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Children that slip across borders

Unaccompanied children at the Musina/ Beit Bridge border in South Africa
(Graeme Williams/UNICEF)

Zimbabwe's still-limping economy can provide few essential services, so children living along the border cross into South Africa to attend school during the day or even to see a doctor, often at great risk to their personal safety.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) regional child protection advisor for East and Southern Africa, Cornelius Williams, said the movement of unaccompanied child migrants from Zimbabwe was one of the biggest problems confronting humanitarian agencies in the region. Between 3,000 and 15,000 Zimbabwean children are known to move into and out of their country every month.

"Unfortunately, governments continue to devote most of their resources to child trafficking, where much smaller numbers of children are involved," Williams told IRIN at a meeting of officials from 15 countries in Pretoria from 23 to 25 February to discuss ways of strengthening cross-border co-operation to protect children at risk.

''We will probably see a flood of child migrants to South Africa, not only attracted by economic benefits but a chance to spot their football hero''

William Duncan, deputy secretary-general of the Hague Conference on Private International Law, the Netherlands-based world organization for cross-border cooperation in civil and commercial matters, said an even bigger issue was that "There is no central authority in Zimbabwe to contact to help repatriate the child."

The Chief Family Advocate in South Africa's Department of justice and Constitutional Development, Petunia Seabi, said a solution to the problem was being worked out. "We are in talks with the Zimbabwean authorities to set up protocols to protect these children."

She said neither of the governments would prevent children from accessing services across the border, but would rather try addressing the risks the children took while crossing the border unaccompanied.

Duncan pointed out that the numbers of Zimbabwean children moving around the region only underlined the need for close cooperation between child protection agencies and "between judges in different countries, and the Hague Children's conventions make this possible."

Many African countries have yet to ratify the Hague Conventions pertaining to children, which seek to standardize international legislation and provide a comprehensive legal framework to for the cross-border movement of children; more governments have ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Duncan acknowledged that most countries did not have the resources or the capacity to ratify the Hague Conventions, which include treaties on child abduction, inter-country adoption, protection of children and the international recovery of child support. He said the Hague Conference was trying to build capacity.

Delegates at the meeting said the discussion on the need for better cooperation between governments couldn't have come at a better time than on the eve of the FIFA World Cup, which kicks off in South Africa in June.

"We will probably see a flood of child migrants to South Africa, not only attracted by economic benefits but a chance to spot their football hero," said Williams.

The South African government was gearing up for the challenge, he said. They were planning safe areas for unaccompanied child migrants around the various stadia, and an advertising campaign aimed at visitors, which, they hoped, would deter child prostitution.


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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