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Child-trafficking in Mali increasing because of conflict and COVID-19

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Child-trafficking in Mali increasing because of conflict and COVID-19

Armed groups in Mali trafficking children for labour in gold mines, using profits to enrich combatants, fuel the arms trade and finance the violence.
1 December 2020
Young children play in the city of Gao, Mali, February 2019.
Children playing in Gao, Mali, February 2019.

Conflict, insecurity, COVID-19 and deteriorating economic conditions are leading to a rise in trafficking of children, forced labour and forced recruitment by armed groups in Mali, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency is warning today.

More cases of child recruitment were documented in the first half of this year (230 cases) compared to the whole of 2019 (215 cases), according to a report released by the UNHCR-led Global Protection Cluster, a network of UN agencies and NGOs providing protection to people affected by humanitarian crises.

Armed groups are also trafficking children for labour in gold mines, using profits to enrich combatants, fuel the arms trade and finance the violence. Extortionate “taxes” are also imposed on adults operating in those gold mines.

As schools remain closed due to conflict, insecurity, COVID-19 or teachers’ strikes –children are also pushed towards informal gold mines, particularly in Gao and Kidal where many areas are controlled by armed groups.

Rapid child protection assessments found an estimated 6,000 children, disproportionately boys, working across eight mine sites in the country. They are exposed to the worst forms of child labour, economic exploitation, and physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

Some children arrived on the site on “credit” – whereby a third-party finances their transport and food. Others reported having worked days without being paid. The children are forced to work for an unspecified time until they pay off recruitment and travel “debt”.

“As a result of conflict and socio-economic deterioration worsened by the pandemic, we are seeing some of the most egregious human rights violations in the Sahel,” said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs.

“Children are being forced to fight by armed groups, trafficked, raped, sold, forced into sexual or domestic servitude, or married off. Many more children are at risk in the Sahel, a region which is becoming the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis in the world.”

Victims are Malian as well as refugees, asylum seekers or migrants.

Reports of communities of women and girls being abducted, sexually assaulted and raped have been received from the Mopti region, where are over 1,000 cases recorded in this area so far in 2020. UNHCR also fears that child marriages will also spiral, in a country where an estimated 53 per cent of girls are married before the age of 18.

Despite the conflict and COVID-19 movement restrictions, Mali continues to be a critical transit country for refugees and migrants attempting to reach northern Africa and Europe.

Some people on the move are trafficked for forced labour in the agricultural sector, others, particularly women are trafficked en route to promised jobs in North Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Others are diverted to Bamako or to mining or agricultural areas where they are forced to engage in survival sex.

The profiles of traffickers and their accomplices range from organized criminal or armed groups, tribal chiefs or state authorities, to sometimes even parents, relatives or community members.

UNHCR continues to urge more support in efforts to prevent and respond to trafficking in persons, to protect those at risk, provide support to victims and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice.

Despite human rights violations, including gender-based violence, trafficking and child recruitment on the rise, a new report released yesterday warns that nearly 40 million internally displaced or conflict-affected people could be missing out on support due to insufficient funding.

According to the report, this year’s funding for protecting people most in need of assistance in humanitarian crises has received just 25 per cent of what is needed.

Notes to editors:

  • Globally, UNHCR is engaged in trafficking prevention and response activities for refugee, displaced and stateless people, leading an operational task team to combat trafficking as part of the Global Protection Cluster (GPC).
  • Aftershock: Abuse, exploitation & human trafficking in the wake of Covid-19 is the latest report from the Global Protection Cluster and can be read here
  • Breaking the glass ceiling: A smarter approach to protection financing, the report by the Norwegian Refugee Council and the UNHCR-led Global Protection Cluster can be downloaded here


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