Children in the hands of danger
Every day, many people go missing - and children aren't excluded from this risk. Many are victims of the human-trafficking industry, in which they are bought and sold, often for labour. According to Unicef, 1.2 million children worldwide are trafficked yearly, out of 2.5million people who are trafficked.
In East Asia and the Pacific, most child victims are forced into prostitution. In Western Europe, most come from Eastern Europe and are used for prostitution and as a source of cheap labour. Trafficking is estimated to be a HK$250 billion-a-year industry. Every region in the world is affected: some provide the children, some are transit points and others are traffickers' destinations.
The problem in Asia
Children are relatively safe in Hong Kong. Police records show that seven children have gone missing since August 2000. However, it is a different picture across the border.
More than 200,000 children go missing every year on the mainland, says Unicef. Trafficking takes place in such provinces as Sichuan, Guangxi, Guangdong, Fujian and Henan. Often, victims of trafficking are taken from poorer provinces and sent to urban areas for forced labour.
Sometimes, they are taken to Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Women and children are also brought into the mainland from Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam for forced marriages, labour or prostitution.
What can be done?
'The difficulty in tackling child trafficking is that children are the most vulnerable. They may not know how to protect themselves or be aware of the potential danger they may be in,' says Irene Chan Man-tuen, chief executive of the Hong Kong Committee for Unicef.
Human trafficking is linked to several common factors.
'Mostly it has to do with poverty, little education and traditional values that dismiss children and women as unimportant individuals,' says Chan. 'Most cases are related to the sex trade, forced labour or marriages. Some victims are recruited as beggars or to fight in armies.'
Getting rid of child trafficking is also hard because there is no official policy or administration to record or identify children.
'Some places or countries don't even have birth registration, an official record of a child's existence,' Chan says.
Recording a child's birth can secure his or her right to a nationality, giving the child necessary services such as health care. It is one key way to help protect children from child labour and marriage or underage military service. Birth registration can also help missing children reunite with family if they are found.
In 2003, 24 million births were unregistered, which is 36 per cent of all births worldwide, reports say. South Asia has the largest number of unregistered children, more than 23 million, accounting for 47 per cent of unregistered births worldwide. In the Middle East and North Africa, 16 per cent of children were not registered at birth, and in East Asia and the Pacific, 19 per cent were unregistered.
Those stark numbers were enough for Unicef to launch a birth-registration campaign. The group is working with Afghanistan, Angola and other governments to try to register and protect all children.
Noi's story: a victim of child trafficking
Noi was a 16-year-old girl living with her parents in a poor village in Laos. One day, a woman came to their house and told Noi's parents that she could find her a job as a waitress in Thailand. The parents were hesitant about the good offer. But Noi agreed to go in the hopes of earning money to help the family. So one night, she boarded a boat headed for Thailand and embarked on a journey she never expected.
Instead of a restaurant, she was taken to a bar in the Thai city of Saraburi. She was told to entertain customers. Noi also had to wear a skimpy uniform, which made her feel uncomfortable. She shared a small room with six Laotian girls who all worked in the bar. She lived in constant fear.
'If we were slow bringing drinks, the owner would hit us with anything he could grab,' she said. But that was not worst of it: she was told to have sex with customers because the owner said it would bring in more money. She was still a child, but she had been forced into prostitution.
Luckily, she managed to get to a pay phone to secretly call her father. Eventually, she was rescued and sent back home, thanks to the help of a local non-profit organisation, Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances. The group is supported by Unicef and combats child trafficking in the region. Now, Noi works as a beautician. She received training from the non-profit group and is able to earn a living without being exploited.
The power of education
Education is an important tool to stop human trafficking, says Irene Chan Man-tuen, chief executive of the Hong Kong Committee for Unicef.
Armed with knowledge, teenage girls become more aware of dangerous situations. In 2003, Unicef, the Sichuan government and non-profit organisations teamed up to distribute handbooks to secondary school girls. Many of them were ready to go out and look for jobs in the big cities, and the handbook offered them safety tips on how to avoid potential traffickers and an emergency number to call for help.
'We need to let our children know their rights and teach them to voice their concerns, and to understand the global issues of human trafficking,' Chan says. She says this outlook applies to children in Hong Kong, too.
Unicef is launching an awareness campaign on top of its regular workshops in primary and secondary schools. A documentary about global child trafficking, Not My Life, will be screened, with a talk to follow.
The film (notmylife.org) is directed by Robert Bilheimer, president of Worldwide Documentaries, and it depicts trafficking, exploitation and modern-day slavery in all parts of the world. It also features inspiring testimonies from survivors.
Convention on the Rights of the Child
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international treaty that recognises the human rights of children, defined as a person below the age of 18, unless the laws of a particular country set the legal age for adulthood younger. In 1991, the convention became part of international law. Beijing ratified it in 1992 and Hong Kong in 1994.