Children move from countries such as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, to oil-rich nations such as Gabon and Nigeria, or places where commercial agriculture demands field labourers, such as Ivory Coast. In a recent article on such movements, Gabon’s social affairs director-general told the news agency IRIN that Gabon was considered a kind of El Dorado (a mythical place of immense wealth), attracting “a lot of West African immigrants who traffic children”.
Child trafficking is defined as the recruitment, transportation, transfer or hosting of a child for the purpose of exploitation. Recognised as an extremely serious violation of children’s rights by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), internationally, there are also two other legal instruments which can be used to engage in the fight against traffickers – the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999) and the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Repress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (2000). However, a general lack of law enforcement is allowing a “seemingly uncontrollable rapid expansion” in trafficking, according to the Social Affairs Minister of one African country. In Gabon, for example, 68 people have been arrested on suspicion of trafficking between 2003 and 2010, but there have been no convictions (according to a US State Department report).
The situation is also complicated by various forms of child movement in West Africa, some of which are considered normal by local communities. A new report drawn up by a number of national and international non-governmental organisations – ‘What Protection for Child Migrants in West Africa?’ – delineates several different kinds of child mobility, some of which take place with parental approval. Cases range from seasonal or temporary migration of children with their families, to the ‘fostering’ of youngsters by other adults in order for them to work or learn a trade, to worse scenarios which involve involuntary trafficking and the use of children as street hawkers, beggars, prostitutes or soldiers.
To understand the range of scenarios involved and propose strategies to address them, research was conducted among children in four countries – Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Togo. In some cases, the movement of children from countries such as Burkina Faso, was seen as positive, even by the children themselves. With limited prospects in their home regions, children older than 12 years (particularly those aged 14 to 18) expressed their willingness to earn an income and saw work in another country as a way to do that. One youngster from Burkina Faso told the report’s authors “without going to Côte d’Ivoire, you're not a real man and you will be below those that have been there”. Regardless of such optimistic views from the children themselves, the report highlights the true vulnerability of child migrants. It urges co-ordinated action among African nations to integrate child migration into development and child protection strategies, in line with national and international standards of protection.