Allafrica: When NGOs Save Children Who Don’t Want to Be Saved

The Guardian recently featured a heart-rending story about children rescued from trafficking in Togo, paralleling a previous story on the same subject in Benin. Both reports painted a picture that will be familiar to many: ruthless employers exploiting the innocent; parents compelled by poverty to “sell” their children; cultural backwardness making things worse, helpful NGOs saving the day.

It’s powerful stuff. But it’s also highly misrepresentative. And it’s actually so simplistic that while I doubt neither the integrity nor the good intentions of these journalists or those publishing similar pieces, their work arguably makes things worse for the very people whose suffering they are trying to highlight.

In what follows, I’ll explain how, and I’ll do so by drawing on 10 years of research and a recent book I have published on the issue, with some of the very communities mentioned in these articles.

‘Migrants, not victims’

First, some background. Trafficking exploded as an issue in West Africa when a boat full of irregular migrants was intercepted on its way from Benin to Gabon in 2001. Because it was full of children and teenagers, it was labelled a “slave-ship” that heralded the arrival of a modern-day slave trade. UNICEF was responsible for this initial labelling, but it was picked up by international journalists, the US Trafficking in Persons Office, and countless NGOs. Within months it had become accepted knowledge and millions of dollars began to flow into the region to end “the scourge of child trafficking”.

But there was a problem. The young people on that boat didn’t consider themselves victims of any crime, and certainly not child trafficking. In 2007, I interviewed a number of them and it was clear that they were just youngsters migrating for work. Adri was 19 when we spoke and 13 at the time of his rescue. “We were migrants”, he said, “not slaves”. “We’d paid a smuggler to get us to Gabon because we were hoping to find some work there in the fisheries”.

So, after being “rescued” by the authorities, he and his friends had to go back to their villages until they had made enough money to leave again, which most of them promptly did.

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