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The Problem of Child Trafficking

Aradau argues in her discussion of anti-trafficking discourses that ‘the problematisation of trafficking...creates an object of knowledge that can subsequently be governed’ (2008: 15). In her understanding, following Foucault, the concept of ‘problematisation’ refers to the process whereby discursive and non-discursive action is taken to define and create an ‘issue’ that governmental and other social actors can then address and respond to. The concept does not imply that there is never anything that we can normatively object to. Rather, it draws attention to the discursive and material ways in which the existence of a problem is created and maintained as a ‘truth’ that legitimates responsive intervention.

I find this a useful way of conceptualising how child trafficking came to be understood as such a serious issue in the early 2000s. According to one of the earliest and most influential IPEC reports of the time, published shortly after the drafting of the Palermo Protocol, child trafficking had come to represent ‘a growing problem that affect[ed] millions of children and families in many countries around the world’ (2002b: xi). It was, the report argued, ‘a global issue’ affronting ‘human dignity’ (ILO 2002b: v-vii) and involving perhaps as many as 1.2 million children a year (ILO 2002a: 32).

The UNICEF reports from this period echo this tone. One flagship publication spoke of ‘urgency’ in the international battle against child trafficking (2003: vii), another of the ‘hundreds of thousands of children’ being trafficked across borders every year (2002: vii) and still more of the slavelike conditions into which children were commonly thrown. Naturally, given the symbolic capital invested in these twin pillars of global child protection, their discourse quickly spread far and wide. The US Department of State picked it up and parroted it in its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) reports, newspapers the world over began citing the figure of 1.2 million and NGOs everywhere jumped on the bandwagon. Child trafficking definitively became a thing, and it needed a response.

The cue for those in Benin came with an event that has since become known as ‘the Etireno Affair.’ The Etireno was a Nigerian trawler used to illegally transport Beninese and other West African adolescents to Gabon, where they were destined to work in various Gabonese industries. After a night raid, the Gabonese authorities discovered the ship and refused to let it dock in Libreville, ordering the captain to instead return his passengers to Cotonou. Yet rather than doing so and facing arrest, the captain sought to flee to his native Cameroon and in the process triggered a multi-country diplomatic crisis, as no country would allow the ship to dock, leaving its passengers stranded at sea and in difficult conditions for a number of days. Beninese civil society quickly capitalised on this decision, inviting the world’s media to the Gulf of Guinea to report on what they loudly decried as ‘the slave ship’ that heralded the uncovering of Benin’s ‘modern-day slave trade.’ Their discourse was reinforced by another major crisis just over a year later, when a second media-political furore erupted around more apparent Beninese child slaves found in the artisanal quarries of Abeokuta in neighbouring Nigeria. From that moment on, Benin was tarnished in international anti-trafficking discourse as the official ‘plaque tournante’—‘epicentre’—of the global traffic in children, and it was understood widely as having a major trafficking problem that required urgent intervention. Snapshots such as the following from UNICEF became commonplace1:

Benin is today recognised as a country of origin, transit and destination for child victims of trafficking. The phenomenon is present both nationally and internationally, with cross-border movements. These children are reduced to slavery, separated from their families, exposed to serious risks and illnesses.

And as we can see here, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) was quick to follow suit:

Extract 2.1: USAID Briefing Paper2



Child trafficking is a multifaceted phenomenon in West Africa. It started with parents placing their children with relatives. That placement is called in Fon, one of Benin’s languages, “vidomegon”. The culture of vidomegon originally allowed more fortunate members of the community to receive the children of less fortunate members, in a climate of solidarity. The idea is that by confiding a less fortunate child in the home of someone who is better endowed economically, that child will be better taken care of. This practice is rampant all over West Africa. However, over time the practice has been abused by individuals who have sought financial rewards, resulting in a behavior where children are given to traffickers, who in tum sell them to agents in neighboring countries. Victims of this new practice are reduced to mere commodities that are bought, sold, transported, and resold according to market forces of supply and demand. Most trafficked children are threatened with physical and emotional abuse, nearly all suffer from neglect or diseases. Poverty is one of the causes of child labor and trafficking in Benin.

The picture elaborated in this Briefing Paper oozes sensationalism, and depicts extremity and non-consensuality. That is, it recounts children in the worst possible states—reduced to ‘slavery’ or to ‘commodities,’ ‘threatened with physical and emotional abuse,’ and suffering ‘from neglect or diseases’—giving no space either for agency or for their work/migration to be the result of constructive willed decisions. Children are kidnapped or their parents let them go because they are well meaning but simply don’t ‘get it.’ Again, this kind of problematic requires intervention, even if the shockingly ethnocentric language (‘the practice is rampant all over West Africa’) might have cautioned critical minds against it. Importantly, what we read here is/was not unique. These kinds of reports and this type of language were common across Africa in the 2000s (Hashim and Thorsen 2011) as well as in regions beyond (Huijsmans and Baker 2012).

The near collapse between the concepts of ‘migration’ and ‘trafficking’ was very widespread indeed and, as we shall see, has had very troubling consequences.3

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