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Child Trafficking in Sri Lanka – Call for a Systematic Change

2020 Jul 28

Sri Lanka has been ranked as the No. 1 tourist destination consistently over the past two years. An island with the most picturesque beaches, lush rainforests and the best cuisine. While Sri Lanka is situated at an ideal geographical location welcoming thousands of tourists, this same location serves as an ideal source for human trafficking. While it may not be the trafficker’s final destination, it is definitely a hotspot for child trafficking – the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring and/or receipt” of a child for the purpose of exploitation which includes illegal adoptions, prostitution and forced labour of children (persons under the age of 18).

Imagine you are a child in Negombo who does not have access to education, whose family is poor, and so spends most of their time at the beach. Children like you are the most vulnerable. You are ‘scouted’ or ‘kidnapped’ and either transported, held against your will or simply just handed over to an entity who now decides your fate. You may be considered ‘attractive’ or ‘pretty’, this means you will be chosen to ‘please’ sex tourists. You do not have a choice in this. They try to convince you saying it’s the only way to help your family. Maybe they will go after your sister next. You will make more money doing this than spending your time in a classroom anyway. And you are too afraid to report to the authorities, so you comply.

Does Sri Lanka have any measures in place to protect vulnerable children?

Yes and No.

There has been a case study of a mother in Badulla selling her 15-year-old daughter to men for sex. The child was rescued after a client tipped off a local NGO along with the NCPA (National Child Protection Authority). Instead of the local police, it was a CID team that travelled from Colombo to Badulla to arrest the perpetrator and rescue the victim.

This shows that the local police is not trusted even by the NGO to make the arrest. Why People are usually tipped off about raids and money and favours work wonders in situations like this. As a result, fewer victims would come forward as they lose faith in the system while the perpetrators get off scot-free.

Sri Lanka’s Penal Code which was amended in April 2006 to specifically include child trafficking (Section 360c) deems trafficking as a punishable crime by up to 20 years imprisonment. In 2015, Sri Lanka ratified the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons – particularly of Women and Children (also known as the Palermo Protocol). This covers instances such as ‘facilitating the return and acceptance of children who have been victims of cross-border trafficking, with due regard to their safety’ and ‘ensuring that trafficked persons are not punished for any offences or activities related to their having been trafficked, such as prostitution and immigration violations’. But does this mean that these guidelines are followed? Not exactly.

The Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report) for 2019 released by the US State Department said that ‘’there were isolated reports of officials allegedly complicit in trafficking and reports of inadequate investigations’’. The authorities seem lax when identifying and arresting persons associated with child trafficking. This means that victims are less likely to speak out, and the over-reliance on NGOs to deal with this issue puts more pressure on them, with no guarantee of safety for the victim or witness.

The issue of child trafficking is not something new. Sri Lanka was a hub for child sex tourism in the 1980s. During the civil war, children were kidnapped and forced into being soldiers by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tamil population was the most vulnerable back then and Tamil refugees and people living in heavily militarised areas still are. Children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds living in coastal areas are the target demographic for most child sex traffickers. Child labour also remains a massive issue.

It is disappointing that the Sri Lankan Government has not taken a more staunch attitude in combating this illegal trade, and has failed in doing its duty to protect the most vulnerable populations. There must be greater awareness surrounding such issues, and more pressure on authorities to take action. Moreover, officials complicit in trafficking and trafficking-related offences should be held criminally accountable. There should be increased efforts to screen vulnerable populations to identify victims of child trafficking as well as training of officials to ensure that victims are not penalised for committing acts that they were forced into. Protection measures must be put in place as well as the reintegration and rehabilitation of child trafficking victims must be ensured. A systematic change is urgent. 

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