Cycles of Exploitation: The Links Between Children’s Institutions and Human Trafficking

Cycles of Exploitation: The Links Between Children’s Institutions and Human Trafficking

Cycles of Exploitation: The Links Between Children’s Institutions and Human Trafficking

Executive Summary

Decades of research have shown how important it is for children to grow up in safe, loving families rather than in institutions. For children to thrive, they need more than basic health, nutrition and hygiene: they also need individualised, personalised care from a trusted adult – care that institutions, by their very nature, cannot provide.


Despite this, an estimated 5.4 million children worldwide live in institutions that cannot meet their needs and neglect their rights.4 This includes so-called orphanages, where on average more than 80% of children are not orphans.5

In addition, an estimated 9.965 million children live in modern slavery, encompassing human trafficking for all forms of exploitation, including sexual abuse, criminality and forced labour.6 According to the internationally recognised definition of child trafficking, a child does not have to have been physically trafficked to be considered a victim: he or she may instead be recruited, received or ‘harboured’ (ie, accommodated before or at the site of exploitation) in order to be exploited.7

This Global Thematic Review examines the growing evidence of the links between the institutionalisation of children and human trafficking. It highlights how the relationship between the two compounds the harmful nature of both phenomena and offers insight into the global response needed. As the case for care reform continues to be made in many parts of the world, it is critical to recognise and understand these links so that interventions, advocacy and policies can be put in place to disrupt the systems and processes that negatively impact children’s lives.

The evidence collected in this report aims to appraise, synthesise and build on the current evidence-base on institution-related trafficking in diverse contexts around the world.

This research was conducted by Lumos between July 2019 and November 2020. It identified and prioritised five thematic areas and corresponding research questions in relation to institution-related trafficking:

  • Core concepts: How can the core concepts around institution-related trafficking be described and defined?
  • Laws, policies and systems: What laws, policies and systems currently govern institutional care for children and human trafficking in all its forms? How can the term ‘orphanage trafficking’ be legally defined and what would a model law to tackle it entail?
  • Patterns and dynamics: How are children trafficked and exploited in different institutional care settings around the world?
  • Scale and prevalence: What can new and existing evidence tell us about the estimated scale and prevalence of institution-related trafficking?
  • Vulnerabilities, risks and drivers: Why do certain children become victims of institution-related trafficking? What drives institution-related trafficking?

The thematic review used five qualitative methods:

  1. a multilingual literature review focusing on academic and grey literature
  2. a global call for evidence on children’s institutions and human trafficking, reaching 84 organisations and individuals from 45 countries across all regions of the world
  3. interviews with eight international experts working in the anti-trafficking and alternative care fields
  4. a series of illustrative country case studies using qualitative methods
  5. a Model Law on Institutional Childcare Trafficking for the Purpose of Financial Exploitation, developed using expert roundtables and legal opinion.

Key Findings

  • Currently, there is no generally accepted definition for the different forms of trafficking in the context of institutional care for children. The term ‘institution-related trafficking’ is intended to remedy this and is used in this report. It refers to all manifestations of trafficking in the context of institutional care for children.
  • There are a variety of international laws, policies and other mechanisms to promote and protect the right of children to grow up in a family environment, particularly in relation to those who are separated from their families or who suffer child abuse and exploitation. Further measures prohibit or criminalise the trafficking and exploitation of children in all its forms.
  • Although the link between children’s institutions and human trafficking was recognised by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2019 in its Resolution on the Rights of the Child,8 there are very few examples of these two critical areas of child protection being formally recognised and linked in laws, policies and systems. As a result, millions of children worldwide are exposed to institution-related child trafficking
  • Shortcomings in child protection systems, lack of accountability structures in institutional care, insufficient legal recognition of the phenomenon and misdirected financial support to orphanages around the world all contribute to a system that enables the exploitation of children in vulnerable situations.
  • In order to address the gap in legislation, Lumos worked with Professor Parosha Chandran to develop a Model Law on Institutional Childcare Trafficking for the Purpose of Financial Exploitation (see Appendix 2 on page 101). It is hoped that this Model Law can serve as a basis for discussion to enable the application of effective laws to combat this problem and better protect children.
  • This report highlights that institutional care systems can in themselves be a driver of child trafficking as well as a destination for children who have already been trafficked. Inadequate data and reporting mechanisms to monitor children in institutional care mean that many institutions are hotbeds for onward trafficking and can act as central components in child trafficking flows. Therefore, institutional care can be considered both a cause and an outcome of human trafficking.
  • Orphanage trafficking is a form of child trafficking described as “the recruitment of children into residential care institutions for the purpose of profit and exploitation”. Orphanage volunteering – and the industry that has sprung up to support it – has contributed to a global ecosystem that creates a demand for institutions, often run for profit, and for children who can be marketed to foreign donor communities as alone, abandoned and in need of care. Some reports describe children being deliberately left malnourished and in poor conditions in order to raise more money from foreign donors and volunteers.
  • Separating children from their families and trafficking them into institutions helps to meet this demand. Trafficking in orphans is often linked to a process known as ‘paper orphaning’, where children are manufactured into orphans with forged identity documents. This can include “the falsification of parental death certificates, the production of new birth certificates, creation of paperwork attesting to abandonment or relinquishment, or children being coached to pose as orphans in the presence of volunteers and visitors”.
  • Research consistently indicates that orphanage trafficking is more prevalent in countries where there is a significant tourism industry, with orphanages generally being established in key tourist areas. In Cambodia, for example, the number of residential care institutions has increased by 75%, even though the number of orphans has decreased significantly. In Uganda, the number of children in homes increased from just over 1,000 in the late 1990s to 55,000 now – despite a sharp decline in the number of orphans. These orphanages are being built in tourist hotspots.
  • There are numerous additional safeguarding risks specific to children trafficked into institutions such as orphanages. These are usually linked to the exploitation of children for additional financial gain and can include sexual abuse by volunteers or visitors, forced labour, performing shows or making gifts for visitors.
  • A ‘revolving door’ of tourists and volunteers coming and going from an orphanage can also exacerbate psychological problems in children, akin to attachment disorders. Children need long-term stable carers if they are to develop physical, cognitive, and emotional wellbeing throughout their lives. In the absence of their parents or primary caregivers, children in orphanages may form unnaturally quick bonds with visitors and volunteers, only to be followed by a form of grief when the individual leaves. This cycle of attachment and abandonment repeats with every visitor or volunteer that comes along, and the experience can exacerbate existing attachment disorders and expose each child to repeated patterns of emotional and psychological harm.

To read the full report click here.

To learn more about Lumos click here.