Social Dialogue Magazine
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'Tin Cop, Jimma' Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Asayeberhan Kastro, Jimma University, Ethiopia Karen Dullea (formerly at Jimma University, Ethiopia)

Domestic trafficking of children in Ethiopia

This article is on children trafficked, or migrating themselves, from rural areas of the Wolaita zone of Southern Nation Nationalities Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS) in Ethiopia to the nearest city which is Jimma. The article focuses on prevention. The Department of social work, Jimma University, can play a coordinating role in bringing together community based organisations, government and international agencies, in dialogue and co-working. Local efforts need to be recognised, learned from and supported.


The United Nations office on drugs and crime defines human trafficking as ‘the acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them’ (UNODC, 2016). This article examines the domestic trafficking of children in the Southern Nation Nationalities region of Ethiopia from the standpoint of service providers and community people/officials. Children between ages seven and fourteen are taken from rural areas to work as cheap labour, sell on the street in Jimma or Addis Ababa and some are sexually exploited (US State Department, 2017). Ayalew et al.’s, (2013) previous study in the region indicated that child trafficking is increasing in Ethiopia.

In the following sections we outline the issues and literature and then the findings of research based on observation, interviews and group discussion. Findings are limited in that interviews were not conducted with children who had been through this. Rather, the objectives of the research undertaken by Asayeberhan Kastro in 2016, were confined to how government, non-government, community-based and volunteer personnel worked to prevent the trafficking in children in southern Ethiopia. The African Report on Child Wellbeing 2016 concludes that addressing child poverty and exploitation demands the coordinated effort of government, non-government and community-based organisations (African child policy forum, (ACPF, 2017).

Those who contributed to this study agree that governments must channel funding to those working at the local level to prevent child trafficking; to shelter and rehabilitate ‘returnees’ and to put more into economic development in rural areas (also Ayansa, 2016). The State must also put money and effort into prosecuting traffickers and accomplices and legislatively protecting children and youth (ARCW, 2016; USSD, 2017).

Reasons children are vulnerable

Belete et al., (2014) who conducted another study on child migration in the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Reginal State (SNNPRS) found poverty, large family size, small land size co ntributes to child migration and trafficking. The region accounted for 38% of children trafficked within Ethiopia. Among the children, over 40 per cent had lost both of their parents. Datta (2013) similarly states that children orphaned in Kenya were likely to leave school and ‘...plunge headlong into what is a highly exploitative labour market’ because of the need to survive (p.106). They are susceptible to being trafficked into a labour reserve of no rights and protection (UNODC, 2006, p. 70).

The United Nations office on drugs and crime (UNODC, 2016) global synopsis of smuggling and trafficking, reports only on those ‘detected’ as trafficked. There is cross-over between human smuggling, irregular migrations, and trafficking (McAuliffe and Laczko, 2016, p. 2). Anyone being ‘smuggled’ might become a victim of traffickers, especially women and children (McAuliffe and Laczko, 2016, p. 7). Increasingly, more vulnerable groups of migrants are moving irregularly, including women and children, raising a raft of complex issues for State and non-State actors alike. (Ibid., p. 12)

Accordingly, females make up one third of those smuggled from the Horn of Africa to Europe. Children are also being smuggled, often on their own (Majidi and Oucho, 2016, p. 64; UNODC, 2016). McAuliffe and Laczko (2016) point to the ‘paucity of reliable data on migrant smuggling’. Official statistics on human smuggling are limited to those ‘apprehended or convicted of smuggling offences’ (p. 25) Children sometimes travel with their parents or one parent, while others have been sent alone. Those travelling alone face a high risk of being trafficked into labour or sex trade. However, the assumption is that if the children are caught, the law would be lenient enough to allow them to stay in the country. (Majidi and Oucho, 2016, p. 64)

Over forty per cent of trafficking happens within countries, which is the focus of this article (McAuliffe and Laczko, 2016, p. 9). The UNODC (2016) report says that ‘trafficking in persons remains largely a regional and local phenomenon’. Poverty is the main reason children are enticed to leave home. Traffickers might be known to a child or be part of a chain of people involved in the trafficking. A child/youth might not know what is happening. The US state department (2017) urged the Ethiopian government to put more into identifying traffickers who are moving children within the country. That includes children being trafficked to cities for sexual exploitation involving ‘mostly Ethiopian-born perpetrators, including members of the diaspora, with known links to local hotels, brokers, and taxi drivers’ (p. 168).

There are many children and youth who are at risk in a country where 67 per cent of the population suffer ‘severe multidimensional poverty’ and 84 per cent live in rural areas (UNDP, 2016; Teller and Hailemariam, 2011). As spoken of in this and other research, children migrate because a parent/parents have died, they want to eat, their families cannot provide for them, they want what other children have, they think the city will open up to ‘the good life’ or all of the above. They are also opportunely enticed by someone they know or who wins their trust.

