April 20, 2014

Protecting “Children” in Southern Benin? Anti-Trafficking Policy in Need of Politics and Participation

Neil Howard follows Issue Paper 5 on children and adolescents with an important story about the failures of the international child protection establishment to adequately protect the teenage labour migrants it defines as trafficked in Benin.


Introduction and Research Context

Child trafficking began to emerge as a ‘problem issue’ in Benin at the start of the last decade. Though child labour had long been a focus of international and national attention within the country, two high-profile events saw trafficking displace it as the major child protection concern. The first was the interception of a Nigerian trawler smuggling Beninese adolescents to work in Gabon. The second was the ‘rescue’ of Beninese teenage labour migrants working in the artisanal mines of Abeokuta, Nigeria. Both events saw young workers identified as ‘slaves’, and both led to Benin being tarred as the new ‘epicentre’ of the international traffic in children.

The country’s government responded by ratifying the UN Trafficking Protocol, facilitating an influx of anti-trafficking funds and establishing various anti-trafficking initiatives. The bulk of these have focussed on pre-emptively protecting the young by preventing the work and migration seen as equivalent to trafficking. Crucially, following the ILO’s anti- child-labour framework, this work includes anything which ‘by its nature and/or the conditions in which it is exercised, may damage the health, safety or morals of the child’, for example:

‘mining and quarrying; manufacturing; construction; electricity, gas and water; sanitary services; transport, storage and communication; and plantations and other agricultural undertakings mainly producing for commercial purposes, but excluding family and small-scale holdings producing for local consumption and not regularly employing hired workers’.

This has led to the de facto criminalisation of most of the work performed by the country’s young poor. Importantly, no formal distinction is made between younger children and the working teenagers who, while still legally minors, are socially much closer to adulthood. As a result, even working teenagers who have consented to their employment are treated in the same fashion as small children forced into their work.

In order to examine the appropriateness of this policy, I conducted over 14 months of multi-sited fieldwork, during which I interviewed more than 300 people and observed and worked with individuals and institutions at every level of the anti-trafficking policy chain. At the ‘community’ level, I chose four case study villages from two districts in the Zou Region, where I interviewed community leaders, community members and current and former young migrants supposed by the authorities to be victims of trafficking.

I chose these villages for two reasons. First, they are from a region that has been institutionally identified as a ‘hub’ of child labour, trafficking and exploitation as a result of the fact that young males frequently migrate to Nigeria for quarry work.

Second, these villages are also at the heart of the Beninese ‘cotton belt’, which has seen household incomes plummet and remain low over the last 15 years as a result of international falls in the price of cotton.

I therefore wished to explore the hitherto un-examined link between declining income from cotton and adolescent movement to the mines (see my earlier Rightswork piece for details). Additionally, I conducted a follow-up field visit in February 2012 in order to examine more closely the socio-cultural and economic world of artisinal quarry-work in Abeokuta. During this visit, I interviewed representatives of all ‘classes’ involved in the quarry economy, including gang leaders, gravel purchasers, traders and transporters, landowners and Beninese adolescent migrant workers.

As will become clear below, my findings offer a strong challenge to the effectiveness of current policy.

Community Views on (Child) Work

In my case study, work, whether inside the home or for remuneration outside it, is not seen as a damaging ‘adult’ sphere from which under-18s are to be sheltered. In fact, it is seen as an eminently positive and necessary part of being young and growing up. In most households, children as young as three may be asked to perform basic tasks such as filling pots of water, at five or six to keeping an eye on their very smallest siblings, at eight or nine to washing those younger than themselves or sweeping the courtyard, and at 12 to cooking, cleaning and taking on the rest of the tasks performed by adult household members at home or within the context of their small-scale economic activities. Crucially, such realities are not viewed as a grave hardship. Even young children recognise the importance of their contributions and all are aware that these are necessary in what is a materially poor environment.

In line with this, where the anti-trafficking establishment sees the quarry work teenage boys do in Abeokuta as the kind of work that is necessarily unacceptable and exploitative, for the communities I researched do not agree. They say it is the nature of that work and its relation to an individual’s capacity that matters. Thus, in numerous interviews, villagers and former teenage migrants to the quarries complained about the official approach, as did my research assistant, who had formerly been an NGO employee sub-contracted by the state to ‘sensitise’ locals against such work and movement. One village elder told me that ‘The state, white people, NGOs, they all come here and say don’t let your kids leave for the quarries because what they experience there is slavery,’ Charley, a village head, continued, ‘NGOs call everything slavery…to stop kids leaving.’

My research shows that labour migration to the Abeokutan quarries – and the claims of ‘trafficking’ that have been associated with it – is consistently being translated by the authorities at ground-level as ‘kanoumon’ – the local word for ‘slavery’.

Such is the frustration with how far removed this designation remains from people’s lived experiences of quarry work, that when I asked one group of men how they themselves defined the work that teenage boys do in the quarries, I received a genuinely emotional round of applause as ‘the first person from outside to have ever come here and posed us this question’.

This reaction was not unique. A core component of all the interviews I conducted with former young migrant quarry workers and their communities was focussed on how they defined their work, how they understood exploitation, slavery, and trafficking and how they viewed the way others view them. Without fail, amid many expressions of frustration, I learned that none of them defined work in the quarries as ‘kanoumon’; rather, they see the work as predominantly an acceptable, if challenging, activity that can, at times, constitute ‘afoutame’, or ‘exploitation’ – but only if workers are asked to perform beyond their reasonable capacity.

