National sections of Defence for Children International (DCI) in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone train border security and immigration officials and local community actors to reinforce child protection systems and better prevent and combat child trafficking.
Fifteen years after the adoption of the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) declaration, and subsequent plan of action on the fight against trafficking in persons, child trafficking remains a reality in the region, particularly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. As stated by the United States Department of State, the three above-mentioned countries continue to be, in 2016, source, transit and/or destination countries for children subjected to forced labour and sexual exploitation. The trafficking of children occurs both internally, mainly from rural to urban areas, and externally, mostly towards Middle-Eastern, European and other African countries.
Whilst open borders within the Mano River Union (MRU – Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Ivory Coast) and the wider ECOWAS region have enhanced free trade and people’s freedom of movement, they have also made the control of children’s movements across borders more laborious. Indeed, it is often difficult to distinguish between illegal cross-border activities and legitimate family cross-border transit or migration. Instances of corruption among security agencies only add to the problem and put children at higher risk of trafficking. Moreover, after the Ebola Virus Disease broke out in 2013, many children became orphans, found themselves left alone and/or ended up in highly vulnerable situations whilst existing child protection systems in the three countries were seriously weakened and could barely respond to the protection needs of children. As it has been shown in previous times of crisis (e.g. past civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia), the recent Ebola epidemic drastically increased the risk and occurrence of child trafficking.
Responding to immediate child protection challenges
Upon announcement of the end of the Ebola epidemic and subsequent re-opening of borders in affected countries, Sabou/DCI-Guinea, DCI-Liberia and DCI-Sierra Leone met in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in November 2015 to discuss post-Ebola challenges and agreed on the need to provide support to security agencies to better prevent and respond to child trafficking. Follow-up meetings with security and immigration officials took place in March 2016 at the Genedema/Bo border between Sierra Leone and Liberia and the Gbalamuya/Pamelap border between Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Officials attending the March meetings raised concerns over four key issues. First, they confessed that most of them have very little knowledge in regard to laws and policies on trafficking in persons. Second, they stated that the borders are porous with several illegal crossing points and that the lack of resources allocated to border security has not allowed them to work with local communities on this issue. Third, the lack of resources is also flagrant when it comes to deal with concrete cases: when alleged victims of trafficking are arrested by security officials, no structure is in place to provide them with necessary shelter and care. And fourth, they noted that a high number of children are at risk of trafficking, particularly those found at market places, wandering or selling for survival.
The three DCI national sections wasted no time to design a support programme aimed at strengthening child protection systems in border areas, and promptly reached out to key actors: border security and immigration officials, community leaders, youths and civil society organisations (CSO) such as the Motor Drivers’ Union and Commercial Bike Riders Association. Trainings were conducted in June and July 2016 both at the Guinea/Sierra Leone and Sierra Leone/Liberia borders, with a total of 128 security officials and local community actors participating in. Training sessions focused on international, regional and national policies that prohibit and criminalize child trafficking, and on a referral pathway for victims’ rehabilitation and reintegration. Three-day meetings were first held (simultaneously) on each side of the borders, whilst a final joint meeting allowed participants to agree on improved ways to collaborate and operate.
Towards a multi-level collaboration
As a key outcome of these training sessions, it was decided that trafficking in persons would be added to the agenda of the monthly joint, inter-country security meeting. This will allow security officials to regularly share updates on their efforts in the fight against child trafficking and to continuously improve their collaboration.
Trained security officials also gathered with over 500 community leaders and members in their respective areas to reinforce their collaboration. Security officials particularly explained that they were lacking manpower to control the totality of the borders and that they did not intend to flood the borders with additional security personnel as if they were at war with their neighbouring country. Rather, they engaged local communities to play an active role in preventing unofficial border crossings. Roles to be played by community leaders, members and youths were emphasized and it was agreed that communities should apply the ‘Ebola fight’ model, which was very strict against the movement of strangers through their communities and across borders, to the issue of trafficking in persons. Youths welcomed the initiative and called upon security officials to work closely with them in order to better combat child trafficking, smuggling and other criminal activities.
Local governments and heads of ministries in charge of children’s affairs highly praised the DCI-led initiative and encouraged security officials and community leaders and youths to refer any victim of trafficking to them as the identification and provision of appropriate support, care and other services for the victims clearly lies within their mandates.
For children, with children
To consolidate the effectiveness of its intervention, DCI reminded that it was crucial to reach out to children at risk, i.e. those that are direct targets for traffickers. Together with participants of the training sessions, DCI reached out to children in 10 schools and 4 communities, as well as those selling and/or wandering at market places in border areas. Over 2,000 children were therefore sensitized on trafficking and potential risks. For example, they were reminded to remain prudent and attentive when dealing with strangers, and to avoid such situations as much as possible. They were also explained the key characteristics of traffickers, such as fictitious generosity and empathy, specifically towards poor and vulnerable children, so that they can more easily suspect them if they come their way.
Overall, the usefulness of the border and child protection system strengthening programme goes far beyond the skills and knowledge provided to the target group. It has strengthened relationships among security agencies and community stakeholders, and subsequently facilitated pathways for efficient and effective collaborative efforts to better prevent and combat child trafficking. More importantly, it has also widened the knowledge of the three DCI national sections that initiated this programme on the gaps and needs of the frontline security mechanisms at the borders and the kind of future follow-up support programme that should be designed.
 See US State Department, Trafficking in Persons, 2016 Report : http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2016/index.htm
 This DCI-led initiative has been made possible through the financial support of the Fund for Global Human Rights