Frontline Insights

When child traffickers work across West Africa’s borders, activists need help to do the same

Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone share many things – including a problem of child trafficking. Local organisations can stop it if they come together.

Wade Williams
Wade Williams
5 July 2019
A man in front of a blackboard speaking to a class of children
Teaching children their rights: Defence for Children International-Sierra Leone working in a school
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Israel Williams, Majority World for The Fund for Global Human Rights. All rights reserved.
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This article is part of an editorial partnership with the Fund for Global Human Rights.

A fifteen-year-old girl gets pregnant and runs away from her highly religious family in Guinea to escape punishment. She ends up in the hands of traffickers and on the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone, engaged in the sex trade. She is arrested and charged with loitering by the police and put behind bars.

Defence for Children International-Sierra Leone worked to get her out of jail and into a safe home where she could be treated like a human being. Many others will not be as fortunate, however.

Abdul Manaf Kemokai, executive director of DCI-Sierra Leone – a local organisation affiliated to the international children’s rights network Defence for Children International – says an alarming number of children are being trafficked and exploited in Guinea, Sierra Leone and the neighbouring country of Liberia. It’s hard to know how many because governments in the region don’t have reliable data on the problem and view domestic servitude as a community practice.

The problem was too big for his organisation to tackle alone, so in 2013, with the support of the Fund for Global Human Rights, it partnered with two other West African groups – Defence for Children International-Liberia and Sabou Guinea – to work across their borders to try to prevent child trafficking together.

Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia share many things: culture, food and languages, but also high rates of poverty and illiteracy. Harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage are also widespread, which strengthens the organisations’ resolve to work together to combat them.

Foday Kawah, executive director of Defence for Children International-Liberia, says that yearly meetings have helped them work together to develop joint strategies to fight trafficking within the sub-region. “This is a collective action. You cannot do it alone,” he says.

“This is why, with support from The Fund for Global Human Rights, we in civil society organisations from these countries meet [to discuss] strategies and the way forward. We share our experience, successes and challenges.”

John Kabia, programme officer for thematic initiatives at the Fund, agrees that cross-border collaboration between local groups is critical, but says that even though they are close neighbours, groups from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea often find it difficult to come together for learning and collaboration.

“Convening groups in this region is fraught with logistical and financial challenges. To start with, travel across the region is hindered by poor roads and expensive air fares,” he says.

“Language differences and the high costs of interpretation and translation services can be prohibitively high for local groups. Funders therefore have a critical role to play in investing to foster collaboration amongst groups in this region, particularly on regional issues that transcend borders.”

Kabia says the convenings of children’s rights groups began at a time when child trafficking was not high on anyone’s agenda in the region. Traffickers were able to take kids to other countries and exploit them without consequences. Border officers were not properly equipped to detect trafficking and there were hardly any systems to capture data of the children who were crossing the borders, he says. Because of this there was a steady stream of children moving from country to country. Some ended up working in mines and others were sexually exploited.

“Once you sow the seed of collaboration, you will be amazed at how it grows,” says Kabia.

Too free trade

At the Bo Waterside-Jendema border between Liberia and Sierra Leone, market days are when most children are trafficked as the border is open to traders who cross to sell their goods, returning to their side in the evening. Traffickers use the opportunity to bring children across.

“Some of these traffickers put a load of banana or plantains on the heads of these children because the border is open and people cross at will, so these children are able to cross without detection,” says Kawah.

“Sometimes a person would cross a border point with four or five children in areas where security is absent. In January, a woman was sentenced to ten years in prison by a court in Monrovia. She had brought children to Liberia to sell them.”

Allies on two wheels

Motorcycle taxis – known as pehn-pehn in Liberia or okada in Sierra Leone – are common in the area, and the three organisations have also been able to train riders who work in the border area to detect and report trafficking. Getting these riders involved in the fight against child trafficking is a huge breakthrough because much smuggling and trafficking uses pehn-pehn at border entry points that are not controlled by border officers, says Kawah.

Kabia agrees that getting these motorbike riders on board in the fight against trafficking is of enormous significance. They have detailed knowledge of the region and can reach entry points where law enforcement cannot.

“If you have to deal with corruption and smuggling, you’ll have to deal with pehn-pehn riders,” says Kabia. “Our partners tell us that these riders were often the ones potential traffickers would use to bypass the main road. They have now come on board, signed a code of conduct and now help to train their own members.”

Guarding borders for children

After the groups from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea had come together, they agreed that the most effective thing they could do was train border security officers and local communities on how to better identify and support child victims of trafficking. “Before our training, law enforcement could not easily recognise victims of trafficking,” says Kemokai.

“A lot of people were crossing the border with children and [border security] were not checking documents. They were more interested in taking money from people.”

