Borderline Slavery: Child Trafficking in Togo
I made an appointment with the man to meet at Balanka, at night. It was January 2001. There were many other kids there—more than 300 of us in one truck, packed like dead bodies. —Dovène A.,1 trafficked from Togo to Nigeria when he was seventeen
The above testimony from a Togolese child depicts a brief moment in the long and terrifying ordeal of child trafficking. Child trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of a child for the purposes of sexual or labor exploitation, forced labor, or slavery. It is a human rights tragedy estimated to involve thousands of children in West Africa and over a million children worldwide. This report documents the trafficking of children in Togo, in particular the trafficking of girls into domestic and market work and the trafficking of boys into agricultural work. Hundreds of children are trafficked annually in Togo, either sent from, received in or transited through the country. They are recruited on false promises of education, professional training and paid employment; transported within and across national borders under sometimes life-threatening conditions; ordered into hazardous, exploitative labor; subjected to physical and mental abuse by their employers; and, if they escape or are released, denied the protections necessary to reintegrate them into society. Their stories disclose an appalling chain of events that the Togolese government has thus far failed to break.
West Africa’s Trade in Children
Togo’s trade in children is illustrative of a larger, regional phenomenon involving at least thirteen West African countries. Based on the testimony of children and local experts, Human Rights Watch documented four routes of child trafficking into, out of, or within Togo: (1) the trafficking of Togolese girls into domestic and market labor in Gabon, Benin, Nigeria, and Niger; (2) the trafficking of girls from within Togo to other parts of the country, especially the capital, Lomé; (3) the trafficking of girls from Benin, Nigeria, and Ghana to Lomé; and (4) the trafficking of boys into labor exploitation, usually agricultural work, in Nigeria, Benin, and Côte d’Ivoire.
Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch came predominantly from poor, agricultural backgrounds and had generally little schooling before being trafficked. Most were promised that by going abroad they would gain some formal or vocational education, which they could then use to earn money for themselves or their families. In numerous cases, children were recruited by traffickers after running out of money to pay for school; despite a statutory guarantee of free primary education in Togo, school fees range from 4,000 to 13,000 CFA francs2 (U.S.$6-$20) per year. Many of the children interviewed were trafficked following the death of at least one parent. Others had parents who were divorced, or at least one parent living and working away from home. A growing cause of orphanhood in Togo, human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) was identified by some experts as a possible factor in susceptibility to child trafficking.
Togo’s Trafficked Girls
Girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch were typically recruited into domestic or market labor either directly by an employer or by a third-party intermediary. Most recalled some degree of family involvement in the transaction, such as parents accepting money from traffickers, distant relatives paying intermediaries to find work abroad, or parents handing over their children based on the promise of education, professional training or paid work. Following their recruitment, girls’ journey away from home in many cases involved an intermediate stop where they could be left to fend for themselves for weeks or months at a time, before being transported to a country or city of destination by car or by boat. Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of girls taking boats from Nigeria to Gabon, a perilous and sometimes fatal journey. In one case, a boat capsized off the coast of Cameroon and nine girls died.
On arrival, girls were deposited in the homes of employers where they performed long hours of domestic and market work. From as early as 3:00 or 4:00 a.m., children tended gardens, transported and sold market goods and baked bread. At night, they worked as housemaids, prepared food and cared for small children. Human Rights Watch documented astonishing cases of girls as young as three or four years old being forced to carry infants or sell merchandise. Almost no girl received any remuneration for her services. Many recounted incidents of physical and emotional abuse, often leading them to escape and live in the street. Officials from the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Terre des Hommes told Human Rights Watch they had interviewed numerous trafficked girls who experienced sexual abuse in the home, and that some had tested positive for HIV. One child told Human Rights Watch she was forced to sleep in the same bedroom as a male boarder and was “afraid he would rape me.”
Togo’s Trafficked Boys
Boys interviewed by Human Rights Watch were for the most part recruited into agricultural labor in southwestern Nigeria. A small number worked on cotton fields in Benin, and one child was recruited into factory work in Côte d’Ivoire. Traffickers tended less to make arrangements with boys’ parents than to make direct overtures to the boys themselves—tempting them with the promise of a bicycle, a radio, or vocational training abroad. Contrary to expectation, they were taken on long, sometimes perilous journeys to rural Nigeria and ruthlessly exploited. Most were given short-term assignments on farms where they worked long hours in the fields, seven days a week. “When we were finished with one job, they would find us another one,” one child told Human Rights Watch.
