of difference between their studies. James Baker, Jasmine Holding Brown and Saphia Fleury are first year students in the Falling through the Net cluster, and Charlotte Russell is in her second year. They share their thoughts below.

Our connections:

All four of our research projects are concerned with the situations and processes, emerging in the context of migration, that place children at risk of exploitation. Although approached in different ways, and applied in disparate geographical, cultural and historical contexts, there are common concerns relating to issues of vulnerability and victimhood.

Vulnerabilities are understood, in part, as a condition of childhood, since to varying degrees children depend on adults for protection and survival. However, settlement in unfamiliar territories brings with it cultural and linguistic displacement and furthers the risks of exploitation. This raises important concerns regarding children on the move, who not only have specific needs but are also the bearers of rights.  This in turn focuses attention on the power differentials between adults and children and the relationships between children and the state. It is notable in all our projects that the experiences of migrant children are varied and complex, but also, crucially, that their perspectives are often missing.

Victimhood represents the second of our common concerns. We all seek to balance the acknowledgment of vulnerabilities with the risk of imposing culturally determined images of victimhood upon migrant children. In managing these issues our work is linked by a critical approach, not the notion of ‘victim’ in itself, but to the imposition of a particular form of passive victimhood upon children who have experienced or are experiencing trauma or harm in relation to forced migration.

Our differences:

James and heritage

My particular focus is on how heritage has been utilised to preserve and represent the experience of forced child emigration. As a historian who is interested in memory studies and public history, I am concentrating largely on how museums and memorials have chosen to represent the topic of forced child emigration from Britain to Australia. This research raises a number of important issues; not only do I need to investigate the role that former child migrants themselves have played in defining their own heritage, but I also need to understand how the wider public relates to this history and their contemporary moral judgments of child migrant schemes. I will also be looking to make a comparative analysis of the British and Australian heritage regimes at large, in addition to how the creation of heritage markers in relation to the Home Children can facilitate the wider process of historical redress and reconciliation.

Jasmine and rescue

My project focuses on child rescue – the development of social movements aimed at ‘rescuing’ children, the agencies involved and the ideologies underpinning their practices. I am looking at forced child migration (from Britain to Canada) and compulsory residential schooling (for Indigenous Canadian children) in the 20th Century, to explore the ways in which these drastic, and, ultimately harmful practices were legitimised. Factors that were significant in cementing these forms of ‘child rescue’ include, I suggest, the assumed moral authority of white middle-class philanthropists, religious institutions and other agencies of the state, in addition to the alignment of child rescue with imperialist and colonial political agendas, namely white settlement and assimilation. These cases raise important questions about the nature of the ‘parent state’: who is entitled to act on behalf of children; how are these arrangements constructed, which potentially conflicting interests do they also serve, and to whom are they accountable?

Saphia and the environment

My research looks specifically at modern-day child migration in the context of environmental change, particularly climate change. In my analysis of legal frameworks for the protection of children, I found that, while sufficient legal protections do exist, these are frequently not applied to children on the move. Moreover, there is a protection gap for people migrating as a result of environmental change, who do not fit the category of ‘refugees’.  As a result, many are pushed into exploitative situations, or suffer abuse or an inability to realise their human rights. As climate change reduces the number of people who can sustain a livelihood at home, we might expect the international community to provide support and sustainable solutions for those who need to move. Yet in the context of climate change, the issue of ‘agency’ becomes muddied; more so when considering the decisions made by children who leave their homes in search of a better life.

Charlotte and encampment

In my research, the refugee camp becomes the focus of attention as I assess the role of power and responsibility in the management of such camps. My study seeks to evaluate how these power dynamics, operating within the boundaried and politically contested zone of the refugee camp, influence the embodiment and enactment of a rights consciousness among the young refugees living within them. Children who have experienced or are experiencing trauma suffer the imposition of a particular form of passive victimhood or harm in relation to forced migration. As a result, a key issue which my work aims to address is the effective representation of the experiences of young refugees in camps, without homogenisation or groupism. I’m seeking to balance evidencing young refugees’ expressions of agency with the acknowledgement of their complex and varied individual experiences of ‘childhood’.

Thank you for your interest in our research. We will be adding other blogs as our work develops.

Children photographed as they prepare to leave Britain in the 1960s.

Wilberforce Institute Webinars at the Freedom Festival

Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th September, 2020.

Whilst September marks the return to learning in British schools and universities, for the City of Hull it also heralds the beginning of a four-day festival that has grown to become one of the cultural highlights of the year. Since 2007 the Freedom Festival, beginning on Friday 4th September this year, provides the opportunity for artists and champions of freedom in all its forms to raise awareness about human rights. Whilst this year’s activities are centred firmly on virtual cultural gatherings, the programme provides something for everyone.

