Borderline slavery: child trafficking in west Africa

In a new report released this month, Human Rights Watch, a humanitarian watchdog group based in New York, is charging that governments in west Africa are failing to address the problem of child labor, specifically, the practice of "child trafficking." Numerous UN declarations on the rights-of-children define such trafficking as the removing, transporting, selling or placing of a child into an exploitative context. No matter how it's defined, the practice means a failure on the part of governments to protect the weakest among us, children.

The 79 page report highlights Togo as a case study of child trafficking in the region. Jonathan Cohen, researcher with Human Rights Watch and author of the report "Borderline Slavery: Child Trafficking in Togo," spoke with's Jim Bencivenga about the problem and about what individuals can do to help. Can you help us understand the mindset of how adults would knowingly exploit children so routinely? Is the poverty that bad?

Cohen: In countries known for "sending" children abroad to work, poverty is extremely dire indeed. About 80 percent of Togo's rural population lives on less than US $1 per day. But it's true that poverty may not be a complete explanation for child trafficking, in the sense that there are areas where poverty is extreme and child trafficking does not occur. It's important to remember that traffickers typically entice parents with false promises of high quality education, paid work, and vocational training [for the child]. Extreme poverty, often combined with the death of one or both parents, makes such offers very difficult to refuse. In addition, traffickers exploit a tradition of using girls as domestic workers and of sending children abroad to live with family members during the period of their schooling. In dire economic times, these traditional practices can sometimes collapse into exploitation. What are the overall numbers of children being trafficked? Is it going to get worse? Or is there some reason for optimism that the economies in that region will improve and child trafficking will diminish?

Cohen: There are unfortunately no precise estimates of the number of children trafficked in west Africa overall. The UN has estimated 200,000 children per year, but even UNICEF is unaware of the origins of that figure. Government estimates tend to be more conservative: for example, the Togolese government estimates that approximately 200 to 300 children are trafficked from the country each year. One Togolese NGO (non-governmental organization), by contrast, estimates that there are over 15,000 Togolese children working as domestic workers in Gabon alone. It can be said with certainty that the problem is significant and, as of now, not abating. We estimate that it will grow worse, particularly as AIDS and other diseases orphan increasing numbers of children in west and central Africa. Are there groups using the internet and Human Rights Watch's website to monitor what's going on? To alert appropriate officials? Does the access the web gives us to these problems help alleviate it or make us more indifferent to the plight of these children because there's nothing we can do?

Cohen: The web is a very important medium for pressuring governments to act against child trafficking, particularly in countries like Togo that do not have a fully free press. HRW's website contains instructions on how to contact not only the Togolese government, but also the United Nations and developed countries that can provide development assistance to countries affected by child trafficking. Although west African governments have taken some steps against child trafficking, it is vital that they see that the general public is not satisfied with their efforts to date. The web can also be an innovative means of sharing information: based on HRW's report, for example, the BBC online invited readers to e-mail in their own experiences with child trafficking and, incredibly, got some very compelling responses. The more media outlets that respond in this kind of interactive way, the better. What can individuals do?

Cohen: Certainly the first step is to educate yourself about the issue. Read HRW's report, and look up additional information, much of which is cited in the report. I would then urge readers to visit HRW's website for basic information on how to contribute to the struggle against child trafficking. One can certainly push his or her national government to impose sanctions against countries that fail to protect children from child trafficking, but this is not a complete solution. In Togo, for example, sanctions might make little difference because the United States and the EU have almost completely suspended aid to Togo based on their refusal to hold free elections. An alternative solution might be to encourage national governments to provide assistance to targeted antitrafficking initiatives. The US Department of Labor, for example, has given money to the International Labor Organization which is earmarked for antitrafficking programs in west Africa. But these efforts have not been sufficient. Can you tell me of any countries that have successfully protected their children from such practices?

Cohen: There are examples of successes and failures in different countries. The most successful efforts in west Africa so far, in my opinion, have been agreements between countries on the repatriation of children trafficked to other countries. One such agreement exists between Mali and Cote d'Ivoire, for example. Countries have also launched awareness-raising campaigns about child trafficking, and these have had obvious success in educating parents about the dangers of sending children abroad. Finally, a few countries have begun the process of drafting and enforcing laws against child trafficking, but much more remains to be done in this area. The problem will not go away, though, until prevention, prosecution and protection efforts are all dramatically increased.

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