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But is it really trafficking?

Young girl in Benin's largest market in Cotonou. Whether she is an economic migrant or victim of trafficking is central to a regional mobility study of children's migration in West Africa
(Phuong Tran/IRIN)

For years children’s rights groups have been fighting child trafficking in West Africa. Now, some of those groups are questioning how children have benefited from anti-trafficking interventions as they launch a project to understand children’s perilous migration throughout West Africa.

The nearly one-million dollar initiative led by UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), International Organization for Migration (IOM), and NGOs Plan International, Save the Children Sweden, and Terre des Hommes will conduct national and regional workshops and focus groups to produce a 2010 report on the reasons behind children’s regional migration.

Terre des Hommes’ Olivier Feneyrol told IRIN assigning blame for children’s exploitation on rogue traffickers is misdirected.


Largely absent from the planning documents of the project, “Mobility of children and youth in West Africa,” is the word trafficking. Rather, partners undertaking the study in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Togo speak of regional mobility.

“Children have been moving around the region for centuries and working just as long. That is the cultural reality here,” said Feneyrol, regional adviser for the West Africa office of non-profit organisation Terre des Hommes.

“Some of that movement and work is dangerous. For years, we have approached this problem as a fight against trafficking, but this has not really benefited children. We have to move beyond focusing exclusively on trafficking to a more global strategy where we take into account children’s reality.”

Child rights groups and law enforcement agencies are fighting something they have not truly understood, Feneyrol told IRIN. “Do we really know the varied forms of migration? Who are the intermediaries? How are these voyages financed? What are the conditions that children leave behind?

“Why are they taking risks and what are they searching? How can we fight a phenomenon we do not truly understand?”

Victim, but of what?

Trafficking is “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by the means of threat, or use of force or other forms of coercion...for the purpose of exploitation,” according to the 2000 UN Convention Against Transnational Crime.

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Despite most West African governments having ratified the 2000 convention, and some passing laws criminalising trafficking, rights organisations estimate hundreds of thousands of children continue making precarious journeys to take on risky jobs throughout West Africa.

Not all are trafficked, according to IOM director, Ambassador William Lacy Swing at a November migration conference in Dakar. Some may instead be economic or environmental migrants, internally displaced people or refugees.

If a child falls under the trafficking definition, Terre des Hommes’ Feneyrol said traffickers are not the root of the problem: “Putting so much of the blame for a child’s misery on the notion of trafficking…has not helped us better protect the majority of these children.”

Revolving door

Feneyrol said thousands of children on the move are uncounted while repatriated ones are not necessarily trafficking victims. “Just because they are working in a stone quarry in Nigeria does not mean they are a victim of trafficking. Breaking up stones can be less tiring and abusive than the agricultural work they did on their farms in the village.”

He said it is not always in the child’s best interest to return home. “They are too old to enter school. They come from large families that cannot afford to raise them and there is no way to earn a living wage where they came from, which is why they left.”

Feneyrol added that as long as rural families live in dire conditions, children and their parents will seek relief wherever they can. “It makes no difference if you arrest someone accused of being a trafficker. It does not address the root cause of economic misery that propelled the child down a risky path. International conventions do little to address the sociological and economic reality in West Africa.”

More than 92 percent of the population in northern Togo, for example, earned less than US$511 in 2006, the amount required to cover basic needs, according to the government.

Friend or foe?

Terre des Hommes’ Feneyrol said people vilified as traffickers could be trained to protect children during their at-times perilous migrations. “These are the children’s uncles, neighbours, and cousins. They are rarely, if ever, international operators of organised crime networks. We need to explore more what role they can have in protecting children on the move.”

But for CARE International’s director Phillipe Kodko Yodo, this would be tantamount to collaborating with criminals: “These are people responsible for the misery of so many children. We cannot moralise such criminals, only punish them.”

''...We cannot moralise such criminals, only punish them...''

Going soft

Antonio Mazzitelli, the West Africa director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) – which is part of a regional anti-trafficking working group along with the mobility project’s five collaborators – said his office supports the proposed mobility study, but cautioned researchers against softening the stance against trafficking or child labour.

“The right to migrate freely or a family’s right to make a living wage cannot become a cover-up for trafficking or justification for child labour,” said Mazzitelli, “We cannot sit back and accept a situation just because it is the social norm. Slavery, female genital cutting, and child marriage were widely accepted ‘cultural and sociological realities’ even though they were illegal. And the fight is still not over on those fronts.”

The UN adopted a protocol in 2003 to make it easier to prosecute human-traffickers.

“This protocol does not end rural poverty, one critical element in the fight against economic exploitation,” said Mazzitelli, “And it will not wipe out trafficking in the next 10 or even 20 years. But we cannot relax our vigilance after five years. Even if we only save one child from trafficking, then our conventions, laws and enforcement are worth the effort.”


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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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