Community Views on (Child) Migration

Work in, and migration to, the quarries of Nigeria is thus viewed in a broadly positive light by these communities. What my interviews revealed, however, is that this understanding of migration transcends the quarries. Indeed, the decision to migrate is generally viewed as a constructive one, in large part because it is the principle vehicle through which people can access paid work and the opportunity that this underpins for self, family, and wider village. This was expressed to me especially when discussing how people perceive the anti-trafficking, anti-migratory messages they hear from the authorities. Below is an example I have extracted from my notes:

 ‘Do you often hear the message at school that leaving is bad? Unanimously, like a chorus, they all said yes. Why? What do people say? It is their teachers. Some said occasionally also their parents. They say that you can’t be better off than in your community and that you shouldn’t leave. What do you think when they say this?

 - “We think its rubbish, because we see people coming back with motorbikes and other things and so we know it’s untrue”. Lots of nods and agreement.

 - Another boy added that dropping out of school to migrate isn’t great. But if you’re not at school or doing something else then there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

 - The girls, through their elected spokesperson, said that as far as they are concerned, “if no-one helps parents to send their children to school, then it is absolutely fine for kids to leave and find work. They have to!”’

These views depend on the concentration of economic opportunity in locations outside of one’s home village. Indeed, and not without good reason, perceptions of migrant destination centres, (Cotonou, Nigeria or ‘yovotome’ – ‘the home of the white man’) consistently underline the notion that ‘elsewhere’ represents a land of opportunity, a place where life is materially richer than ‘here’, and where one can and must go if one seeks to advance.

Given such understandings, various of my interviewees repeatedly articulated that they believed the migration of both young and old served as a tool for local development. In one particularly telling example, two female elders railed passionately against the anti-trafficking policy establishment:

 ‘Neil: What do you think of the message that young people shouldn’t leave the village?

 Woman 1: Those who tell us this are those who hold back the development of this village!! It is a terrible message! And they give us nothing in return. The NGOs come here but they bring nothing with them!

Neil: Why do NGOs and the government do this and say these things?

Woman 2: They don’t want people to leave the village because they don’t want to see us go and develop elsewhere instead of here. Fair enough, but their words are useless, because they bring nothing’.

The Centrality of Cash

The above examples demonstrate the importance of cash and access to it in the decisions of young people, or those who decide on their behalf, to migrate for work. That cash should be so important was further underlined when I examined with the communities what was meant by the Fon word ‘ya’ – ‘poverty’. Though ‘poverty’ frequently featured as an answer to the question ‘why do young people leave here?’, further discussion revealed that – in contrast to the anti-trafficking notion of poverty as destitution – ‘poverty’ here simply means a lack of the cash necessary to ‘evolve’.

When I asked if ‘poverty’ meant ‘starvation’ and whether ‘poor’ people remaining in the village ‘would go without food’, most people therefore responded with an amused and resounding ‘no’. As one interviewee underlined, ‘poverty’ means that:

‘There is nothing in the village, there is no work. Parents are obliged to let their kids go and when kids decide themselves to leave, parents are obliged to accept. When they go, kids at least make some money; they at least send some back to us. We understand their “don’t leave” message, but we can’t eat their words can we?’

The Need for Alternatives

Village-level understanding of what policy-makers should be doing to protect the young from exploitation (or ‘trafficking’) consequently differs markedly from views within the policy-making system. When I asked young migrants and their communities the question, ‘what would you like to see the authorities do?’, two responses consistently made themselves heard:

1)      Provide us with economic alternatives to labour migration, and

2)      Ensure that those who do migrate can work in safe conditions.

Key for these communities is the ability to access the money that underpins their individual and collective life projects. If possible, they would like to have the option to do this ‘at home’, but where they cannot, they at least wish to be able to work in safety.

In the absence of policies that respond to these needs, communities both ignore and subvert the authorities and their attempt to control their work and migration. The following extracts from my interviews offer an indication of this fact:

Do you pretend to the NGOs and government, saying one thing to them and doing another?  There was lots of laughter amongst those that understood my question. Everybody said yes, they do…

So you just pretend to the authorities then? Yes, of course. We say “sure, we won’t leave” in the hope that they’ll bring us something’.

If policy-makers wish to see this situation change, greater participation and a greater focus on the politics of poverty are needed:

  • At the macro-level, it is essential that they address the very real, very tangible political-economy underpinnings of the lack of money of that constitutes the main backdrop to the migration and work of the young in this part of the world.
  • At the micro-level, they need to engage with communities in developing economically viable alternatives to labour migration and pathways to ensure that those who do migrate for labour are able to do so in safety.

If they fail to do this, little is likely to change at the level of the lived realities of young labour migrants and their communities. Indeed, it might be suggested that policy’s major accomplishment will be merely to entrench legally and institutionally dominant norms relating to ‘acceptable’ childhoods and to naturalise political-economic injustices.

Neil Howard is a PhD student finishing his thesis on anti-trafficking discourse and policy at the University of Oxford. From 2013, he will be Marie Curie Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. He can be reached at neil.howard@qeh.ox.ac.uk. A longer version of this paper can be found here.

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