Trafficking by some other name

When is trafficking of children not trafficking? When it’s ‘children’s regional migration’. Anew joint initiative by UNICEF, the International Organization on Migration and a number of NGOs, including Save the Children, is planning to hold a series of workshops with the aim of producing a report on the reasons ‘behind children’s migration’. There are concerns amongst the partners as to whether the movement of children can be blamed on ‘rogue traffickers’ (which begs the question: Are there any other type of traffickers, for example non-rogue ones?).

The word ‘trafficking’ is largely absent from the planning documents of the project, which is called ‘Mobility of Children and Youth in West Africa’. Rather, partners undertaking the study in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Togo speak of ‘regional mobility’.

‘Children have been moving around the region for centuries and working just as long. That is the cultural reality here,’ said Feneyrol, regional adviser for the West Africa office of non-profit organization Terre des Hommes.

For sure, children and adults have been moving around the world since time began, but the notion that such a ‘cultural reality’ remains stagnant is false and I wonder whether it would ever be applied to Europe or North America. If we work on the premise that this is how it’s always been, nothing in the world would change for the better and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would not exist. What UNICEF and the others involved in the report should be addressing is the underlying reason behind child labour in West Africa (and elsewhere in the world), namely poverty. It is not acceptable for children in the West to move around unaccompanied or to be engaged in labour, so why should it be acceptable for children in the Global South to be exploited in this way?

The spokesperson for one of the NGOs, Terre des Hommes, makes the unlikely claim that child rights groups are fighting something they do not fully understand. Yet he asks:

‘Do we really know the varied forms of migration? Who are the intermediaries? How are these voyages financed? What are the conditions that children leave behind? Why are they taking risks and what are they searching? How can we fight a phenomenon we do not truly understand?’

He goes on to say:

‘Just because they are working in a stone quarry in Nigeria does not mean they are a victim of trafficking. Breaking up stones can be less tiring and abusive than the agricultural work they did on their farms in the village.’

Indeed they may not be victims of trafficking but they are victims of exploitation. Is it acceptable for a child in France to walk the streets because that is ‘less abusive’ than being beaten at home? No, of course not. It is about time that standards used in Europe are applied to children in the Global South. Organizations must address the problem of child labour and why it exists. Whether or not it is the result of trafficking, child labour remains exploitative, abusive and plain wrong.