Standard operating procedures for preventing child trafficking document for Guinea and Sierra Leone
How to turn border officials into child protectors | Israel Williams, Majority World for The Fund for Global Human Rights. All rights reserved.

The three organisations have now developed standard operating procedures for border officers in all three countries, in both English and French. These give the officers step-by-step guidance not only in how to investigate child trafficking and identify incidents at the border, but also in reintegrating children with their families after tracing them.

The border officers are not expected to do it all by themselves, however. “We have been able to mobilise all the different actors so that if there is a case of child trafficking, it does not become a burden on border patrols,” says Kemokai. “We have a directory of services which contains phone numbers of the organisations and the service they provide.”

Officers on the borders between the countries now know how to check documents to make sure people travelling with kids are who they claim to be. “They also call the parents of the child to verify if they are unaccompanied minors entrusted to the care of someone else,” says Kemokai. “The parent then must identify that person.”

Mamadou Bailo Bah is programme officer of Sabou Guinea, an organisation that has been fighting child trafficking in Guinea since 2013. To date, Sabou Guinea has trained fifty security officers to help fight child trafficking, with the help of the Fund. Bah says that working with local communities has been a success too.

“Communities work with security agents to help in tracing families for trafficked children,” he says. But while that happens, victims of child trafficking need to be looked after: “One issue we face in our work is that we do not have a place to put children who are victims of trafficking after they are rescued and awaiting family reunification.”

Like Sabou Guinea, Defence for Children International-Liberia works in communities on the border with Sierra Leone, between the towns of Bo Waterside and Jendema, where, in collaboration with the Liberian ministry of justice, it conducts training for motorcycle taxi riders, community members, members of the drivers’ union, immigration officers, police officers and child welfare organisations.

Three children with megaphones facing each other, with a crowd watching
Drama in a lorry park at the Guinea-Sierra Leone border to tell people about child trafficking | Israel Williams, Majority World for The Fund for Global Human Rights. All rights reserved.

From prevention to accountability

The work of DCI-Liberia and its Sierra Leonean and Guinean counterparts does not end with training, however: the organisations also work together to support local enforcement and justice officials to identify and investigate individual cases of child trafficking. “You need deterrence: how you hold perpetrators accountable was a big challenge due to weak and often corrupt justice systems,” says Kabia.

Foday Kawah says that as child trafficking itself is a collaborative effort, the organisations needed to work together – sharing intel and resources with law enforcement officials across borders and with other government agencies, if they were to succeed in investigating significant numbers of crimes. These cases are then taken to the justice ministry in the relevant country for prosecution, while the organisations remain involved through to prosecution and conviction, to ensure victims and survivors get the support they need.

DCI-Liberia also works with the Liberia National Police. In one case, the organisation got involved when its officers paid a routine visit to a police station in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, and came across two children who were being held there.

“Through our investigation, we found that these children were allegedly trafficked from Guinea to serve as breadwinners in Liberia,” says Kawah.

“We collaborated with the women and children protection section [of the Liberia National Police] and now the perpetrator is behind bars at the Monrovia Central Prison.”

The children were brought to Liberia with the promise that they would go to school. Instead, for three years they were made to work as street hawkers for the person who brought them. And thanks to the collaboration with Sabou Guinea, DCI-Sierra Leone and the Liberian police, Kawah’s organisation was able to reunite the children with the parents.

Government action, please

Kamokai of DCI-Sierra Leone says that the yearly meetings and the space to come together with other local groups tackling child trafficking has helped them immensely.

“It has also helped us to understand each other very well, to the extent that even with the language barrier we can go to each other’s countries and work on cases,” says Kemokai.

“We can do cross-border family tracing of children because of the collaboration we have had with our colleagues in Guinea and Liberia. The working relationship is very strong.”

The groups have agreed that the next stage of their joint efforts will focus on engaging with the state. Together they will review existing laws and suggest ways to make them more effective. They will also ensure that the law prioritises support for victims, which is currently lacking.

“We want to make sure that government prioritises social justice issues,” says Kemokai.

Bailo of Sabou Guinea says the governments of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea must formally agree to help fight child trafficking. He adds that the organisations need help in gathering data about the actual number of children trafficked across the region’s borders.

“We don’t have tools for collecting data on child trafficking and in the end, you have conflicting figures from each country,” he says.

“If we do not have a common data management system, it would be very difficult to document the issue of child trafficking and the actual number of children that are trafficked daily or yearly.”

The strongest wish of these children’s rights defenders, however, is for the organs of the state to accept their responsibilities in stopping trafficking. “What we are pushing especially this year is to ensure that our own government institutions integrate child trafficking into the training of security officers before they get to the border,” says Kemokai. “We already have the tools – we can give them the tools and provide the training for them.”

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