A regional response to trafficking in West Africa

Children are exploited in quarries to crush stones. Photo: UNODC8 September 2008 - Human trafficking in West Africa is deeply rooted in poverty. Half of the region's countries are among the poorest in the world, with population growth rates exceeding those of the economy. Armed conflict, poor socio-economic rights for women and children who generally suffer from a lack of access to education, viable livelihoods and effective protection of their rights also add to the problem.

Research has identified several main human trafficking trends in West Africa. These include child trafficking within national borders and across the region for labour and sexual exploitation as well as recruitment in armed conflict; women and girls trafficking within and out of the region for sexual exploitation; and large-scale trafficking within national borders.

As individuals migrate in search of better opportunities either within a country, the region or outside the region, traffickers take advantage of their vulnerability. They facilitate the movement "but then exploit the victims en route and deny them their freedom at destination," says Olatunde Olayemi, regional anti-trafficking and legal expert for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Trafficking represents a serious threat to the region's long-term development. In response, national governments and ECOWAS, with support from international and local partners, have developed a number of measures to address the problem.

At the regional level, ECOWAS has developed a Plan of Action against trafficking for West Africa as well as a Multilateral Cooperation Agreement with Central African countries. As a result, 12 of the 16 states in the region have passed national laws that recognize human trafficking as a crime, prescribe penalties, protect victims and establish bodies to fight the phenomenon.

The existence of such bodies have been key in developing national plans of action to address trafficking, while the adoption of legislation has resulted in a gradual increase in detections, investigations, prosecutions and convictions. An increasing number of victims have also been rescued and assisted.

More recently, a UN.GIFT project brought together representatives from Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea Conakry, Liberia and Sierra Leone as well as ECOWAS, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, INTERPOL, international and non-governmental organizations to counter child trafficking in conflict and post-conflict environments.

A key outcome of this project was the joint development of national action plans to eradicate child trafficking and child soldier recruitment in the four countries, in particular through legal reform measures that will result in a more protective environment for children. The project also supported ECOWAS's early warning network (ECOWARN) that spans the region. Child trafficking, illicit recruitment and exploitation of children in armed conflict are now among the 94 social, economic and political indicators monitored regularly by the network.

Much more still needs to be done to bring about real change but some progress is being achieved. At a recent meeting in the Gambia to review the implementation of the ECOWAS Plan of Action, Abimbola Oyelohumu, Coordinator of the ECOWAS Trafficking in Persons Unit, noted that efforts must continue to ensure that political will transates into concrete action.