The rights of the child

The UN 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) confirms a global commitment to the rights of children; to prevent and stop the abuse of children and to put their hunger, health and safety to the top of national economic agendas (UNICEF, 2016). Ethiopia adheres to the CRC and has instituted through its Women and Children’s agency, community-based children’s rights committees. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia constitution (1995) article 36 (d) states that a child has: ‘the right to be protected against exploitative practices, and not to be permitted to engage in any employment which would prejudice its health, education or well-being.’ Article 18(2) speaks directly to human trafficking: ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude. Trafficking in human beings for whatever purpose is prohibited.’

The National Social Protection Policy of Ethiopia (2012) identifies the vulnerability of children to trafficking: vulnerable children could not attend classes because of family's inability to purchase school uniforms and books, because many do not get adequate food and because a sizable proportion of children are working such long hours that this interferes with their ability to focus on their formal education. There is also limited access to education for children with special needs. (p. 17)

Children may leave home because they see themselves as a burden or conditions at home are untenable. In Ethiopia the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Women and Children’s affairs (WCA) are the key institutions working to identify and prevent trafficking. Community-based organisations (CBOs), as identified in this study, also play a key role in protecting children and helping families. This includes generating self-employment opportunities, assisting with books and uniforms so children can attend school, and assessment and planning with parentless/widowed families. But many community workers are not paid for the support they give to families. Research methodology

The research that backgrounds this article was qualitative including interviews with ‘key-informants’ who had been working with child trafficking in the Sodo Town area of the Wolaita zone of Ethiopia. This included persons from the government’s Women and Children’s agency (WCA), World Vision International, the police department, primary school teachers and the bus station’s transport office. There were also two focus groups to explore the role of the local community in combating child trafficking. One focus group included drivers and weyallas who work at the bus stations and members of a bus station surveillance team. Another focus group included representation from government and non-government agencies and community-based organisations. All participants were purposively approached because of their knowledge of child trafficking in this region.

Children were not interviewed in this study in order to learn from their experiences of being trafficked. Those interviewed were chosen because they are involved with prevention or with reunification of children with their families. Another study also on child trafficking to Jimma Town by Rahel Ayansa (2016) says child victims of trafficking do not want to talk to researchers for fear they will be found out. ‘This is true not only for victims still living in exploitative conditions but also for returnees who were victims of trafficking’ (p. 13). A 15 year old told Ayansa (2016) that she had been solicited at the funeral of her mother by a female neighbour to work in Jimma.

The woman said I would be paid 800ETB per month, continue my education at night session and I would be treated like a family Instead she was doing domestic work without pay. According to an older respondent in this study, children discuss among themselves how to get to Jimma or Addis Ababa and the good things that can happen there. And so they are supported by their peers who also want to go.

Moreover, brokers make influence on children by deceiving and presenting false promises that their lives will become better in a short period of time if they migrate rather than staying in miserable situation. ... Considering their food to eat, no clothes to wear, no house to stay in so they will easily be entraped by the brokers snare. Ayansa (2016) says cultural/economic factors demand children play a role in contributing to the household and children take on the responsibility willingly (p. 31).

What people said

Interviewees confirmed that children leave because of the strain of poverty and increased landlessness on families as the rural population increases. Parents are unable to sustain their families on small holdings.

Poverty leads the family not to send their children to the schools; rather they force them to engage them in child labour, which in turn also most of the time leads the child to become vulnerable to child traffickers. Further, this interviewee says that governmental and nongovernmental anti-trafficking agencies must step up to change the economic capacity of poor and vulnerable groups. In fact, Adepoju’s (2005) study on human trafficking in African countries indicated that adult relatives sought to benefit from trafficking a dependent child. Parents send their children away thinking their children’s needs will be better met. Economic development in rural locations including access to training, would assist in deterring child exploitation and dangerous adult migrations.

UNICEF (2016) report that children under age 17, ‘make up nearly half (46 per cent) of the [global] population living on less than US$1.90 per day’ (p. 72) Children may be vulnerable to being trafficked because their households are very poor and they are unable to go to school. An interviewee explains: On holidays, specially (Meskel) most of the children come to visit their family. These children always come with new shoes, clothes, mobile phones and other materials. These materials seduce those children who live with their communities which in turn leads them to leave their community and make them vulnerable to the traffickers. Parents may also believe the traffickers.

...because a majority of families in rural areas are engaged in subsidence agriculture and could not afford to send their children to school, the brokers use the advantage of their families to traffic children by giving promises like affording the child’s education and employment.

These people make child trafficking into a ‘safe’ transaction that parents will agree to.

Because parents can contribute to their children being trafficked, we [Women and Children’s] are persuading the parents that their children will benefit from staying on at school. However, if parents simply cannot afford this, the school members are helping very poor children with books and education materials.

