New Internationalist

Children for sale

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 future.

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 streets.

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.

Sources: Human Rights Watch, The Economist, African American Registry, UNICEF, IRIN, IPS, BBC World Service, Sietske Altink, Stolen Lives: Trading women into sex and slavery.

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  1. #1 Helen Veitch 14 Jun 11

    Great article raising awareness about an 'invisible' group of children world-wide. I've just been in Geneva lobbying with five child domestic workers (from Tanzania, Philippines and Costa Rica) on the ILO's new convention on domestic work. We hope this convention will go some way in raising awareness about the issue and protecting child domestic workers from exploitation and abuse. The UK government, however, we not at all supportive of the convention :( Please see our blog about the event, with posts from the children

  2. #2 Carly 15 Jun 11

    Thanks for this article, particularly in highlighting how this is a global problem and large numbers of children are trafficked every year here into the UK. In Nigeria several child rights organisations have formed a coalition with UK-based Stepping Stones Nigeria to launch a global campaign to Prevent Abuse of Children Today (PACT). So many children in the Niger Delta are forced to live on the streets due to high levels of poverty, violent conflicts, malnutrition and disease, putting them at terrible risk from traffickers and other abuses. Please see our site to find out more (and sign the PACT!)

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About the author

Sokari Ekine a New Internationalist contributor

Sokari Ekine is a Nigerian social justice activist and blogger. She writes an awardwinning blog, Black Looks, which she started in 2004, writing on a range of topics such as LGBTI Rights in Africa, gender issues, human rights, the Niger Delta, Haiti and Land Rights. She is a IRP 2013 Fellow.

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