Tackling the “Brazen Trade” of Child Trafficking in Africa

By Samhar Almomani on Mar 30, 2022
Child Trafficking in Africa

In February 2021, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) worked with the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) to present key findings announced in the UNODC Fifth Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. This report was shared with civil society organizations and international partners. The report’s main finding showed that children make up more than 75% of trafficking victims in West Africa. The report, which covers 148 countries and more than 95% of the population, used statistics between 2016 and 2019, presenting the latest data we have in terms of global human trafficking. The focus was on Africa because some countries located there, especially Nigeria, have a particularly high number of trafficking cases.

“Trafficking in persons is one of the most lucrative criminal markets globally,” stated Imaan Sulaiman-Ibrahim, the NAPTIP Director-General, “Nigeria is an origin, transit and destination country and is affected by both domestic and cross-border trafficking.” Mr. Sulaiman-Ibrahim added that a collaborative approach is paramount in tackling human trafficking and emphasized the efforts led by NAPTIP to ensure that trafficking cases are being investigated with local law enforcement agencies. The majority of victims in West Africa are usually trafficked within their countries or to neighboring countries, so an increasing number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have introduced specific offenses against trafficking in persons under the United Nations definition. The number has jumped to 38 in 2020 from only 2 countries in 2002. However, the conviction rate is still much lower than in other regions. This is why this report provides the first in-depth analysis on the involvement of organized crime groups in human trafficking. The report shows that when such groups are involved, more victims are trafficked, often for much longer, across more destinations and involved in more violence. These traffickers usually target people that are vulnerable economically due to difficult circumstances. In fact, more than half of the 233 court cases UNODC analyzed globally, traffickers had targeted the economic needs of the victim. This is increasingly relevant as economic recessions resulting from COVID-19 will make more people fall into poverty and increase the risk of being trafficked. (Source: UNODC)

This becomes an even bigger issue when talking about child trafficking, many of whom are turned into soldiers, forced into labor, or sold into prostitution while only aged between 12 and 16. It was found that the number of countries that reported child trafficking was double the number of reported trafficking cases in women. Children in that age range are actually the main victims of human trafficking across Africa, according to a 2004 study compiled by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The UNICEF study showed that poverty, violent conflicts, instability and traditional practices that include early marriage resulted in reported human trafficking in Africa. A third of the countries studied showed that victims were trafficked to Europe, mostly for prostitution, and a quarter were trafficked to the Middle East and Arab states. The study reports that in Kenya, Ghana and Zimbabwe, girls as young as 8 years old were sold as brides because they are seen as “pure” and unlikely to infect people with HIV, a major concern for people in the region. Children trafficked in countries ravaged with war conflicts in Western Africa are often sold as slave laborers working on cotton, tea and cocoa plantations in what could only be described as modern slavery. Girls from Togo are also trafficked to other countries but for a different purpose: being domestic servants. In Malawi, European tourists are known to drive demand for child prostitutes, with more than a few children sent to Europe as sex slaves. There is no one form of child trafficking. There are many ways that these children are being exploited, and we need to act urgently.

The report also talked about a “vicious cycle of abuse” in which child victims trafficked during their formative years later become abusers that participate in trafficking. It is reported that child victims from Tanzania later return to their villages to recruit new victims to be forced to work in the country’s mines. UNICEF’s Executive Director at the time, Carol Bellamy, said, “Trafficking is among the worst violations of child rights.” Ms. Bellamy called on countries and the international community to work together to end a “brazen” trade that endangers the lives of millions of children. UNICEF urged all African governments to recognize that human trafficking, especially involving children, is a violation of human rights, and she urged that these countries recognize the negative consequences of trafficking on economic development. However, many African governments are yet to ratify the international conventions outlawing the trade in humans. “African countries need to increase efforts and work in close cooperation with one another in order to build a protective environment for children and protect them from trafficking,” said Andrea Rossi, one of the study’s authors, “The demand for young girls for prostitution or early marriage, and the conflict-related demand for children soldiers are important.” Mr. Rossi emphasized how the trade is driven by sexual and economic exploitation that thrives when a child’s environment of school, family and community collapses as a result of hard circumstances faced by people in the region daily (Source: UNICEF).

The end of the Cold War led to a rise of regional conflicts and erasure of borders in Africa, which led to an increase in economic refugees. Since the rise of refugee populations, rates of human trafficking in different parts in Africa have increased rapidly. Although there have been a lot of interventions proposed by policymakers on a regional and national level, many African countries have found combatting human trafficking difficult. The challenges are due to ineffective policies and the incapacity to enforce these laws, even with there is legislation present to combat human trafficking. “The combination(s) of lack of political will, political and institutional corruption, and a range of other underlying perennial socio-economic problems that these countries are confronted with have made the fight against human trafficking almost insurmountable,” said Paul Bello and Adewale Olutola in a book titled, “Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking.” In the book, human trafficking is seen to be controlled by two main forces: the demand for cheap labor by the exploiting party and the need for survival by the exploited. These two variables ensure the continuation of the tragic cycle of child trafficking, and one can only imagine the horrifying implications of increasing poverty in some regions and what it might lead to. Not only is this practice exacerbated due to increasing poverty but also globalization, as the expansion of the global market for trade and investment has also resulted in an increase in demand and supply of people. With both poverty and globalization on the rise, it is paramount that we start looking for effective solutions.

The Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID) published a policy brief by Ifeyinwa Mbakogu presenting child-centered approaches to child trafficking in Africa. The paper proposes that the policies aimed at addressing child trafficking should not be uniform frameworks based on Western notions of children, childhood, child protection and development pertaining to addressing child trafficking or protecting children. Instead, child trafficking policies should be based on lived experiences of African children within the context of their individual lives in their own countries. This approach is said to ensure that the policies adopted by African governments are suited and appropriate for the needs of children and families vulnerable to trafficking by taking a child-centered policy approach. This approach encourages affected children to participate in decision making pertaining to trafficking and will reinforce the need for evidence-based research, since the trafficked children themselves provide reliable information for policy making.

The policy brief starts by stating that when global leaders met to establish the United Nations Millennium Declaration, which resulted in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, they had hopes to eliminate struggles faced by women and children around the world. However, three years after the establishment of those promises, numbers are showing an increase in poverty regarding inadequate access to basic services, such as housing and education, for adolescents below 18. With that being said, the policy brief states that the MDGs only address a small part of the violence that children face daily, with a growing percentage of children living in areas with ongoing conflict. The brief reports some stunning numbers stating that, “Every year, 275 million children either witness or are victims of domestic violence or abuse, 126 million children work in exploitative and hazardous situations, while 1.2 million children are victims of trafficking with 32% of this number coming from Africa.” Poverty plays a role in pushing people to believe that jobs away from home will lead to better income, and that belief makes children susceptible to forced labor trafficking. Gender also plays a major role in the exploitation of children in Africa, with girls being more susceptible to trafficking due to class, cultural and ethnic issues that marginalize female children. We cannot ignore the traumatic lives boys and girls sold into trafficking lead and the scary future their lives hold (Source: ISID).

These numbers should push us to fight for pragmatic change that will lead children to have fruitful, safe lives as they ought to. The brief mentions the recommendations established by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for policy interventions in developing African countries. These interventions are intended to create sustainable development for children and youth along three different paths. The first of these paths involves child survival, which focuses on the health of children growing up in these regions. About 7 million children below the age of five die each year from a number of diseases that compromise the health of both the child and their mother. Because of that, CIDA recommends increasing access to healthcare, sanitation and clean water for women and children in developing countries. The second of these paths involves access to a quality education. This objective involves increasing the enrollment of children in schools, especially girls, and making higher education more accessible by pushing teaching material, basic infrastructure and qualified teachers. The third path focuses on the feeling of safety and security for children and youth. The ideal way to mitigate the victimization of children and increasing their safety is by securing the first two paths mentioned above. Disproportionate access to healthcare and education lead to the exploitation of children, so by ensuring access to all children, the opportunities for child exploitation and trafficking are diminished (Source: ISID).

Based on the observations published by CIDA, the policy brief finds that it is paramount to use a child-centered approach to look into ways to eliminate child trafficking in Africa and other regions. This recommendation follows the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and Children’s Voices’ pronouncements. The UNCRC, which was established in 1989, recognizes the importance of including children’s voices in matters of policy-making and urges leaders to ensure that interventions and laws are based on three core principles: children have different safety and security needs than adults, a family is deemed the most effective protective environment to ensure good development for children and recognizing that the government and other adults in the community are expected to provide incentives for protecting children and working to ensure healthy development. “The CRC recognizes that children just like other people in a society have opinions and ideas about issues affecting their existence,” stated the policy brief, “Children know what they want, and children want to contribute to policy decisions that pave the way for the realization of their dreams.” When researchers and policymakers make decisions for children, it is likely that these changes will not positively affect children or may not be necessary to begin with. The only way to find out the needs of children in a region is to listen to the children themselves. In the case of child trafficking, the brief proposes hearing from children who have been involved in child trafficking during their lifetime (Source: ISID).

A child-centered approach becomes increasingly important when the differences in trafficking depending on the region are considered. In West and Central Africa, boys are recruited to work in tea, cotton and cocoa plantations and mines, while girls are usually trafficked for the purpose of domestic work or forced marriages. However, in North and East Africa, girls are often trafficked not only for forced marriages and domestic work but also for forced prostitution. Boys in these regions work on farmlands, including livestock or fishing industries, and plantations. With that in mind, there is a lot of debate on what rights of children are infringed upon in such cases of exploitation. Several African countries currently debate whether the participation of children in trafficking is right or wrong. The line blurs when it comes to child trafficking and other ways that children migrate, sometimes dubbed as child fostering or the socialization of children. Including children in these conversations will help show us the perspectives of the people most affected by interventions pertaining to trafficking (Source: ISID).

The idea that children are involved in such a horrific trade disturbs many people, but we cannot let discomfort force us to look away. We must face challenges head on, especially when those challenges impact the most in need in our populations. Here at World Forgotten Children Foundation, we ensure that the most vulnerable in our communities get the help they need. You can be part of that fight and ensure that children around the world can grow up in safe homes by donating to our mission or volunteering today.


Child trafficking in Africa: The need for child ... - McGill University. (n.d.). Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://www.mcgill.ca/isid/files/isid/mbakogu.pb11.pdf

Coftadeh. (n.d.). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Human trafficking in West Africa: three out of four victims are children says UNODC report. Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://www.unodc.org/nigeria/en/human-trafficking-in-west-africa_-three-out-of-four-victims-are-children-says-unodc-report.html

The conundrum of human trafficking in Africa. IntechOpen. (n.d.). Retrieved June 18, 2022, fromhttps://www.intechopen.com/chapters/70938

Fleck, F. (2004, May 1). Children are main victims of trafficking in Africa. BMJ (Clinical research ed.). Retrieved June 18, 2022, fromhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC403882/

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