A number of informants pointed out that ‘brokers’ trafficking children know how to get around any surveillance happening. One participant confirmed that:

To smuggle the children, brokers use contract buses that they pay double than the legal tariff. The bus always starts the journey in mid nights. Because in the night time there is no surveillance, in most part of the country. The other strategies they designed was brokers did not come with the children rather they gave 200 birr and mobile numbers which they receive [when] children [reach] on their destination.

Representatives of the WCA attend court proceedings at Sodo and Areka towns to observe prosecutions of crimes against children. Interviewees and focus group participants said they wanted training on the existing laws and how they can bring traffickers to prosecution. They wanted perpetrators exposed and charged.

According to the US State Department (2014)

Between June and July 2013, courts in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region (SNNPR) reportedly heard 267 cases involving illegal smugglers and brokers. In addition, in Gamo Gofa, a zone within SNNPR, the zonal court convicted six traffickers in 2013— the first convictions in that area’s history.

Despite more prosecutions which are mainly focused on trafficking across borders, The US State Department’s (2015) TIP (Trafficking in Persons) report said the Ethiopian government failed on too many occasions to ‘provide adequate assistance to trafficking victims both those exploited internally or after migrating overseas, relying almost exclusively on international organizations and NGOs to provide services to victims without providing funding to these organizations.’ This hadn’t changed in 2017 as those being helped by NGOs, especially in Addis Ababa, increased in number.

In 2016, Parliament approved a second National Human Rights Action Plan, spanning 2016-2020, which included various activities to curb trafficking, including a media campaign and increased efforts in urban centres to assist women and child victims. However, the government did not report allocating specific funding for the action plan. (USSD, 2017, p. 168)

Community mobilisation

Focus group participants said that community mobilization is crucial to preventing the problem. They also added that the Women’s and Children’s office in Sodo Town had been working on community mobilization and had organised child rights committees in 11 kebeles [neighbourhoods] of the town.

The main tasks of the mobilization was to mobilize and participate the community in programs such as OVC [orphans and vulnerable children] task force, CRC committee, community based child care programs. The Women’s and Children’s Agency (WCA) and the NGO World Vision International have trained those working at the bus station to be aware of traffickers and how they operate. Posters have also been distributed. Teachers are also making children aware of the reality of traffickers and trafficking. They also try their best to accommodate children who cannot afford school books and uniforms. Those working at the community level said it was hard to get more community involvement in preventing trafficking because people saw it as a government responsibility.

Most of them do not give the necessary attention to the problem as most of government intervention mechanisms fail to achieve their goals. Perpetuating this reliance is that government ‘awareness creation’ has predominantly concentrated on government officials and influential personalities thereby ignoring the people who experience it. Communities most ‘at risk’ because they are in the rural areas are left out when they need the information in order to find solutions. The US Trafficking in Persons report (2015) noted that In 2014, the national trafficking taskforce collaborated with international organizations to launch a community conversations trafficking awareness program, conducted in over 325 neighborhoods with the participation of 25 to 40 residents in each neighborhood session, including local and district officials. (p. 157)

Datta’s (2013) research on orphaned and vulnerable children in Kenya, confirms the centrality of community-based organisations in the protection of children because they know the families and their circumstance. According to Datta(2013) ‘the community support system does not have formal management structures, systems and paid staff. But the strength of this system lies in its ownership and in the deep-rooted culture of the community.

Many of those working on prevention at the community level, namely the orphans and vulnerable children’s committees and the children’s rights committees, are volunteers. They can’t cover travel expenses nor the resources needed to prevent trafficking that includes public education. Similarly, two temporary shelters have been established in the Sodo Town area to accommodate victims until re-uniting with families. But they cannot accommodate the number of children who need it. They need more beds, food, clothing, medical supplies.

... The children are promised to get enough food and other necessities. However they don’t get what they were promised by the reintegrated agencies. The main reason was nobody follow- up reintegrated children, and which also leads them to[being] re-trafficked. The best solution for this problem is organizing the CRC committees with financial and trained man power, which in turn facilitate the combating process.

An interviewee from the Women and Children’s agency said shelters lack a budget to hire the personnel required including social workers and nurses to assist with health, family/kin and emotional issues. ‘Re- integration’ can fail without sustained and meaningful support. One participant said that before reintegration the family needs to be prepared and provided support as to support their children. A small amount is given to the family to care for a returning child but this gets swallowed up before the child returns home. A child may choose to be ‘re-trafficked.’ These particular areas, children returning to families and children needing shelter require adequate funding and trained personnel including social workers and nurses, as indicated by participants (also USSD, 2017). But there also needs to be something to go home’s not an easy decision to leave home and all that is familiar to you.

Building community capacity

Building on the knowledge and skills of those at the community level trying to prevent trafficking in children can be assisted through university social work programmes. University programs are in the position to bring local people together with national and international agencies as share information, strategies, resources and action – rather than work separately from each other. They can also train volunteers in working with families and developing income generating projects.


Both focus groups and interviewees said poverty, limited land size due to population density and loss of parent or parents through death or through migration contribute to increased child trafficking in the Wolaita zone of Ethiopia.


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