Child abduction & trafficking: The social media fiction, the facts & the way forward

Reading time: 14 min

Let’s have a show of hands how many of us have seen at least three videos about attempted child abductions over social media in the past month. How about the past week? Most of these were unverified sources with no date or location, and trying to trace these back to the source and through the police proved to be a wild goose chase.

And while it has placed parents on high alert for snatch and grabs, it has diverted attention from real threats to our children’s well-being. We speak to leading anti-trafficking experts and find out what protective rather than paranoid parenting should look like.

Missing children, child abductions and child trafficking: What’s the difference?

Not every child who goes missing has been abducted and not every abduction is trafficking, so it is important to get our terminology right.

According to an oft-quoted statistic from the South African Police Service Missing Persons Bureau, a child goes missing every five hours in South Africa. This number, however, refers to a 2013 estimate and more recent estimates have changed this number to one child missing every 10 hours.

“Some children may get lost and some may deliberately leave their guardians in order to escape an abusive home situation,” says Carol Bower, an anti-trafficking and children’s rights activist and founder of her own agency, LINALI Consulting, where she is involved in policy and lobbying of organisations and government on matters pertaining to human rights.

“Fight back against fake news because it desensitises us, detracts from our resources and diverts us from focusing on real dangers.”

“While over 70% are found within hours, there are about 23% that are not found or are found too late.”

Child abduction, on the other hand, refers to the child being taken away illegally against their will. Motives behind abductions may be kidnapping for a ransom, or for access by the non-custodial parent. “Divorce often places children in the middle and they are the ones most scarred by it,” says Bower.

In an attempt to report the news quickly, the media often fails to do thorough investigations and abductions are quickly linked to trafficking. A recent child murder case was ascribed to trafficking, but investigators later found out that the motive was a personal vendetta against the mother.

“This means that on that day at that school, no other child was at risk, only this child,” says Marc Hardwick. With more than 13 years’ experience as a policeman in the Child Protection Unit, Hardwick founded The Guardian, an organisation mandated to making childhood safer by reducing crimes against children across South Africa.

Diane Wilkinson of the National Freedom Network, a network of role players involved in combating trafficking and a channel of communication between these role players, civil society and government, explains: “According to the Prevention and Combating Trafficking in Persons Act 7 of 2013, trafficking is a process that requires three elements to be present to be trafficking: An action (for example, recruiting, leasing, buying or selling the victim), a means (the method of control such as situation, coercion, deception or abuse of power to keep the victim in that situation) and a purpose (where the victim is exploited in some way for the trafficker getting some kind of service).

“For child trafficking, the means fall away because no adult can give permission for the exploitation of the child. And child trafficking does not imply transportation: a child being prostituted by her grandmother would also be regarded as being trafficked even while remaining in the household of her grandmother.”

child-trafficking
Reposted with permission from STOP (Stop Trafficking of People)

Why are children trafficked?

The promise of a better future is an almost certain lure for those wishing to escape poverty or an unhappy home.

Sexual exploitation: “We are seeing an increase in our South African operations of children who are forced to work in escort agencies, massage parlours or as prostitutes,” says Bower. However, she also cautions that the media often sensationalises sexual exploitation while ignoring the other causes of trafficking.

Illegal adoptions: Also known as child laundering, illegal adoptions may involve the exchange of money or the removal of children by force.

“Human trafficking is a global, not only South African, concern and children are trafficked even within first world countries.”

Labour trafficking: West African cocoa plantations use child labour; the textile industries of Egypt exploit the small dexterous fingers of children for intricate designs, while sitting on the floor for extended hours cause their hips to become deformed; others are recruited as child soldiers for armies.

Trafficking for body parts: Either due to the demands of organs or for the muti industry. “A few years ago, we were alerted to a woman entering South Africa’s northern border from Mozambique, and the security found blood dripping from her boot, opened it and found children’s heads,” says Bower.

