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Pathologising young people’s movement

The independent movement of children is inevitably rendered as ‘trafficking’ due to core assumptions regarding what constitutes a proper childhood. Any deviation from these norms is held suspect.

Mali. Noemi Jariod/Flickr. Creative Commons.

A leading children’s charity tells us that child trafficking is child abuse. The largest online encyclopaedia goes so far as to describe it as the sale of children. Neither of these definitions, of course, is accurate. Nevertheless, they are representative of the discourse surrounding the movement of young people in the company of adults who are not their parents.

The actual, legal definition of trafficking is that which is laid out in the Palermo Protocol, formally known as the United Nation's (2000) Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. According to this protocol, the distinction between smuggling and trafficking is that the former refers to the movement of individuals where the individual has consented, while trafficking involves threat or the use of force or other forms of coercion. However, article three of the protocol makes it explicit that in the case of those under the age of 18, consent is irrelevant if their movement is considered to be for the purposes of exploitation.

Beyond the obviously questionable implication that those under the age of 18 are incapable of exercising meaningful choice, this definition entails a host of other problems. What constitutes exploitation is not clear beyond prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation; forced labour or services; slavery or practices similar to slavery; servitude; and the removal of organs. Nor indeed is it clear how one is to establish intent to exploit.  At its heart are certain assumptions regarding how young people should be spending their time and with whom; that properly loved children belong in the non-productive world of home or school. Any deviation from these assumptions, therefore, can only be the outcome of some pathological situations such as conflict, neglect or poverty and inevitably result in vulnerability to exploitation, harmful situations and/or abuse.

The case of Mali

A detailed and sensitive study of children’s migration for work from Mali to Côte d’Ivoire demonstrates how weaknesses in the conceptualisation and application of trafficking frameworks result from the open question of whether or not an intermediary was involved in any given migration scenario. At the same time, it demonstrates the near necessity of intermediaries to facilitate the safe passage of young people and the near ubiquity of intermediaries in the social and economic activities that attract young workers. In their conclusions, the authors found that by criminalising routine cultural practices and service provision from benign intermediaries, young people are frequently forced into the hands of potentially unscrupulous intermediaries. As a result, the migrations of young people became more clandestine and potentially more dangerous.

The research in Mali found that few of the young people surveyed had been betrayed by an intermediary or tricked into work. This is not to say that harmful or abusive forms of work for children do not exist, only that they are the extreme minority of cases. This reality, however, has not substantially impacted the popularity of international efforts to combat ‘slave-like working conditions’ and ‘trafficking’. They remain a lucrative source of development funds for national governments, and thus in some ways create a perverse need to ‘find’ exploited children that can then be ‘rescued’. Follow this path to its logical end, and you reach the conclusion that any young person moving for work is trafficked. It also leads to the failure to address the very real needs of other child migrants.

The case of Ghana

My own research with young people from the upper east region of Ghana found that the children leaving their home communities independently of their families did so for a variety of reasons, not least among them was the need to earn an income. Many desired to learn a trade, experience new places, live with relatives, or simply do what their friends were also doing. Their experiences of migration ranged from pretty good to pretty grim. Most, however, were positive about their experiences, even when their pay was derisory and their living and working conditions were inadequate. Their responses are perhaps unsurprising. Most come from contexts of poverty and hardship, born into communities that lack income and training opportunities. Nevertheless, these communities value hard work and view productive labour as a central aspect of childhood.

Migration is not a single process. Many of its positive or negative effects do not arise from movement itself but depend instead on a wide range of factors relating to the reasons for migration, the circumstances of the destination, the nature of the work found there, and the migrant’s relationship with their employer. A narrow focus on trafficking, the subsequent spotlight on intermediaries, and the dismissal of young people’s own choices have resulted in measures that increase the vulnerability of children regardless of their stated aims. A thorough and comprehensive understanding of young people’s movement is not possible without taking into account their economic, social and cultural contexts, and what the children themselves think about their movement and the role they play in it.

About the author

Iman Hashim is a researcher who has worked on children's independent migration from rural north-eastern Ghana to rural and urban central Ghana. Her work focussed on the working lives of children in a farming community in north-eastern Ghana, as well as on community attitudes toward education and children's experiences of it. She has also worked for national and international non-governmental organisations, and is currently working for a UK charity that supports young people with drug and alcohol issues.


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