The Wilberforce Institute has played a key role in supporting the festival since its foundation during the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade in 2007. This year we are delighted to be contributing four ‘Freedom Talks’ that are part of their exciting programme. From the director of our Institute, to PhD students at the beginning of their academic journey, members of the Institute are looking forward to sharing the fruits of their research with audiences around the world. All four events are free to attend, delivered online, and don’t require any booking. In this blog we aim to provide you with a taster of these activities that we hope will encourage you to join us to find out more.

  • Black Peril

Throughout this summer, British streets, squares and bridges that were the scene of violent race riots in 1919, were transformed into dynamic stages, galleries and plinths to creatively explore this past. It’s easy to get the idea that mobs of ‘woke’ millennials are suddenly forcing Britons to confront ‘diversity’ for the first time. However, from Glasgow to Barry (via Hull), and indeed Chicago and New York the entire western world was engulfed in racial conflict over 100 years ago. The backdrop of today’s civil unrest, statues being torn down and serious soul searching across Britain, mean that there has rarely been a more opportune moment to explore ignored British history, radically challenging the way ‘British’, ‘White’ and ‘Working-Class’ identities have been constructed. As Soweto Kinch has argued, ‘1919 established and entrenched hierarchies of racism that have yet to be undone’.

Two times Mobo Award winning, Mercury nominated British Saxophonist Soweto Kinch will be talking to Dr Nicholas Evans from the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull about the Race Riots that took place in Hull in 1919-1920. This talk precedes the online performance of #BlackPeril2020 for five nights between Monday, 14th and Friday, 18th September 2020.

Watch at https://www.freedomfestival.co.uk/freedom-talks-black-peril-2020/ on Saturday, 5th September 2020, 1-2pm.

Join the live Q&A at @WilberforceHull or @FreedomFestHull on Saturday, 5th September 2020, 2-3pm using the hashtag #FreedomTalks.

  • Tacky’s Revolt

This webinar assembles a stellar cast of academics, all with specialist knowledge in the area, to discuss the largest slave revolt in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world, an uprising that laid bare the interconnectedness of Europe, Africa, and America, shook the foundations of empire, and reshaped ideas of race and popular belonging. Chaired by Diana Paton, William Robertson Professor at the University of Edinburgh (author of The Cultural Politics of Obeah), five academics discuss their understanding of Tacky’s Rebellion.

The panellists include: Vincent Brown, Charles Warren Professor of History at Harvard University (author of Tacky’s Revolt); Edward Rugemer, Associate Professor of History at Yale University (author of Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance); Lissa Bollettino, Associate Professor of History at Framingham University (author of the forthcoming Slavery, War and Britain’s Eighteenth Century Atlantic Empire); Robert Hanserd, Assistant Professor of History at Columbia College, Chicago (author of Identity, Spirit and Freedom in the Atlantic World); and our very own Trevor Burnard, Wilberforce Professor in the Wilberforce Institute (author of Jamaica in the Age of Revolution).

Erica Charters, Associate Professor of History at the University of Oxford (author of Disease, War and the Imperial State), will offer a final commentary.

Watch at https://www.freedomfestival.co.uk/freedom-talks-tackys-revolt/ on Saturday, 5th September 2020, 3-5pm.

Join the live Q&A at @WilberforceHull or @FreedomFestHull on Saturday, 5th September 2020, 5-6pm using the hashtag #FreedomTalks.

  • Falling through the Net

Around the world it is the most vulnerable who are often the victims of coerced labour. Such bondage is nothing new, and yet explorations of why children are especially at risk from exploitation has not received as much scholarly attention as other aspects of slavery studies.

Three members of the ‘Falling through the Net’ research cluster at the Institute, James Baker, Jasmine Holding Brown and Saphia Fleury will each talk about their individual projects in this webinar. James’ focus is on how heritage has been utilised to preserve and represent the experience of forced child emigration to Australia. Jasmine is looking at child rescue in Canada – the development of social movements aimed at ‘rescuing’ children, the agencies involved and the ideologies underpinning their practices. Saphia’s research concerns migration in the context of environmental change, particularly climate change.

Watch at https://www.freedomfestival.co.uk/freedom-talks-falling-through-the-net/ on Sunday, 6th September 2020, 1-2pm.

Join the live Q&A at @WilberforceHull or @FreedomFestHull on Sunday, 6th September 2020, 2-3pm using the hashtag #FreedomTalks.

  • Modern slavery in Humberside

The Humber Modern Slavery Partnership is a strategic partnership of front line organisations across the Humberside Police area dedicated to tackling all forms of modern slavery. Over 60 agencies have joined together to fight slavery and trafficking, and their Coordinator Andrew Smith and Vice Chair Alicia Kidd explain how forms of modern slavery are found in this region.