Domestic servitude is a common form of exploitation and trafficking in South Africa. “Single parents may be offered the promise for their child to go to the city to go to school in the morning, while assisting the host family with a few domestic tasks in the afternoon,” says Bower. Children who are trafficked for domestic labour are often denied an education, which is also a violation of their rights, and are often sexually exploited by the males in the house.

How are they trafficked?

The snatch-and-grab picture that has played out over social media has imprinted trafficking into our minds, often to the extent of desensitising us to real danger.

“The problem is that irresponsible journalism has made what has happened more serious than it was,” says Hardwick. “Is organised child trafficking more serious than it was 10 years ago? Absolutely! Organised crime has become more organised, whether it is counterfeit goods, drugs or human trafficking.”

However, most abuse, whether it is a trafficking or sexual abuse of the child in his home environment, follows a grooming phase where the perpetrator is known to his victim.

“What we know now as people working in child protection is that strangers make up only 5% of perpetrators.” This is something Hardwick knows well as his job, in his own words, “is to chase paedophiles and send them to jail.” The other 95% of perpetrators may be known to the child and the family. “The person who goes out of his way to gain our trust is the one who is also grooming our children.”

In the same way that many children are baited into trafficking on the promise of a job or modelling contract and are vulnerable due to poverty, many are baited by the promise of love. “Anyone who is working in the field as long as I have will let you know that cyber grooming is a reality and the cyber world has added an insurmountable risk,” says Hardwick.

“There is no demographic as vulnerable to the disregard of their freedom and human rights as children exploited to satiate the desires of adults.”

Another modus operandi is the sugar-daddy/“Blesser” or lover-boy persona, where a male (often significantly older) seduces a younger woman on the promise of a relationship and then forces her into prostitution.

The statistics in South Africa

“South Africa is a source, transit and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking” reads the US Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Both South Africans and foreign nationals are at risk of being trafficked across borders, but most trafficking occurs within our borders, moving children from rural to urban areas for labour and sexual exploitation.

Just how many children are trafficked each year is anyone’s guess, because many go unreported.

“Many oft-quoted stats are unverified because the NGOs have their own stats that do not always feed into law enforcement; all the different departments and organisations have been keeping their own stats and information and there is no one central database collecting all the figures,” says National Freedom Network’s Diane Wilkinson.

“We have lots of numbers but they are not comparable year on year, or not refined enough,” says Bower. “The only numbers we can work with are those that are reported. What we do know is that in South Africa, we murder children at twice the global rate. Oftentimes this is in error, or discipline gone wrong, which is why we advocate for the abolition of corporal punishment. Overall, we need to make childhood safer.”

Human trafficking is a global, not only South African, concern and children are trafficked even within first world countries. However, each country presents its own zeitgeist of factors that contribute to the vulnerability of children.

“There is no demographic as vulnerable to the disregard of their freedom and human rights as children exploited to satiate the desires of adults.”

“Whenever there is a national disaster, such as an earthquake or typhoon, children go missing and we cannot say whether this is due to the natural disaster or because vulnerable children were being exploited thereafter,” says Hardwick.

“In this country, we have the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS. We have millions of vulnerable children who are AIDS orphans living in child-headed households, and traffickers thus have vulnerable victims. When a 12-year old comes in to the police to say that her six-year-old sibling is missing but has no identification or other documents, it is very difficult for police to investigate. Over and above that, we have many harbours and our border controls are not as tight as other countries. If I was an international human trafficker, this country provides both vulnerable children and the inadequate border controls that would make it easy for me to ply my trade.”

Response plan of action

Fighting trafficking is too big a task for any one organisation, and a sustained collaboration between parents, communities, police and anti-trafficking organisations is needed to safeguard our children and to ensure that if the worst-case scenario ever actualises, the response will be immediate and decisive.

Rene Hanekom, Resource Line Manager at the SA National Human Trafficking Resource Line, provides the following guidelines.

