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The many risks faced by children crossing borders

Friday 14 August 2015

Op-ed by Gilles Virgili, Children on the Move Project Manager at Save the Children South Africa

For the past few weeks, child trafficking has been making headlines as the Department of Home Affairs presents the rationale for its new regulations for children traveling to or from South Africa. As a signatory of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children since 2004, the South African government has developed specific laws and programmes to prevent, combat and punish this offence. However, the current debate around these new regulations – often focussing on the impact on tourism rather than child protection – does not truly contribute to increasing our understanding of this very complicated phenomenon and issues related to migration more generally. 

As a child rights organization, Save the Children South Africa welcomes all initiatives aimed at protecting children from violence, abuse, trafficking and exploitation. Abductions, including from family members, are a real concern and we believe that the new regulations could be effective in that regard. Many countries – such as the United States, Canada or Italy – have in the past years introduced stricter regulations for children travelling alone, with only one parent or in the care of non-family adult members. In those cases, a notarized letter of consent must be produced. South Africa has also previously ratified the Hague Abduction Convention which represents a legal mechanism for countries to work together on international abduction cases.

In terms of child trafficking – which designates the event of a child being moved within a country, or across borders, whether by force or not, with the purpose of exploiting him or her – there is very little evidence regarding its magnitude in Southern Africa. Many numbers have circulated - some indicating that there were up to 30’000 children being trafficked every year – but there isn’t to date any reliable source of data. In 2010, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) indicated that they had assisted 306 victims of trafficking, 57 of them being children, in the region from 2004 to 2010.[1] The lack of research constrains the development of effective strategies to prevent and combat human trafficking. Save the Children South Africa is therefore committed to support quality research in the region.

The focus on child trafficking has also overshadowed some other issues related to international migration such as smuggling. According to the United Nations Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants, it refers to “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident” (UN, 2000). Smuggling therefore doesn't only mean that people are paying someone to enter a country outside of the official entry points but also designates the obtainment of false identification documents of visa or bribery of officials in the country of destination. The literature on smuggling in Southern Africa highlights that this doesn't only happen when people migrate by land or sea but also in international airports.

Many migrants may be tempted to enter South Africa irregularly due to the difficulty of complying with evermore strict requirements, the struggle to access proper documentation or simply the lack of reliable information. A study from the Forced Migration Programme in the Wits University analysed over a thousand surveys of asylum seekers at the refugee reception offices in South African cities. A fifth of the ones having entered into South Africa through the Zimbabwean border and just under half of those who did through the Mozambican border reported having been smuggled.

A common perception is that, if trafficking is imposed on people, the recourse to smuggling is voluntary. This has led some countries to consider punishing the smuggled on top and above of the smugglers in the hope that this would discourage other potential candidates. In a study focussed on men migrating from Ethiopia and Somalia, IOM reports that they however “endure serious human rights violations at the hands of their smugglers, local criminals and, allegedly, some national officials along the way”[2]. The initial contract – an easy journey to greener pastures – is often very far from the harsh conditions they consequently have to face. A majority of them also report having been beaten or physically robbed at least once during the journey and are not protected in countries of transit or destination. Looking at reports from smuggled migrants in the United States and Europe, families and children face the same life-endangering risks.

Amongst the most vulnerable of migrants, unaccompanied and separated children are the most at risk of violence, abuse, trafficking and exploitation. Save the Children South Africa has been working to support these children at the border with Zimbabwe for many years and most of them report having entered South Africa irregularly or having being smuggled. The hidden and underground nature of this type of migration means that the new regulations might not effectively prevent the risks, including being trafficked, that these children face during or after migration. Moreover, human trafficking or smuggling networks are very organized and there is a fair probability that they would be able to obtain the necessary documents from state authorities to travel with a child.

There is a need to develop more responsive child protection systems at national level in the region to more effectively identify, refer and support this very vulnerable category of children.

There can be no sustainable solution for these issues without addressing socio-economic situations and household vulnerabilities that can lead to family separation and put children at risk of trafficking. Early detection of families and children at risk is required, which calls for building more responsive child protection systems.

Community awareness raising and prevention activities regarding the risks linked to irregular migration are needed. For example, Save the Children in Mozambique works with communities and children to inform on ways to safely migrate through regular avenues. Capacity building of border officials, police officers and social workers on identification and referral of trafficked or smuggled children as well as a continued fight against corruption in the country of origin or destination would further contribute to better protect them. South Africa has shown its willingness to engage with its counterparts in the region and we are committed to work together so that all children, irrespective from their nationality, can realize their rights.

For interviews and further information, please contact: Asanda Magaqa, Media Relations Manager, Save the Children South Africa Tel: +27 (0)12 430 7775.  To learn more about the work we do, subscribe for our email updates today:


[1] IOM, Southern African Counter-Trafficking Programme (SACTAP), Review report

[2] International Organization for Migration, In Pursuit of The Southern Dream: Victims of Necessity, Assessment of The Irregular Movement of Men From East Africa And The Horn to South Africa, April 2009