The Burkina Faso government has passed a new law that increases jail terms for traffickers from a maximum of five to 10 years, but child protection experts fear this will not stop child-trafficking, which the ministry of social welfare says is rising.
"The law [passed on 15 May] will do something,” Naba Jérémie Wangré, project manager at the Burkina Faso Red Cross told IRIN, “but punishing the crime is not the whole answer … to combat it you need to commit more resources to it, and that takes political will.”
Since 2000 the police have intercepted 6,000 children thought to have been trafficked in Burkina Faso, according to the ministry of social welfare and national solidarity, which fears a sharp rise in activity. “All provinces of the country are now affected by trafficking,” said Saidou Ouédraogo, director of child protection at the ministry.
Most recently, 32 children who were allegedly being sent to Mali to become Koranic students were intercepted in late May 2008 by the ministry and the Burkina Faso Red Cross at Ouahigouya in the north of the country.
Trafficking origination hubs include Boucle du Mouhoun in the west of Burkina Faso, the Sahel in the north, from where many children are sent to Mali, often supposedly to attend Koranic schools, and Tapoa and Gnagnan provinces in the east, from where children are sent to Benin, according to the government.
Children are increasingly being smuggled into Cote d’Ivoire to work on plantations, partly because demand for labour has increased as the country stabilises after its civil conflict. “There is currently calm in Cote d’Ivoire, so some farmers are trying to rebuild the manpower they lost during the crisis when labour was so rare,” Wangré told IRIN.
According to a ministry of welfare study, minors from Niger and Ghana often end up working as prostitutes in bars in the urban areas of Burkina Faso.
Tougher law but hard to enforce
“The new law criminalises child trafficking and increases the penalties for traffickers to the maximum, with ten years in prison,” said Ouédraogo. It also expands the definition of exploitative labour, which is central to defining trafficking, to include children forced to become street beggars or work as domestic labourers.
Mathurin Bonzi, director of programmes at Save the Children Canada, an international non-governmental organisation (NGO), said the law would be difficult to enforce because traffickers were always developing new ways of evading attention. “Traffickers continually transform their approach by using less policed rural roads and new border crossing points, such as Ghana instead of Cote d’Ivoire,” he commented.
Children were also increasingly being trafficked within Burkina Faso to work in the mining and cotton-producing zones in the west, which made it easier for traffickers to avoid being caught.
Ouédraogo noted that when it is necessary to cross borders, the eased restrictions on the movement of people and goods among the ECOWAS countries could also make the traffickers’ lives easier.
Wangré pointed out that in the rare instances when a case went to trial, traffickers were unlikely to be prosecuted because judges often assumed that parents had freely entrusted their children to live with relatives abroad, in the hope that they would find work opportunities. ‘’Do not ask these children to stay within their families if they cannot have a daily meal. In this situation they will go, whatever the dangers may be,” he told IRIN.
Regional problem, regional approach
While toughening up anti-trafficking laws, country by country, is one answer, child protection experts say agencies need to develop better ways of working together to combat trafficking across borders.
Save the Children Canada is pushing to set up a regional inter-agency group to fight trafficking in Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana; the Burkina Faso Red Cross works with its fellow Red Cross branches across the region to intercept children who have been trafficked, and reunite them with their families.
Such models could work well with the ECOWAS working group on child trafficking, through which countries pool resources to monitor cross-border trafficking, but other groups think the problem will only diminish if all the parties involved – parents, transporters, police forces and even children themselves – change their mindset and realise how high the risks are.
This will not be easy. “Even when we reunite children,” said Wangré, “many of them will voluntarily return to their trafficked destination when they realise they cannot find a better alternative.”
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