  1. As parents, we should teach our children:
  • To react: Teach them to scream, make a noise, attract attention.
  • The right words: To have phrases such as “this is not my mommy” if they are grabbed, or that whoever is picking them up for school will have a password that only you and your trusted circle will know.
  • To seek help. When you are at the mall, teach children what to do if they are separated from you, for example, to go to a shop counter or security.
  • That there is safety in numbers. If using public transport or walking home from school, walk in a group. And never use a public toilet alone – always take someone with you.

“At the end of the day you do not want to instill a fear, but you wish to instill a healthy awareness of the world,” she says.

  1. As individuals aware that a child may have been abducted or trafficked:
  • First, report to the police: Regardless of whether it is a case of trafficking, abduction or a missing child, report the case to the police immediately. You do not need to wait any number of hours to report a missing child. The sooner we react, the more likely we are to find the child unharmed.
  • Then, start engaging organisations like Pink Ladies. Send them pictures of the child. If you suspect that the child may be trafficked, contact the National Trafficking Resource Line: 0800 222 777.
  • Then and only then should the incident be reported on community social media groups and these should state the date and location.
  1. As communities

There is a fine line between being on guard to a possible perpetrator out in the public and being over-zealous and taxing police resources to a crime that has not been committed.

“We have taught staff at airports, for example, to look out for signs of children who seem fearful or are not engaged with the adults accompanying them,” says Hanekom.

“When people report a car taking pics outside of a school, they are reporting a crime that has not happened, and it is difficult for police to follow up,” says Hanekom. “But the most serious consequence is that it sends police to follow what may just be a smokescreen, and takes essential resources away from combating crime. On the other hand, if you gut says something is wrong, contact the security if it it at a mall, or call the police. “Generally, when it comes to human trafficking, we say that if you see something, say something.

  1. As a nation

“Trafficking is a really heavy workload on top of the already heavy workload of our police. We have the HAWKS, whose mandate is to handle the really serious organised part of trafficking, but they are not solely focused on trafficking,” says Wilkinson.

“We need more training from law enforcement. I am not saying that the specialised branches within the SAP do not have the skills,” says Hardwick. “However, the specialised investigators only mobilise after the first responders. We need to give the first responders the skills that they need.”

Back to the beginning

“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,” said Nelson Mandela.

There is no demographic as vulnerable to the disregard of their freedom and human rights as children exploited to satiate the desires of adults.

“We cannot talk about trafficking without talking about poverty and the other factors that are connected with it,” says Bower. “It is about going back to the beginning and making childhood better. The vast majority of children are vulnerable for reasons other than trafficking, including inadequate parenting.”

“Poverty is a major driver for abuse and exploitation. If we can get a lot right at the first 1000 days of life (that period of time from the conception of a child to their second birthday) and ensure that the mother is well-nourished and that she does not live in a place where she is emotionally vulnerable, then we get a lot right.”

Let’s make this message go viral!

There have been lots of unreported cases of child abductions and child trafficking on social media of late. Fake news desensitises us, detracts from the real dangers and diverts our police resources from where their focus needs to be.

Before you press forward on any child abduction video or message on social media, check to see if there was a date and place. If the case was reported to the right authorities, there will most likely be a picture of the child to enable communities to find them.

Instead of forwarding an unverified social media message, forward to your contacts the following numbers which every parent should have on his or her smartphone today:

  • National Human Trafficking Resource Line: 0800 222 777 (this is more than just a helpline, it is a resource line, and possibly a lifeline)
  • National Freedom Network: An organisation dedicated to collaborating with other organisations in the fight against trafficking.
  • The Pink Ladies: A group of volunteers dedicated to reuniting children with their families.
  • STOP (Stop Trafficking of People): An organisation dedicated to combating human trafficking through Preventative Awareness, Advocacy/Activism and Victim Support.

Also read:

Fathers need to get involved in the first 1000 days of their kids’ lives
Course-correct infant trauma through therapy