Child trafficking is one of the fastest growing crimes in the world - an underground business, often conducted on the internet, and driven by enormous profits. According to UNICEF, an estimated 2.5 million children, the majority of them girls, are sexually exploited in the multibillion-dollar commercial sex industry.
While the problem is usually associated with countries with unstable economic and political systems, today it is the biggest in Europe, the United States, Russia and Africa.
"Last year we identified 56 cases of young people who have experienced sexual exploitation just in the Washington D.C. area," Andrea Powell, executive director of FAIR Fund stated. Powell co-founded the organization eight years ago to stop the trafficking of youth worldwide. It has assisted thousands of teen-aged girls and boys so far in the United States, Bosnia, Serbia, Russia and Uganda.
"Asia" is one of her group's success stories: Lured into prostitution, she often worked 15-hour days in the sex trade…"It was just gross. I separated myself, my mind; I was in another place when it happened," she recalls, "It was like it was not me."
Until she was arrested, and FAIR Fund helped her turn her life around.
"To put it in a nutshell, they have helped me transform to who I am now," Asia says, "I am not the same person."
But for every "Asia" there are many more who are not so fortunate.
U.S. Congressman Chris Smith is one of the strongest advocates for rights of victims of human trafficking.
"At least a 100,000 American girls, mostly runaways, average age of 13, are on the streets. And within 48 hours, if they are not brought back home or to some shelter, through the use of drugs, crack cocaine, or some other harmful drugs, the pimps are able to turn those girls into forced prostitutes," Smith said. "They abuse them, they rape them. They get STDs, including HIV and AIDS."
Many children are brought to the U.S. from other countries, mostly Latin America, Southeast Asia, south and eastern Europe. Roma children are often brought from Bosnia or Serbia to steal or clean houses. Children from East Africa are brought to work as domestic servants or farm labor, while children from India are forced to work in the garment business. Their families often do not have any idea what has become of them. In many countries, including the US, even police officers who come to brothels or strip clubs buy sex from the victims instead of helping them.
"Human trafficking and child trafficking has become a global business that no country is exempt from." said Helga Konrad, a former representative on human trafficking for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"The perpetrators are internationally linked. In Southeast Europe for example, where FAIR Fund has been working, we know that Serbs and Albanians and others work closely together. So those, having no relations normally, are well together in a criminal business and are driven of course by enormous profits," she said.
Congressman Smith, who has sponsored a bill to protect trafficking victims, says much more needs to be done.
"We need more law enforcement personnel trained to spot a trafficked woman of any age, but with special emphasis on these very young girls," he said, "and to bring them not in a situation where they are arrested and treated as "prostitutes" and prosecuted. We made it very clear that the sea change of attitude is to treat those women and girls as victims, not as perpetrators of crimes. They are not law breakers, they have had their bodies and souls crushed."
The U.S. Justice Department estimates that 300,000 children in the US are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. In addition, the State Department says about 14,000-17,000 girls from other countries are smuggled into the U.S. for this purpose every year. The latest State Department "trafficking in persons" report says that some 12.3 million adults and children are in forced labor, bonded labor, and forced prostitution throughout the world. Those who are fighting the problem hope that with better cooperation and strong commitment on all sides, the situation will improve.