Boys worked from as early as 5:00 a.m. until late at night, sometimes with hazardous equipment such as saws or machetes. Some described conditions of bonded labor, whereby their trafficker would pay for their journey to Nigeria and order them to work off the debt. Many recalled that taking time off for sickness or injury would lead to longer working hours or corporal punishment.
The Prohibition of Child Trafficking in International Law
The abuses documented by Human Rights Watch fall squarely within the definition of child trafficking in the United Nations (U.N.) Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish the Trafficking of Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the U.N. Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (2000; known as the Trafficking Protocol). Togo has signed but not ratified both the Trafficking Protocol and the Optional Protocol to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (2000). It has ratified both the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 182 on the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999), the latter of which obliges states parties to take “immediate and effective measures” to eliminate child trafficking “as a matter of urgency.” At the regional level, Togo has participated in multilateral negotiations towards a regional anti-trafficking protocol for West Africa and has signed numerous declarations of commitment to eradicate the practice.
The Failures in the Togolese Government Response
Despite these obligations, Togo has made insufficient progress in reducing the number or severity of its child trafficking cases, and Human Rights Watch’s interviews revealed the inadequacy of Togo’s system of protecting and rehabilitating trafficked children. Togo’s effort to develop a tougher response to child trafficking in domestic law is on the wrong track.
Togo has repatriated and reintegrated some trafficked children (with the assistance of other countries with which it has bilateral agreements) and/or placed them in the care of NGOs. However, other trafficked children have received no targeted state help in repatriation and have found their own way home with the help of civilians or police officers. This was particularly the case for boys interviewed by Human Rights Watch who, at the end of their work term—usually about nine months—were usually given a bicycle and told to find their way home: they described riding bicycles from Nigeria back to their villages in Togo, a journey that lasted up to nine days. Some boys were stopped by soldiers and forced to bribe them in order to be let go. According to Togo’s director of child protection, some boys have died on the way home and have been buried on the side of the road. One girl was improperly detained in a penal facility on arrival back in Togo.
Numerous government and NGO representatives attested to a lack of resources for rehabilitating trafficked children, and children’s testimony corroborated these accounts. Interviews with several child sex workers in Lomé’s so-called marché du petit vagin (literally, “market of the small vagina”) revealed that some girls had come to Lomé under conditions of child trafficking and been forced into sex work after escaping or being abandoned. A survey in 1992 showed that HIV prevalence among sex workers in Lomé was already 80 percent.
Aside from bilateral repatriation agreements, the Togolese government’s most concrete responses to child trafficking have been the creation of local “vigilance committees” to identify vulnerable children and track potential traffickers; and the drafting of a law, currently before the national assembly, that imposes a five-to-tenyear prison term on traffickers and/or a fine of up to 10 million CFA (U.S.$15,000). The draft law imposes the same penalty on parents of trafficked children who in some way or another might be regarded as complicit in the sale or handing over of their children to traffickers; this includes not only parents who are deceived by false promises of education and professional training, but also those who fail to report known trafficking cases to the police. No allowance is made for parents who resign themselves to sending their children abroad in the good faith belief that they have no alternative or that working abroad is in their child’s best interests.
In taking steps to eradicate child trafficking Togo must, with appropriate assistance from donor countries, the United Nations and African multilateral organizations, address the pressures that induce parents and other caretakers to authorize the movement and exploitation of children. Child traffickers capitalize not only on entrenched poverty, but also on inadequate access to education, poor vocational opportunities, and orphanhood. They exploit a widespread practice of employing girls as domestic workers, a tradition that predates the advent of child trafficking. Their methods are facilitated by lax border patrols, haphazard reintegration of trafficked children, weak prosecutorial efforts, and in some cases corruption. In addition to holding traffickers criminally responsible for their actions, and rather than incarcerating parents who succumb to traffickers’ false promises, Togo and its neighbors must confront the social and political factors that allow such inhumanity to be inflicted upon children.
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