A thousand children are being sold and exchanged or transported out of their communities each year   In violation of internationally-recognized rights of the child, and calls on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to persuade governments to better protect these children.

Among the recommendations identified were: the need to align social norms, national laws, and international standards of protection; the need to improve the development of children within their locale; the promotion of community mechanisms for child protection; the inclusion of children’s views in any protection regime; and joint initiatives to protect children from unlawful cross-border movement.

The 79-page report drawn up by representatives of several national and international NGOs, entitled Quelle protection pour les enfants concernés par la mobilité en Afrique de l’Ouest? (What Protection for Child Migrants in West Africa?) looked at the problem in Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Togo in 2008-2010.

“At the governmental level measures are generally limited to passing national laws. Joint action might simply amount to police intercepting and repatriating children,” said Moussa Harouna, program coordinator for NGO the African Movement of Child and Youth Workers, stressing that greater unity of action was required by governments and international organizations to support village development initiatives and set up child protection measures.

The report calls on states and development agencies to integrate child migration into their development and child protection strategies. It wants any future ECOWAS action on the movement of people, particularly children, to be an essential part of a “coherent and pragmatic policy” against human trafficking and child labor.

In addition, it calls on individual states to boost their ability to find victims of child trafficking and to differentiate this practice from other forms of mobility.

Push factors

Children may leave their communities because of conflict within the family, or the desire for education, apprenticeships, or job opportunities to help their families. Some parents force their children to leave, but often departure is voluntary and motivated by the quest for a better life.

Zelmet Fatimah and Zeydata Amina from Niger, two girls who beg along the Teteh Quarshie Interchange, a busy highway in the Ghanaian capital Accra, say they left home because of hunger. “There is no food there,” said Zeydata, “I come here every day with my sisters and my parents to beg for money. I beg because we don’t have money and I am hungry.”

However, push factors are many and varied: “The children’s motivations are rooted in the current changing world… It is misleading to believe that a state, civil society and development partners have the capacity and sufficient legitimacy to end, simply, this many-sided practice of child mobility,” said the report.

Positive outcomes

While no one knows the precise scale of child migration, the report says outflows of children are generally from Mali, Niger, and Guinea-Bissau, and their destinations are Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo.

Outflows north are less intense. The report says just 10 percent of the total number of children seeking to reach the Maghreb and Europe are from West Africa. Many are seasonal travelers, leaving for short or medium periods at the end of the farming season.

The migration of children is not always a negative phenomenon: migrant children send money home. Those from the same community might collectively fund a project.

Harouna said this had been the case in some villages in the Niger region of Makalondi, near the border with Burkina Faso, where migrant children had jointly paid to build a school for their community. The effect had been to encourage those who were too young to migrate to remain in their communities, at least for much longer, and others to return.

“The objective is no longer to stop migration at all cost,” Haround said. “It is also to improve conditions in the communities so that children do not have to leave to seek fortunes and a better life. Yet, even if they do, then organized protection must be provided within their host states or new communities in their own countries.”