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A Factual Foundation for the Sensible and Humane Treatment

Of Unaccompanied Children at our Borders

 Free the Slaves Policy Brief |July 2014

There was a time in American history when runaway slaves were hunted down and returned to their masters. Free the Slaves believes that the United States should not return to those days. There is no question that some of the unaccompanied Central American children who are currently seeking freedom and safety in the U.S. are fleeing modern-day slavery in their home countries. They deserve a fair hearing and American protection. Removing safeguards afforded to these children by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) amendments of 2008 risks inflicting great harm. It would betray the core values of our country while failing to address the root causes of the increase in child refugees.

Assertions have been made that the TVPRA is to blame for the influx of children fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Some news articles suggest that smugglers are telling parents of at-risk children that the U.S. offers a “free pass” to minors. There has been no substantiation that this is widespread or that the TVPRA is responsible. On its face, it is implausible to assert that the 2008 amendments to a law first passed in 2000 would provoke a child exodus four to five years later. Clearly, there are other, more compelling factors pushing parents to send their children away.

A recent study by the Center for American Progress shows that a surge of violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is actually behind the rise in children fleeing these countries. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world; El Salvador ranks fourth and Guatemala fifth. According to an article in the New York Times, the murder rate of children is up 77 percent in El Salvador compared to a year ago. Children from these three nations are fleeing to countries besides the United States. There has been a seven-fold increase in asylum requests in Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, none of which can be explained by U.S. legislation. It is also telling that refugee children are not coming to the U.S. from the neighboring country of Nicaragua, which is also severely impoverished but has not experienced the same levels of violence as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Scapegoating the TVPRA and rolling back its protections for children as a quick fix will do nothing to solve the real problem behind the spike in children on the move.

The unlikelihood that the TVPRA explains the increase in child refugees can be seen in the following table, which shows the number of unaccompanied children apprehended by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service along the southwest border.

Number of Unaccompanied Children on the Southwest Border

Fiscal Years 2009-2013; Fiscal Year 2014 through June 30








(as of 6/30)

El Salvador




























Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The number of unaccompanied children held steady or declined in 2009, 2010 and 2011. To attribute the increase in refugee children to the TVPRA, one would have to believe that Central American traffickers and families missed the passage of the reauthorization amendments in 2008 and suddenly discovered them in 2012.

While the circumstances of each child may vary, it is an undisputed fact that some are fleeing slavery or the risk of enslavement. The U.S. State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report makes clear the magnitude of child trafficking in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras by criminal gangs and others. Youths are forced to engage in prostitution, drug transport, extortion and murder. Children are used as slaves in agriculture, the garment industry, begging, street vending and domestic service. Children who escape these predations must not be returned to their abusers.

Prior to the 2008 reauthorization of the TVPRA, trafficked children could be returned without adequate safeguards against being sent to the very criminals who had preyed upon them. The reauthorization required the U.S. Secretary of State to negotiate treaties with Mexico and Canada to ensure the safe return of children from those countries to appropriate conditions. In the case of other countries, the law simply requires that if an unaccompanied immigrant child is apprehended, reasonable measures be taken to determine if the child was trafficked, to ensure the safe return of the child to the home country if possible, or, if not, to allow the child to apply for asylum.

Free the Slaves believes that these are reasonable provisions. The law should be followed, not changed. The situation regarding each child should be quickly and fairly evaluated. Safe and expeditious repatriation should occur when possible, and protected status in the U.S. should be afforded when that is not possible. Violating this principle would be an act of cruelty without purpose.

The most immediate problem is that the number of children is overwhelming social, administrative and judicial services. But these children can’t simply be thrown over the fence without regard to their welfare and left to the mercies of traffickers and vicious criminal cartels. As a nation, we must live up to our heritage and commit the resources needed to treat the children decently and humanely.

There are appropriate policy and administrative responses. In the near term, infrastructure must be created for their care. Fair and reasonable determinations must be made about their status. Expeditious arrangements must be made for their safe placement, whether in their home countries, the U.S. or a third nation. David Gergen, writing for CNN, has proposed creating safe zones in the affected countries that would be supervised and patrolled by the U.N. An analysis by the Heritage Foundation argues for increased U.S. security assistance to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to re-establish order. Over the longer term, the underlying conditions that are driving terrified children from home must be addressed if the flow of refugees is to be diminished.

We trust that the president and Congress will avoid a hasty, uninformed judgment that may blot the record of our country. The United States has stood against all forms of slavery for generations. Members of both political parties have worked together to create the TVPRA to combat this continuing scourge. The suggestion that this law created a refugee crisis is badly misguided. It should not become the new policy of the U.S. that child slaves and those in imminent danger of slavery at home be expelled as quickly as possible without regard to the consequences. Free the Slaves looks forward to working with people across the political spectrum to devise solutions that are fact-based, humane and effective.

