The U.N. Children's Fund, UNICEF, says more than one million children are illegally bought and sold each year around the world.
The UNICEF report says human trafficking is now the world's third largest criminal business, after drugs and weapons trafficking. The U.N. findings released Wednesday said child trafficking generates up to $10 billion a year worldwide for those who illegally buy and sell children for cheap labor and as sex slaves.
Lisa Kurbiel, a child protection Officer for UNICEF, said traffickers are taking advantage of children like never before. "Criminal networks are organizing around this and they're making billions of dollars a year. That's what's new, is that they've now realized that the laws against trafficking are not as strong as the laws against trafficking cocaine and heroine. So they're actually choosing to change their business around kids. That's the most alarming thing. They're looking at human beings as if they're looking at cocaine in a plastic bag," she explained.
The problem is worst in areas like West Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, which supply the largest number of children. West African and Eastern European children who fall victim to trafficking are likely to be sold into the sex trade or made to work as domestic servants. Chinese and Vietnamese children tend to be forced into prostitution or for cheap labor.
The U.N. agency said some are displaced within their native countries, but most find themselves in Europe, where market demand is greatest.
Some children are abducted, some are lured from poor families by promises of money, education or an opportunity to work in a distant land.
Ms. Kurbiel said most families who send their children away to earn money do not understand what kinds of dire circumstances their children will face, because the contact seems innocent at first. "One of the surprising facts about trafficking is that despite the organized mafia groups and the criminal networks that do exist, very often the initial contact is through a familiar face in the community," she said. "Very often in countries like Moldova and Romania it's an employment ad in a local newspaper in their local language that is linked to an employment office that they may pass every day, to and from school."
UNICEF officials say effects of trafficking on children are lasting and devastating. And they are looking at ways to prevent child trafficking before it begins, through legislation and community awareness.