In this webinar, they discuss the local picture of modern slavery, looking at who the victims are and what they experience, how they become exploited, how they manage to leave the situation, what happens to them once they are out of exploitation and what the practitioner response looks like. They also consider the impact of Covid-19 and how this has changed the way that exploiters operate.

Watch at https://www.freedomfestival.co.uk/freedom-talks-modern-slavery-in-humberside/ on Sunday, 6th September 2020, 4-5pm.

Join the live Q&A at @WilberforceHull or @FreedomFestHull on Sunday, 6th September 2020, 5-6-pm using the hashtag #FreedomTalks.

Image by kind permission of Soweto Kinch.

Covid-19 and the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children

Loria-Mae Heywood

PhD student

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

l.heywood-2016@hull.ac.uk

During the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, ‘stay at home’ measures have paid significant dividends in reducing disease contagion and rates of infection in areas where they have been heeded. While such measures should continue to be encouraged until it is safe to venture out, they have simultaneously been matched with increased risks to children of online sexual exploitation.

Online activity and increased risk to online sexual exploitation

Following worldwide lockdown measures and attendant increases in screen time on the part of children, there have been significant increases in reports of the suspected online sexual exploitation of children – a term denoting the third-party engagement of a child in online sexual activities. Such activities could include an online predator encouraging and receiving from a child a sexually explicit image which is then distributed to child porn groups. The online sexual exploitation of the child could likewise involve the use of an initial sexually explicit image sent by the child as a tool to threaten him/her into sending additional photos and/or money or else face the risk of the exposure of such images to family, friends and/or other members of the public. The risks posed to children from online exploitation during the Covid-19 pandemic have been compounded by a reduced capacity of technical staff to monitor and respond to both real and potential cases, as some content moderators work from home.

As seen in a U.S. context, the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) is said to have recorded a 106% increase in suspected cases of child sexual exploitation (via CyberTipline reports) when March 2019 and March 2020 reports were compared. Canada has similarly seen a spike in online reporting with its online sexual exploitation of children tipline – Cybertip.ca – recording a 6.6% spike in reports in April when compared to the three previous months. While such figures are not representative of actual confirmed cases of online child sexual exploitation or the extensiveness of the online risks posed to children from around the globe, they do show an alarmingly higher reporting pattern than other reporting periods, demonstrating increased possibilities for the exploitation of children. Serving as a complement to the increased reporting of the online sexual exploitation of children has been evidence of the increased demand and access to sexually explicit content featuring children. The Indian Child Protection Fund (ICPF), for example, has reported that following the imposition of restrictive lockdown measures on March 23, 2020, there was an increased search for online content using featured words and phrases such as “child porn”, “sexy child” and “teen sex videos” between March 24 and March 26, 2020. The European law enforcement agency, Europol, has likewise indicated a rise in those seeking child abuse material online.

Shared responsibility for the online security of children

The right of the child to protection is enshrined in international law, most notably under the landmark child rights convention – the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) – under which most states are legally bound. Amidst other specific expressions in favour of the protection of the child, an unmistakable balance has in some instances been made between a recognition of the duty of the state towards children, and a recognition and consideration of the role of parents in the care, maintenance, and upbringing of the child. For example, Art 3(2) of the CRC states that “States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her…”. In light of the current pandemic and the increased risk of children to online sexual exploitation, the international legal juxtaposition of the protective duties and considerations of states towards children and the responsibilities of parents and guardians towards them serves as a reminder of the shared efforts that need to be taken towards the protection of the child. The need for multiple stakeholder involvement in the protection of the child is further reinforced by the recognition provided in the Preamble of the Convention on Cybercrime of (i) the need for co-operation between states and private industry in combating cybercrime and (ii) the belief that an effective fight against cybercrime requires increased, rapid and well-functioning international cooperation in criminal matters.

Bolstering action

In times of normalcy as in times of turmoil the greatest test of humanity is often how we treat and respond to the most vulnerable. As nations and people grapple with Covid-19, associated health concerns, and changes to accustomed lifestyles, care needs to be taken to ensure that the protection of children is given priority, and that specific, strategic and concerted attention and action are directed towards preventing and effectively responding to the online sexual exploitation of children. In the latter regard, action could include, but should not be limited to: the fostering of open communication with children by parents and guardians and the use of parental controls on devices used by children; the provision of training on online safety to children by educational establishments;  government efforts to ensure that child protection teams are equipped to raise awareness and provide protective support to children and families, even if working remotely; industry efforts to install barriers that would limit the avenues through which online predators could gain access to children; and civil society efforts to report real and suspected cases of the online sexual exploitation of children to local authorities and site administrators, while also desisting from sharing sexualised content of children to unofficial parties.

As we face an unprecedented health crisis, there is some strength and comfort that could be drawn from the fact that fervent and effective action in the face of adversity is by no means unprecedented!