Child trafficking from Guinea-Bissau to Senegal is on the decline, partly due to better collaboration among local residents, civil society groups and government, local authorities said.
Government officials and aid workers say more and more sectors are on the watch for suspicious movement of children.
“Now a whole new set of actors are involved who weren’t in the past – border police, governors, even truck-drivers unions, and we receive information from surveillance committees every two to three weeks about what is going on,” Karyna Gomes, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) spokesperson in Bissau, told IRIN.
Abdoulaye Diallo, governor of the Guinea-Bissau town of Bafata 60km from the border, said: “We had 312 children intercepted at the Guinea-Bissau-Senegal border near Bafata in 2007 and just 111 so far in 2008.” This is after improved surveillance systems had been set up, he said.
Most of the intercepted children were between the ages of six and 10, according to Diallo.
An NGO from the region says it has seen a drop as well. André Sirro of the non-profit organisation SOS Talibé – which runs a welcome centre for intercepted children in Bafata – said the numbers were slightly lower but still dropping. “We have a 45% drop in cases since 2007,” he told IRIN.
Why the decrease
Diallo said community village chiefs, the governors of Kolda and Bafata on the Senegal and Guinea-Bissau sides of the border respectively, and border police from both countries, have set up surveillance committees that work with local authorities to report suspected transport of children crossing into Senegal.
The committees are supported by UNICEF and the NGO Plan International, both of which raise awareness of the trafficking phenomenon among police, communities, religious leaders and civil authorities.
Once detected, many of the children are brought to SOS Talibé’s welcome centres in Bafata and Gabu, another Guinea-Bissauan town, where they wait to be reunited with their families. “We identify the children, give them medical attention if they need it, and find their families. The families almost always take the children back – there was only one case when they didn’t,” Sirro told IRIN.
Why trafficked to Senegal
Government and aid workers closely following child trafficking say most of the children crossing the border are being sent to Senegal to become ‘talibés’ or followers of a religious leader – a marabout – to whom families send their children for learning the Koran.
A monitoring and evaluation specialist with the Dakar-based NGO Tostan, Cody Donahue, estimates there are approximately 120,000 talibés on the streets of Senegal’s cities, most of whom spend hours each day begging for money to pass on to their marabout.
Bafata Governor Diallo estimates that 85 percent of Talibé children in Senegal come from Guinea-Bissau, though this figure could not be confirmed.
The children are mostly trafficked to become talibés though many are also sent to work on the cotton fields of southern Senegal, and some become domestic labourers or sex workers, according to Sirro.
“Families tend to think their children are better off in Koranic schools in Senegal than in Guinea-Bissau,” explained Sirro.
Most of them travel from during the period of June to October, said Tostan’s Donahue.
Once children are separated from their families “they have only a small chance of seeing their parents again,” Donahue said. “Often they are so young that they don’t recognise them, and the younger ones tend not to know the name of their home village.”
Sirro says the biggest difficulty NGOs face, other than working on a shoestring budget, is getting religious leaders, or Imams, on board. “Many religious groups in Bafata are angry that we are repatriating children and don’t want it to continue,” he said. “They think these problems should be left with religious groups to work out instead.”
“We need to do more with them to get them on board,” he added.
Plan International is working with marabouts to develop alternative Koranic schools in the regions of Bafata, Contuboel, Cossa and Ganadou in Guinea-Bissau, to encourage families to keep their children in-country.
Imam Bassirou Ndiaye, of the Pefine mosque in Bissau, told IRIN: “The teachings of Islam have never recommended that small children be sent by their parents to Koranic schools, nor have they encouraged the practice of marabouts mistreating and exploiting children.”
He continued, “These marabouts are not turning to Islam to meet their financial and food needs. Child trafficking in this situation is a way to give free rein to begging.”
Trafficking or migration
For Pierre Ferry, regional child protection specialist at UNICEF in Dakar, one of the biggest obstacles is identifying the children in the first place. “Lots of these children are not trafficking victims – they are just migrating, so to come up with exact numbers and identify trafficked children is a big challenge for now.”
“I have no idea if the numbers [of children trafficked between Guinea-Bissau and Senegal] are going down,” he added.
UNICEF is working with the International Labour Organization, Save the Children, Plan International and Terre des Hommes to come up with a better sense of which prevention strategies are effective and why.
For Sirro, the next step is to broaden their prevention work to a national level. Thus far, they have had only sporadic support from the Ministry of Women and Children in Bissau, but this is beginning to change. “This is important”, he said. “The central government has to engage in tracing children if we’re going to stamp it out across the country.”