Bank Ki-moon summit

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tells summit: “No child should be enslaved instead of being in school.” | Photo: A World at School Project

Education and slavery are interconnected. There are 57 million children worldwide who should be in school, but aren’t. About 5.5 million of them are slaves.

This is why Free the Slaves has been asked to join a global partnership of leading organizations that is championing A World at Schoola 500-day campaign to accelerate progress towards making schooling universally accessible

The initiative is being led by former U.K Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife, Sarah. Yesterday, I had the great privilege of attending the campaign launch in Washington, under the auspices of the United Nations.

Child slaves cannot go to school. Children who are not in school are especially vulnerable to becoming slaves. Schools can be a great vehicle for increasing awareness of slavery both among children and the wider community. We see these realities across all our programs.

A World at School has embraced “zero child labor” as one of its key goals, knowing that child slavery and child labor are fundamental barriers to universal child education. Over the coming months, we will work with A World at School to identify opportunities to more effectively protect children at risk.

The power of education was much in evidence yesterday. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to us movingly about receiving textbooks from UNICEF as a boy in the midst of the Korean War. The books let him continue his education. Though his classes were held outside, he remembered that inside the books was an admonishment: “Work hard and give back.”

A World at School has named 500 youth ambassadors. Among those who spoke yesterday were Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, Pakistani girls who were shot on the same bus with Malala Yousafaza. They were equally powerful, amazing and eloquent young women. The Taliban fears educating girls more than they fear bullets, they said. Oppression and servitude cannot persist in the face of awareness and enlightenment.

That is the mission of Free the Slaves, too. To bring children and their parents the knowledge that will protect them from slavery. We will persist in that mission until slavery is studied only in the history books read by children at school.


James Kofi Annan meets Senator Tom Harkin | Photo: Cavin Elizabeth Photography

It isn’t every day that a child slavery survivor from Africa is a featured speaker at a congressional briefing. But this week, Capitol Hill witnessed the award-winning advocate and child trafficking survivor, James Kofi Annan, speaking alongside long time anti-slavery champion Senator Tom Harkin, to address the global injustice of child labor.

The Alliance to End Slavery & Trafficking (ATEST) and the Child Labor Coalition hosted the panel to discuss how to reduce exploitative child labor, reflect on the progress that grassroots and governmental efforts have made, and promote the international benefits of ending child trafficking.

James Kofi Annan, founder of FTS frontline partner Challenging Heights, opened the discussion by acknowledging that although the U.S. has passed measures to combat exploitative child labor, there is still much work to be done. “We have made lots of progress, but we could do so much more,” James said. He remarked that vulnerable countries like Ghana need the U.S. to pressure their governments by shaming their lax enforcement of anti-slavery laws.

Sen. Harkin said was is honored to be in the same room as James. “I just wish I could duplicate James so we could have a leader like him in every country to end child labor,” said Harkin.


Sen. Tom Harkin at briefing | Photo: Cavin Elizabeth Photography

The senator focused his remarks on child trafficking issues found in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. He announced that by 2020, he has set a goal to decrease child slavery in these areas by 70 percent. He has led congressional efforts to pass legislation that would prohibit child labor and the production of goods that promote child trafficking. Although he is retiring, he stated, “I may be retiring from the Senate, but I am not retiring on this issue.”

Also featured on the panel were policy advocates from Solidarity Center,  GoodWeave and the U.S. Department of Labor. They highlighted the economic and security gains that could occur when child slavery is abolished.

Solidarity Center Director Shawna Bader-Blau stated that “collective bargaining is a requirement for any long term plan to be successful in creating fair and sustainable labor solutions,” and that it is the “creation of jobs in our partnering countries that drives down poverty, which is the root of many exploitation cases.”

Claude Fontheim of GoodWeave noted that a “long term issue such as child exploitation needs a long term investment.” The Labor Department’s Carol Pier explained that for the government to have the greatest impact, it needs to be “intimately aware of the problems and shortcoming in countries’ labor laws.”

The briefing concluded with encouragement to pass federal legislation to build transparency in business supply chains, encourage corporate accountability, and promote good governance in democracies around the world.

rep wilson on hill 131120

Congresswoman Frederica Wilson address congressional briefing | FTS photo

Religious and political figures gathered on Capitol Hill last week to raise awareness about one of the world’s most challenging child slavery problems: restavek slavery in Haiti.

The Church World Service and The Episcopal Church, in cooperation with Congressman Chris Smith and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson organized the briefing to highlight the political, economic and ethical dimensions of child trafficking in Haiti.

Haiti is ranked as the world’s second worst hotspot for slavery on the Global Slavery Index with an estimated 209,000 slaves out of a total population 10.2 million. Many of the slaves are “restaveks,” part of a longstanding system of child domestic servitude in Haiti.

