Cause for hope in fight against Togo child trafficking

For children’s rights activists like Deleli Kpeglo, efforts to combat child trafficking in Togo have often produced dispiriting results.

“We’ve tried everything possible, but such efforts have not been effective. Child traffickers keep coming back and taking away more children,” says Kpeglo, who works for Plan Togo, an NGO.

Now there is cause for hope—as a law that explicitly bans trafficking is finally on the books.

The legislation in question was passed earlier this month. It provides for prison terms of up to five years, and fines ranging from about $1 000 to $2 000 (R6 400 to R12 800).
The penalties may be doubled if trafficked children die, or disappear; they can also be applied for attempted trafficking, and against the accomplices of traffickers.

“Before, the traffickers ran free and could practise as professionals because there was no Togolese law against it. By adopting this law, we are going to stop it,” Minister of Justice Tchessa Abi says.

Adds Abass Bonfoh, president of Togo’s National Assembly, says: “The law targets all those who are intimately or casually mixed up in the trafficking process: those who recruit the children, transport them and house them, in addition to parents and close relatives who are accomplices.”

The new legislation follows a lengthy campaign on the part of activists.

“This law is very harsh ... and its adoption is the result of a long process that included an educational and sensitisation period,” says Kpeglo.

In terms of the new law, a child not in the presence of his parents or official guardians may no longer leave the country without special authorisation (although officials have yet to agree on what form this will take). About 3 000 children are intercepted each year at the border while being taken to other countries. The most common destinations are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria.

Efforts to combat child trafficking have included the establishment of local committees that try to monitor child labour and trafficking.

These groups have received support from the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (Ipec)—an initiative of the International Labour Organisation—which has organised education and training sessions for the committees. This was in an effort to improve members’ awareness of the extent of trafficking, and its effect on children’s lives.

Even so, traffickers have continued to slip children over the borders to neighbouring countries—sometimes crossing at night, thought wooded areas, in a bid to evade authorities.

A young welder arrested in March last year was one of the few to be caught: he had planned to sell his half-brother for $20 000 (R129 600), to pay for a trip to the United States.

Similarly, a woman and two of her accomplices were arrested this year by police when she tried to cross the border with Benin, along with a group of young girls destined to work as domestics in Nigeria.

According to Kpeglo, traffickers tend to operate in networks that are known to the families of the trafficked children. And often, the relatives of children are accomplices in the trade.

“How can we make sense of adults engaging in such contemptible conduct, which deprives children of all their rights—most notably the rights to go to school, to grow up and to blossom?” asks Bonfoh.

In a report published last May, Plan Togo claimed that 12% of Togolese children from rural areas are trafficked to serve in low-paying jobs—or positions where they receive no wages at all.

“The high level of poverty, cultural factors, as well as the Togolese custom of sending children to live with their aunts, cousins or other family members, are elements which contribute to a system in which no one profits but the traffickers,” notes the document. Official statistics issued last year indicate that almost 73% of Togolese citizens live below the poverty line of $1 a day.

Efforts have been made to ensure that the new law respects Togolese culture, even as it eliminates those aspects of it that are harmful. The painstaking nature of this process is said to have contributed to delays in getting anti-trafficking legislation imposed.

“The thinking around this law began in 2003 ... and we had to take into account traditional and socio-economic factors ... before adopting a law,” says Essodina Abalo, national coordinator for Ipec-Togo.

Adds Martin Hotowossi, an expert in children’s rights issues for the NGO Care International: “We had to think about various aspects of the law. We had to listen to one another and come to an agreement while taking into account the on-the-ground realities.”—IPS

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