Opinion13 May 2019

Children at risk of slavery and trafficking on the US border

The ongoing immigration crisis at the U.S. southern border renders thousands of migrant children vulnerable to modern slavery and human trafficking.

Large Groups Of Immigrants Arrive In El Paso
Groups of immigrants at a processing centre after crossing the international border between the United States and Mexico. Photo Credit: Mani Albrecht via U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Thousands of migrants are crossing the United States’ southern border monthly and the situation is at a boiling point. Government facilities are at capacity, the U.S. President declared a national emergency, and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency faces international scrutiny for separating children from their parents. It’s hard to believe this is modern America, and not a sneak peak at season three of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The conditions these children face constitute horrific human rights violations; but through a modern slavery lens, it becomes even worse.

The border crisis presents ongoing vulnerabilities to modern slavery for migrant children. The outlook for this group grows bleaker as the government reduces its foreign aid for fragile states in the region while simultaneously eliminating opportunities for civilians to flee.

The US has a responsibility to move toward a long-term solution that protects the children at its southern border who are increasingly at risk of modern slavery.

The 2018 Global Slavery Index highlights five key dimensions of vulnerability to modern slavery: governance issues, lack of basic needs, inequality, disenfranchised groups, and effects of conflict.

Migrants fleeing their homes and seeking safety and security at the US southern border, especially children, are disproportionately affected by each of these dimensions and warrant adequate screening and care until their individual situations can be properly evaluated.

As the creator of the world’s leading data-set on slavery, Walk Free is watching this situation with apprehension and calls on the Trump Administration (which has previously vowed to combat child slavery), to address the major humanitarian crisis at its border.

Think of the children

Leading children’s rights organisation, Lumos, shares our strong concern for the welfare of unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable populations attempting to cross the United States’ southern border. The separation of children from their parents increases dependence on public institutions and services. Lumos argues that circumstances where the family unit has been forcibly broken-down, render minors dangerously at risk of modern slavery.

Another important consideration is that once children have been screened by immigration and entered into the systems in place to support them, they are not free from the risk of trafficking. In 2016, the U.S. Senate uncovered at least six Guatemalan children who were trafficked after they had been placed in care by federal authorities. Similarly, there are six federal labour trafficking cases with allegations of abuse committed against civil immigration detainees by private corporations.

In a chaotic environment, vulnerable people will always fall through the cracks.

The ‘smuggler’ relationship concern

In 2018, among all federally prosecuted criminal labour trafficking cases in the United States, the most common relationship between the defendant and their victim(s) was that of ‘smuggler’ or someone who knowingly brings a person into a country through an unauthorized port of entry. This compounds identification challenges at the US southern border when the distinction between smuggling and trafficking relationships requires detailed attention.


Photo Credit: 2018 Federal Human Trafficking Report, Human Trafficking Institute.

Making matters worse at home

The move towards more restrictive immigration policies has further increased the vulnerability to modern slavery of undocumented persons and children already within the US. When victims are treated like criminals, survivors will be concerned that coming forward will lead to being arrested, detained, or deported, making their path to identification and recovery even more difficult, if not impossible.

Leading service providers found that new immigration enforcement policies and practices were increasing their clients’ vulnerability to human trafficking. Nearly 70 per cent of service providers, believed that survivors would remain with their traffickers longer due to the US’s current hard-line immigration stance.

Towards a solution

While the sheer scale and severity of the influx of migrants to the southern US border is unprecedented in modern history, there are steps that can be taken to begin addressing this humanitarian and legal crisis.

Firstly, the United States should join the UN Global Compact on Migration. This pioneering international agreement necessitates support for children, especially those separated from capable guardians, through all stages of migration, from identification and assistance to relocation.  By joining the UN Global Compact, America acknowledges the value of an integrated and multilateral approach to international migration and can lean on the UN for guidance to navigate this unchartered territory.

Secondly, the government should consider reforms to its immigration policies that allow for alternatives to dangerous border crossings. Establishing more accessible legal pathways to immigration is critical in dissipating the flow of illegal entries.

Finally, development assistance and favorable trade and work agreements should be considered with countries plagued by conflict and unrest. The government’s threat to halt all US funding to its South American neighbours, will do nothing to stem the migration flow.

Steps must be taken by the US, not only as humanitarians, but as abolitionists. The current policy has harmful effects not only on migrant children, but also on vulnerable people both within and outside of US borders. We haven’t advanced 153 years since the abolition of slavery in the United States, to be perpetuating modern slavery on our doorstep today.