Some 1.2 million children are trafficked every year for forced
labour and sexual exploitation, according to UNICEF. But while it’s a global problem, children in
the Global South are the most vulnerable.
In Haiti, children called restavecs are sent to relatives or
other families who live in the cities. The child’s family hopes that
the child will receive an education and thus better job opportunities in
The reality is very different. The children are often physically, mentally and sexually abused by their new hosts; they are not allowed to speak; they are denied education and the time to play; they are forced to work long hours.
According to a former restavec Jean Robert Cadet,‘Restavek
is a Creole term which literally means “stay with”. It describes
children given by desperate parents to live with families who exploit
them for their labour in exchange for a place to sleep, some leftover
food and a promise to go to school that’s rarely kept.’
During the Presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, much effort was made to end the practice. Aristide founded the Lafanmi Selavi,
a home for poor, orphaned, abandoned children and rescued restavecs.
Unfortunately, the home was closed in 2000. On his return to Haiti in
2001, Aristide opened his home to many street children, providing them
with food, clothing and a place to be children. But when he was ousted
by a US-backed coup in 2004, the children were again left to the
Placing children in domestic servitude is not peculiar to Haiti. On the contrary – it takes place across the world, including Europe and the US.
In Nigeria, it works like this: a child could be the son or
daughter of a poor relative, or simply a child brought through an
intermediary from a village anywhere. As in Haiti, the parents often
assume that their child will be given a better chance in life. I have
seen young children being abused in the households of a relative of
mine, and in other households I have visited. In some cases, women, who
act as ‘agents’, buy and sell children as young as five.
A large number of children are also trafficked into Britain for use as domestic servants. They arrive in London airports accompanied by adults claiming to be their aunts or uncles, or even sometimes alone, and are later collected by adults who claim to be relatives.
The UK Metropolitan police first turned their attention to these minors with ‘Operation Paladin Child’ in 2006. Over a three month period they knocked on the doors of addresses given to them by children who had passed through immigration control in London. They found that in many cases, the same addresses had been given by successive children; many children could not be tracked. The police found that up to 190 unaccompanied children pass through Heathrow airport every week.
‘They are used mainly as free child care,’ says Debbie Ariyo from Africans Unite Against Child Abuse. ‘They are brought into Britain to look after the children of African couples. Back home it is the culture to use children for domestic
work. But here they don’t go to school, they have to work all day and
they are then at risk from abuse.’
I would go further and state that for large sections of Nigerian
society, the exploitation of children as domestic servants is part and
parcel of everyday life, acceptable and condoned even by those who do
not practice it.
In fact, all across the world both women and children are
being bought and sold, sexually and physically abused. And yet not a single
country in Africa has as yet made any serious attempt to stamp out the trade in human beings. Instead, in many cases the authorities, security forces and even families
are complicit. Corrupt regimes, extreme poverty and war all facilitate child slavery and
human trafficking in Africa.
Statistics on trafficking in Africa give a sense of the scale of the problem. In nearly 90 per cent of 53 countries
surveyed, children were trafficked to and from neighbouring
countries; of these, 34 per cent went to Europe, 26 per cent were trafficked to
the Middle East. Children, it transpires, are the biggest victims – twice as likely as
women to be trafficked.
But the problem is endemic across the globe: between 1,000 to 1,500 Guatemalan babies and children are illegally-adopted by couples in North America and Europe; Asian and Eastern European girls as young as 13 are trafficked to the West as ‘mail-order brides’ – in most cases they are powerless, isolated and at great risk of violence.
This lucrative and abusive trade, worth $17-19 billion a year, moves around 27 million people across borders every year.