Listening to children tell harrowing stories of their journey from their home to their place of employment with many complaining of bad working conditions and being deprived of food once they arrive is enough to make someone shed tears. Human trafficking is an issue that has long been witnessing an increasing trend, not only in Cameroon but the world over.
In the past couple of decades, human trafficking particularly in women and children has emerged as a worldwide social problem touching every nation in the world regardless of its past, laws, financial status and/or religious beliefs and addressing it is part of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Agenda. The 2018 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons shows that this problem is on the rise and taking “horrific dimensions” with sexual exploitation of victims being the main driver. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that children account for roughly 30% of those being trafficked, and far more girls are detected than boys. Women and girls make up almost three-quarters of trafficked persons for sexual exploitation, and 35% for forced labour according to the UN. Many victims are migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers who have fled or are fleeing their countries of origin for diverse reasons: conflict, persecution, natural disaster, or extreme poverty.
This social ill has been exacerbated by globalization and has become one of the principal illegal businesses in the world. This is because unlike drugs which can only be sold once, human beings can be sold repeatedly generating enormous revenue for traffickers. Most often overlapping, it is characterized by an exploitative basis and presents itself in different dimensions: sexual and labour exploitation, organ removal or domestic servitude. The United States (US) Department of State posits that TIPs deprives millions of persons worldwide of their dignity and freedom, undermines national security, distorts markets, and enriches transnational criminals and terrorists, and is basically an affront to our universal values.
Reports over the past five years indicate that Cameroon is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking and a source country for men in forced labour, though the Government adopted Law No. 2011/024 relating to the Fight against Trafficking in Persons and Slavery and, Act No. 2005/015 representing anti-trafficking legislation in the country. According to a 2016 report by the Yaoundé-based Interpol Office for Central Africa, thousands of children, alongside men and women, have been forcibly abducted in Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic and other countries in the sub region to be enlisted as Boko Haram fighters in the North of Cameroon, guards, sex partners, servants and spies. Intermediaries lure victims mostly teenagers from poor rural areas by convincing their parents with promises of education or a better life in the city, who are then exploited in sex trafficking or forced labour within or out of the country.
The US Department of State’s 2018 Report on Trafficking in Persons states that the practice is encouraged by gender inequality, armed conflicts, poverty, migration (motivated by the search for jobs/opportunities), the rising demand for cheap workforce and for commercial sex. The present socio-political context in the country characterized by attacks in the far North of the country by the terrorist group Boko Haram terrorists, armed groups from the Central African Republic coupled with the ongoing conflict in the two Anglophone regions of the country are situations that leave children more vulnerable and at the mercy of traffickers. Children from neighboring countries are exploited in spare parts shops or by herders in northern Cameroon and transit Cameroon en route to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. The report ranks Cameroon on Tier 2 Watchlist stating that the “government of Cameroon does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” but has demonstrated increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting periods.
This writeup observes that the absence of a Child Protection Code and/or national policy on child trafficking coupled with the laxity in implementing existing anti-trafficking legislation (both national and international), poverty, the lack of awareness and comprehensive, complete and reliable data, and the absence of overall protective systems have underscored efforts made in combating the practice. The situation is further aggravated by the inefficient and corrupt nature of the police and judiciary. Moreover, measures undertaken by the government to ensure thorough investigations and effective prosecutions in order to bring the perpetrators to justice have been insufficient given the subtle nature of the trafficking business. In addition, the Regional Anti-trafficking Taskforces and the Inter-ministerial Anti-trafficking Committee are severely hampered by the lack of funding and other resources to effectively fulfill their mandates according to the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report by the U.S Embassy Yaoundé.
Combatting TIPs does not only mean indicting traffickers. It is rather a multifaceted challenge that puts victims at the epicenter of all action. In order to make the most of the efforts done to reduce trafficking in persons especially children in Cameroon, measures employed need to be approached from all angles, implicating all stakeholders: ministries, inter-ministerial teams, international/inter-governmental partners, NGOs and the general public. Dealing with TIPs in Cameroon also requires a firmer reaction through institutional reforms and political will to remedy the deeper problems of which TIPs is the symptom.
One of the crucial challenges in addressing TIPs in Cameroon lies in bringing all stakeholders on the same table. For this purpose, the government should establish a permanent, inclusive, and independent national commission to manage the process given that the Inter-ministerial Anti-Trafficking Committee does not involve all concerned stakeholders and has not been able to execute its mandate properly due to financial constraints. The above reform can be made through the creation of an autonomous institution composed of a cross section of stakeholders (researchers, policy makers, government officials, experts, NGOs etc.) charged with combating human trafficking (inclusive of child trafficking) in the country. This institution will have the role to:
- Identify and create partnerships with donor agencies and not depend only on government funding for its activities and research in the field;
- Identify and coordinate all counter-trafficking programs and activities of all stakeholders engaged in fighting against child trafficking;
- Ensure training of dedicated practitioners who will be well armed technically to detect and assist victims thereby guaranteeing that the interests/welfare of the children are protected;
- Ensure that laws and national policies and action plans adopted are implemented and/or enforced so that traffickers can be duly prosecuted and sanctioned;
- Monitor and evaluate actions carried out on the subject and make recommendations for further action;
- Strengthen national data collection and analysis systems by frequently carrying out R&D and field studies to identify victims so as to provide accurate and up-to-date data on victims; In this vein, it is also important to extend the mandate of the Regional Anti-trafficking Task Forces to include collecting comprehensive anti-trafficking data for more reliable and complete statistics on law enforcement and victim identification efforts;
- Continuously ensure that awareness raising campaigns are carried out to enable the population to understand the ills of trafficking children.
To address the urgent need to strengthen TIPs measures in the sub region in general, it is important to develop and adopt a holistic, multidimensional and inclusive Anti-Trafficking Regional Approach for Central Africa which will deliver a strategic framework for all concerned stakeholders including external partners like the UN organisations in the region by highlighting a set of priorities and operational responses in the long run. At the same time, this approach will offer sufficient flexibility to adapt to the specific needs of every State in the sub-region through projects and programmes.
In the long term, reducing the vulnerability of children to exploitative patterns merits a change in public awareness as this will deter traffickers and reduce the number of persons who are left vulnerable to the practice. Extensively involving non-governmental organizations that are active in awareness-raising through public debate, training materials, assisting victims to escape their trafficking location, providing temporary shelter, and other care and re-integration services to survivors is thus important.
Finally, but not the least, there is also the need for economic reforms to reduce urban/rural polarization and inequality with the aim of improving the delivery of public goods and services to all citizens. The policies to be adopted and implemented include essentially setting up economic projects to accelerate and revitalize development in mostly rural areas: basic infrastructures, education, health etc.
Despite adopting and ratifying both national and international laws to combat child trafficking, the practice is still a huge challenge for the country validating the argument that human trafficking policies in Cameroon need to be re-adjusted to also encompass children’s welfare and protection. Moreover, given that the current legislation on trafficking in persons in Cameroon covers all forms of trafficking indicated in the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, any action plan must take the direction towards full implementation of obligations undertaken by Cameroon within the scope of the Protocol.