“One thing we hold in common is concern for children. Regardless of where we are in our point in life, we are very much aware of the fact that each of us holds responsibility for the future,” Church World Service President and CEO Rev. John McCullough said to open the panel. “This conversation will be about how we can play an important role in helping to make sure the children of Haiti have that opportunity to know what hope looks like, and to be able to have a sense that the future holds all kinds of possibilities for them.”

andrus on hill 131120

Bishop Marc Andrus of the Episcopal Diocese of California | FTS Photo

Congresswoman Wilson said that she and Congressman Smith will introduce a resolution tor the U.S. to observe the National Day for the Elimination of Restavek. Wilson said the resolution will call on the U.S. government to prioritize reconstruction and assistance efforts in Haiti, as well as the abolition of trafficking through prevention, the prosecution of traffickers, and the reintegration of child slavery survivors into their families.

Bishop Marc Andrus of The Episcopal Diocese of California told the briefing that “The eyes of God are always watching,” even though people may choose not to see the slaves in their midst. “Slaves are always by definition somewhat invisible, by choice,” he noted. “We make a social compact with each other not to see slaves.”

Emile Brutus, the deputy director of research and professor of political science and public and social policy at the Institute of Economic and Commercial Studies in Haiti, explained the restavek system. A restavek is a child who does not live with his or her biological parents; the child has been entrusted into the hands of another family. The biological parents trust those people to care for the child, but that trust is broken when the child is brought into domestic servitude. They are forced to work in dangerous jobs, they are not well nourished, they do not have access to school, they do not have access to healthcare, and they are victims of violence.

haiti speaker

Emile Brutus of the Institute of Economic and Commercial Studies in Haiti | FTS photo

“I cannot fathom how adults have reduced children to a situation where they are dehumanized,” Brutus said. “I feel shame for the country I’m from.”

“It is a crime,” said Brutus. “It is a crime against innocence and childhood.”

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FTS Executive Director Maurice Middleberg | FTS photo

But it is time to acknowledge this crime.

FTS Executive Director Maurice Middleberg said that since joining Free the Slaves, he has had the opportunity to visit community-based programs in Haiti that address the root causes of the restavek system, “so that the problem can be prevented at the source rather than having to rescue child after the fact.”

Free the Slaves works to foster solidarity in the community around the rights of children, and to provide advocacy training so Haitains can demand better resources for education and law enforcement from their government.

“The reason the parents are agreeing to give up a child to another family is because they are in a position of vulnerability,” Middleberg said.

“We are concerned about the children of Haiti and the treatment that we have been hearing, we are concerned that the government is not doing enough to protect these children,” said Congresswoman Wilson. “So we want to travel to Haiti to find out what we can do as the United States government to help the government of Haiti protect these children and to stop what we consider an abomination. To see how we can reunite children with their families, even if it is something we have to look into the treasury of the United States to do. But it is time to stop it.”



DCGEP_LEARNINGALLIANCE (4C)When you think of the Discovery Channel, you probably think of documentaries about sharks, bears and fishermen. But Discovery has teamed up with others to produce a series of short video segments highlighting barriers to education for girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically in the most underserved communities of Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya.

One of these segments will feature a former child slave in Ghana, Mabel, 15, who now can attend school after being rescued by FTS frontline partner Challenging Heights.

“It was an incredible privilege to work with Mabel, she is such a friendly and confident young woman who can talk really eloquently about the challenges she has faced and overcome in her life,” the video segment producer, Chris Morgan, tells us. “Even more inspiring is her positive view on her future and her determination to change her life through education.”

Mabel in class

Mabel (center) in class at Challenging Heights | Discovery Communications Photo

After her mother died and her father left the family, Mabel and her siblings went to live with relatives. There, Mabel was forced to work around the clock. She would wake up early in the mornings to collect wood and help cook maize porridge. By afternoon she was making lunch for everyone on the fishing boats, and in the evening she started prepping for dinner. Late at night she was sent out fishing, and was forced to wake up early the next morning to repeat this full day of work.

“I hardly slept at all,” said Mabel. “Every evening I hoped that there would be a storm, so I wouldn’t have to go out on the lake.”

Her relatives had children of their own who were allowed to go to school, but Mabel and her siblings were not.

One day, two case workers from Challenging Heights came to visit. They told Mabel’s relatives that the law states that children have to go to school and that they wanted to take Mabel and her siblings with them. When her relatives refused to let them go, the challenging Heights team  came back with police to free them.

Mabel and her siblings now live in a Challenging Heights safe house and go to school. Mabel is delighted to be receiving an education, and says: “I want to become a nurse so I can prove to my family that I can make it in life.”

The Discovery Learning Alliance video segments will be used in classroom and community settings in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya to help teach the importance of education.