United States Ambassador to Liberia, Christine Elder, could not use any diplomatic polish on the existence of “rampant child labor” arising from human trafficking going on internally, but stressed that child trafficking was on the increase in the country.
Addressing the African Methodist Episcopal University (AMEU) Graduate Program 5th lecture series on July 12, Ambassador Elder said that, as stated in Liberia’s Trafficking Law of 2005, acts that subject a person to practices similar to slavery, practices compelling or causing a person to provide force labor or services, and causing a person to provide force labor or services, and causing a person in a state of servitude, including sexual servitude, constitute trafficking in persons.
The AMEU Graduate Program lecture series brings together students and invited guests to share ideas on societal issues and suggest solutions to how those issues can be resolved.
Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Augustine Konneh, said that bringing together students and guests at the program, helps to broaden the worldview of students, who are researching issues relating to their professional careers.
Konneh said it was in this context that Amb. Elder, who has academic and professional degrees with wide range of experience working in Africa and Europe, was invited to share with the students on human trafficking.
Amb. Elder: “Holding onto this definition and the U.S. own definition that encompasses coercion, forced labor, and working without pay, they have conducted a research and realized that trafficking in rural Liberia is more prevalent than transnational trafficking, and the victims are mostly children.”
She said trafficking in Liberia is mostly from the rural and border areas to urban settings, where victims are subjected to domestic servitude, forced begging, sex slavery, forced labor and street vending and does not involve foreign traffickers or movement to another country. It mainly involves children who are forced to work.
Amb. Elder said the perpetrators are mostly extended families and relatives, who go to the rural areas with a false promise that they want to help the parents of the would-be victims by bringing their children in the city to go to school. However, after reaching the city, the children are turned into domestic slaves without sending them to school or even the basic care.
The ambassador further said that one of her colleagues from the embassy conducted a survey at the ELWA Junction that targeted 15 kids selling on the road and, out of the 15, they realized that 13 were brought to Monrovia by their uncles and or aunties. She said while 15 may not be a large number for sample views as far as research is concerned, it is a minor example of the real problem existing in the country.
“Often times they (extended relatives) go to their (children’s) parents with a false promise of sending their children to school, but it is an empty promise. None of those 15 kids was going to school in any form,” Amb. Elder said.
She added, “While it is acceptable in Liberia for network of extended families and friends to secure [opportunities] for children from most rural areas, it should not be acceptable for adults to exploit children for their own gains without concern for the welfare of the child.”
“People in rural areas actually send their children in the city with the hope that the children will go to school to get some opportunities that will improve their lives than those ones in the village, but many of those parents do not recognize or realize that when their children reach Monrovia they do not have the opportunity promised them to go to school and are not taken care of,” Amb. Elder said.
She, however, clarified that not every act of child labor may constitute human trafficking, considering the hazardous economic condition of Liberia that forces some children, age 16 years and below, to work to win bread for families. However, she said, there is a difference between willingly working to support families and working under false promise; even using the child and adopting him/her without the power to leave the situation.
Amb. Elder said with emphasis to the AMEU Graduate Program students, that human trafficking in Liberia, with children being the prime victims, is one of the issues to discuss openly, because the United Nations in 2000 in Italy adopted a protocol, called the “Protocol to prevent, suppress, and punish traffickers”. In 2004, Liberia became a signatory to said protocol and carved its own law known as “An Act To Ban Trafficking in Persons Within The Republic Of Liberia.”
Amb. Elder said considering the prevailing situation with Liberian children, in which adults are exploiting their labor, while psychologically, emotionally and physically abusing them, the law is violated and Liberians, including students of the AMEU Graduate School need to rise up to play their roles in protecting the children if the country would still rely on good people for its future.
“We have to evolve to take a fresh look at our lives and our families because, even if the situation causes the children to be exploited through child labor, it does not make it right to do so; we must look at our communities and adjust over time,” she added.
She said every Liberian needs to do what he/she can to realize the potential of the child, and his/her potential cannot be realized when it is buried under bags of crackers and peanuts that they are trying to sell.
She also emphasized that if trafficking can be fought in Liberia, it must start with the root causes whereby people will find better ways for security in terms of food and shelter, especially in the counties.
By this, she said some ways to address the situation under the Pro-poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development involve opening roads in rural areas leading to the cities; building schools and healthcare delivery systems so that people do not think the only way out is to send their children away for opportunities to support their themselves and their families.
During the interaction period, one of the students also told the Ambassador that human trafficking was being influenced by poverty, and poverty was also caused by leaders including lawmakers and others in other branches of government.
The student also recommended to the Ambassador that the United States Embassy should design visa restriction for lawmakers who hardly go to their constituencies during their annual break.
While she could not state what to do about the latter concern, she disclosed that the US Embassy has recommended to the Government of Liberia to increase investigation in trafficking cases, prosecute alleged perpetrators and send a signal out there that the law exists and is enforceable.
She added that they have online courses for law enforcers on trafficking to enable them identify and investigate, and that people should take advantage of the Ministry of Labor’s hotline number (2883) to inform authorities about trafficking cases. She also told the gathering that Liberians need to take advantage of birth registration in order to have a good record system that can trace family members to their roots.
According to the U.S. Department of State 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report on Liberia, “Traffickers are also often well-respected community benefactors who exploit the “foster care” system common across West Africa. While Liberian law requires parents to register children within 14 days of birth, about 25 percent of births are registered. Although the government has made improvements in birth registration accessibility, continued lack of birth registration and identity documents increase individuals’ vulnerability to trafficking. Orphaned children are vulnerable to exploitation, including in street vending and child sex trafficking.”