Washing dishes at a streetside eatery in Cotonou, Benin. Adam Cohn/Flickr. Creative Commons.
Many children in west Africa are brought up in households belonging to people other than their own parents. There is a long tradition of fostering, yet in many cases the practice is now considered to constitute ‘trafficking’ or ‘modern slavery’ because the children involved are put to work during their stay. This makes little sense, yet the terminology of ‘human trafficking’ and its consequences—namely that the ‘traffickers’ involved should be prosecuted—has remained in vogue since at least 2000 with the support of European and American funding. This has almost certainly caused more harm than good.
Alongside these foster children are the tens of thousands of independent adolescent migrants who deliberately leave home to search of work. In both scenarios some children are badly exploited and abused. Those that live with their employers, such as the region’s hundreds of thousands of child domestic workers, are particularly vulnerable. However, some prosper and flourish.
Efforts to curb exploitation over the past two decades have foundered because they have been based on ideas and methods imported from Europe and North America. By and large they have sought to prevent children from working away from home, rather than to protect children from harm regardless of where they live and whether they were at work or school. This approach fails to adapt to the realities of childhood in west Africa and the practicalities of growing up in villages with little infrastructure.
The creation of ‘trafficking’
The abuse of live-in child domestic workers began to be documented systematically in countries such as the Benin Republic, Nigeria and Togo during the mid-1990s. At the time I worked as the director of Anti-Slavery International, a London-based charity that became highly involved in the process of identifying the region’s exploited children, recording their testimonies, and generating policy measures to protect them more effectively. However, these efforts became entangled in well-intentioned developments outside the region.
Researchers quickly established that many hundreds of children from Benin and Togo were being shipped across the sea each year to work for west African households in Gabon—a richer, petrol-exporting country. This ‘movement for work’ was labelled ‘trafficking’ in English and ‘trafic’ in French, which has slightly different connotations but nonetheless implies contraband taken across a border. At the time, neither word had a precise technical, yet alone legal meaning. When the first findings of research in Gabon were published in 2000, all 133 west African girls and one boy who were interviewed in Gabon were described as “trafiquées” (translated into English as “trafficked”). This meant that they, like most west African adults who sought a living in Gabon, had arrived in Gabon as undocumented migrants.
‘Trafic’ and ‘trafficking’ acquired their legal meanings with the United Nation’s adoption of two treaties in 2000. The first defined ‘trafficking in persons’ as a criminal act, implying the need to prosecute those responsible. The second declared the term ‘trafic’ (in French) to mean ‘smuggling migrants across a border’. At the same time, the United States adopted its own law on ‘trafficking in persons’ and launched a global crusade to seek more prosecutions and heavier punishments for traffickers.
The virulence of inaccuracy
These developments were, in many ways, disastrous for children, as they induced many west African states to produce policies and laws to stop one of the main methods used by young people in west Africa to get on in the world. Benin, ostensibly seeking to punish child traffickers, adopted a new law in 2006 that stopped anyone under 18 from moving away from home without an official permit. Benin’s Ministry of Family and Children, in a national study published in 2007 and supported by UNICEF, estimated that over 40,000 Beninese children were “victims of trafficking” and that each year almost 15,000 children were trafficked. The implication was that a massive two percent of the country’s children were in the hands of criminals, even though the employment of children as live-in domestics and in other jobs continued to be socially acceptable.
On the face of it a national study should have been authoritative; however the criteria used for assessing which children had been trafficked were far too wide. Any child working away from home was identified as ‘trafficked’. The study itself reported that just 2,066 children out of 40,000 had been “moved by a broker”. The other 38,000 children had migrated voluntarily but were considered “exploited” because they were working away from home, not because they had complained about their working conditions or felt they were worse off than when living with their parents. Ironically, the study did not even mention children who were earning a living from commercial sex, even though research a few years earlier had identified adolescent sex workers in the capital, including Nigerian girls brought there to earn money for people who paid for their journeys.
Once inaccurate information is publicised, it is remarkable how it circulates endlessly. In this case, a UN special rapporteur investigating the sale of children and child prostitution was told while visiting Benin in 2013 that 40,000 children were trafficking victims, most of them girls working as live-in domestics. Another UN specialist working in Gabon, herself from Nigeria, acknowledged that ‘child fostering’ in itself did not amount to trafficking, but “may be abused and can become a form of exploitation in which children work long hours without schooling”. The figure of 40,000 trafficked children was repeated in a report for the 2015 International Labour Conference and Radio France International referred to Benin’s “40,000 child slaves” in a broadcast in April 2015.
The wrong cause
However, the real problem goes much deeper that the replication of erroneous statistics or even the false designation of many adults and children as ‘traffickers’ and ‘trafficked’. The world’s preoccupation with stopping children from working, and especially working away from home, has prevented Benin and other countries from introducing effective measures to protect migrant and working children. On the contrary, the policies resulting from this drive have, if anything, made life more difficult for them. Their combined effect has been to increase the bribes paid to border officials and to encourage the use of clandestine and dangerous ways of transporting child workers. They have demonstrably not improved working conditions or promoted the rights of child workers.
As one of those responsible for bringing the situation of Benin’s child workers to public attention in the 1990s, I cannot comprehend why international organisations and western donors do not pay more attention to the views expressed by the young people who are at the heart of this issue. An academic article published five years ago quoted a group of children in Benin as saying that if they were members of parliament, they would not prohibit children from working either in Benin or abroad. Instead, they would insist on the working conditions being made acceptable, at least as long as it was not possible to guarantee that the alternative for children would be quality schooling.