In northern Guinea-Bissau, in the dark of night, a dilapidated bus carrying 17 children is parked on a quiet side road. Its driver awaits a signal from a bus up ahead in the convoy illegally crossing the border into Senegal.
For 24 hours, the children do not eat or drink as the bus waits and waits. The signal never comes.
At midnight the first bus is intercepted by police before reaching the border. The next morning, the second one is stopped. The third and final vehicle in the convoy is never found. All three were taking children from Guinea-Bissau to work in the cotton fields of southern Senegal.
The convoy was one of three alleged child trafficking operations – involving more than 140 children from all over the country – stopped by Bissau police in the last month. Seven people – one from Senegal and six from Guinea-Bissau – are in police custody in the north-central city of Bafatà.
Child trafficking is common between Guinea-Bissau and Senegal, where – as in the rest of West Africa – borders are poorly guarded. But increasingly, police and local leaders are trying to quell the tide of youth smuggled to the cotton fields in Senegal’s southern agricultural area or to the busy streets of the capital, Dakar.
“I do this regularly”
In a detention area in Bafatà – there are no proper prisons here – Aliu Mballo sits on the grass, smiling. He is among those arrested in the latest alleged smuggling operation, but he does not see his actions as criminal.
“I do this regularly,” the recruiter, in his 30s, told IRIN. He said the trip to Senegal allows the children – between four and 19 years old – to earn money for work they would normally do for free. “The young ones fetch firewood and water. The older ones work the cotton field. It’s the same as they do at home.”
But the majority of children brought into Senegal from Guinea-Bissau end up as talibés – children forced to beg on the streets in return for an education by religious leaders or marabouts.
Begging and beatings
Jorge Menendez* was probably around 10 years old when a marabout who knew his father came to his home in Bafatà to take him away. Jorge does not know his age or exactly how long he has spent away from home, but he estimates at least two or three years. (Groups who work with trafficked children gauge the time they spent outside Guinea-Bissau by their ability to speak Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal.)
The marabout promised his father he would teach Jorge the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and the boy thought nothing of it. From Bafatà, he was taken to Gabù, farther east, where he worked on a cotton field for some time before crossing the border into Senegal. Then he was passed over to another marabout in southwestern city of Ziguinchor, where he learned the Koran.
Before long, the first marabout came back to take him to his own daara or Koranic school (often the marabout’s home) in Dakar.
Children, brought from Guinea-Bissau to Senegal years ago, line up at the airport in Dakar to return home after years of beatings and forced begging
“I spent all my time begging,” Jorge told IRIN in Dakar, speaking in Wolof. “I had to bring the marabout 350 CFA francs (US$0.79) a day. Otherwise, I was beaten. It’s my worst memory.”
100,000 child beggars
In 2004, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated there were up to 100,000 child beggars in Senegal (close to one percent of the population), the majority of them talibés. The head of UNICEF in Guinea-Bissau, Jean Dricot, says most of those child beggars come from Guinea-Bissau.
“They don’t have schools. They don’t have access to healthcare. They sleep 40 or 50 to a room. They spend all day on the street getting money that they have to hand over at night,” Dricot said.
Jorge, the young talibé, is now back in his country, owing to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and a Senegalese government-run welcome centre called Ginddi, two of many institutions assisting in the repatriation of children to Guinea-Bissau.
Quelling the tide
Thanks to increased efforts by local and international organisations, some children have been spared this experience. Police say they have been more proactive since workshops by the IOM, UNICEF and local NGOs informed police, regional governments and local leaders that the unauthorised movement of minors across borders is a crime. That message has trickled down to the village level; the latest arrests were the result of a villager’s tip-off to police.
“We want to fight this. We want our children to remain in our homeland,” said Ousmane Baldé, public protection officer in the women and children section of the regional police force of Bafatà. Police have intercepted 301 children en route to Senegal from the Bafatà and Gabù regions this year.
”…We want to fight this. We want our children to remain in our homeland…”
The fight is also happening on other fronts. The group SOS-Talibé Children has been trying to dispel a popular belief that begging shapes a young boy’s character by teaching him humility. Giving alms is also a requirement in Islam.
“Our weapon [to convince people] is the Koran. It is not an Islamic obligation to exploit children or to send them only to the Koranic schools,” said coordinator Malam Bau Ciro, whose father was a Koranic teacher. Ciro has translated the Koran into Portuguese, Guinea-Bissau’s official language, in order to support his assertions.
With the help of the NGO Plan International, SOS-Talibé runs a school that teaches both Arabic and Portuguese, both the Koran and traditional subjects like math. Plan International has also built five such schools and is supporting another 35, in which the original Koranic teachers are complemented by instructors who teach other material.
Despite the efforts, the movement of children from Guinea-Bissau continues and may even be on the rise, some local associations say. UNICEF estimated in a 2003 report that every year close to 400,000 African children are victims of trafficking for domestic work, sexual exploitation, to work in shops or on farms or to be scavengers and street hawkers.
* Jorge’s real name has been withheld to protect his identity.