Côte d'Ivoire

Child trafficking in Côte d'Ivoire: Efforts under way to reverse a tragic trend

By Blue Chevigny

UNICEF this year marks the Day of the African Child, 16 June, by supporting the African Union's call to end child trafficking. Here is a look at the situation in the West African nation of Côte d'Ivoire.

NEW YORK, USA, 14 June 2007 - UNICEF's Representative in Côte d'Ivoire, Youssouf Oomar, says trafficking is a grave child-protection concern in that country and throughout West Africa.

In some African nations it is traditional to send children out to become apprentices or learn a trade, but this practice has been altered over the generations, Mr. Oomar notes in an interview with UNICEF Radio. "It's become now practically a business where you have intermediaries, and they are making payment to parents, and children are then trafficked," he says.

"It becomes more serious when we realize these children are deprived of schooling, of their childhood," adds Mr. Oomar. "And they are brought to these countries to do tasks that are harmful to their health. The girls are domestic servants, the boys work in the fields and they are not paid properly for their work. They are being exploited."

Cooperation with government and rebels

Under international norms, a 'child victim of trafficking' is anyone under the age of 18 who is recruited, transported, transferred, harboured or received for the purpose of exploitation, either within a country or between countries.

Côte d'Ivoire has become both a point of departure and a point of entry for trafficked children. Mr. Oomar and his team have worked closely with the government, as well as rebel factions in the north of the country, on agreements aimed at stemming the tide of this human commerce.

In the past, when violence was rampant in the north, the borders were very porous and trafficking was easy. Now a peace process, which began in March, has allowed the formerly warring sides to work together. Recently, with the cooperation of these parties, UNICEF intercepted 100 trafficked children.

"We believe one of the most effective strategies is to work along the borders where children come in and go out," Mr. Oomar explains. "We arrange for them to be taken care of, housed properly, and then we organize their return - in dignity, of course."

Wide-ranging exploitation

The invisible and clandestine nature of the trafficking that does go on makes it difficult to collect reliable data and determine the number of children trafficked from, to and within the country.

It is known, however, that within Côte d'Ivoire the main form of trafficking involves children coming from poor rural areas into more affluent urban areas.

Likewise, children from neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso, Togo and Mali are brought to Côte d'Ivoire to work in its robust cocoa farming industry, among other outlets for child labour. Their rights are not respected and they are exposed to wide-ranging exploitation and abuse.

Causes and solutions

There are many root causes of child trafficking, and all of them are present to some degree in Côte d'Ivoire. Two of the main causes are poverty and lack of education.

"Prevention is linked always to the schooling system," asserts Mr. Oomar. "As long as children have access to schools - and parents understand the importance of education and have the means to send their children to school - they will stop sending their children out to be exposed to all kinds of harmful practices."

UNICEF and its partners are working closely to develop solutions to this tragic problem. They are currently focusing on:

- Strengthened legislation and law-enforcement to halt child trafficking

- Aid to the victims of trafficking, including psychosocial and medical assistance as well as reintegration and relocation support

- New partnerships with government, civil society and other actors in Côte d'Ivoire to protect young people.

Also under way are plans for a meeting of all the countries in the sub-region. Its purpose: to put the issue of child trafficking front and centre on everyone's agenda, where it belongs.