– On a street corner in downtown Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city, 12-year-old Kaita sits with a friend on a peeling steel railing watching the headlights of motorbikes cruising through the otherwise silent streets. It is after midnight, and motionless human forms lie curled up in doorways or stretched out on pavements nearby. For Kaita, these streets are home, and have been for almost six years.
Kaita is one of thousands of Sierra Leonean children who have ended up homeless after being given away by their parents on false promises of education.
Joice Kamara is the deputy director of children’s affairs at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs – until last year the focal point for the government’s anti-trafficking taskforce.
“Some of them (child traffickers) are relatives, some are strangers, some are friends – they go to the villages and they ask people to give them their children. They promise to give them the best education in the city,” she tells IPS.
Despite making significant progress since the end of an 11-year civil war in 2002, this West African nation remains one of the world’s least developed countries, with many rural families simply unable to effectively care for and educate all of their children.
“Unfortunately when these children are brought to the cities, instead of (the child traffickers) fulfilling their promise to educate them … they engage them in child labour, some are used as sex-slaves, some are even used for rituals,” says Kamara.
Kaita’s uncle was looking after him, but rather than sending him to school the uncle neglected him and denied him food, ultimately prompting Kaita to run away. “It’s cold,” he says of his new life on the streets. “And all I get to eat is leftovers.”
Lothar Wagner is the head of Don Bosco Fambul, an NGO dealing with homeless children in Sierra Leone. “The reason that they (children) are on the streets is human trafficking,” he tells IPS. “After a certain amount of mistreatment many feel they have no option but to run away.”
According to a 2010 survey it is estimated that there are as many as 2,500 children sleeping rough every night in Freetown alone, though other estimates put the figure significantly higher.
Mohammed, 14, is one of them. He has been living on the streets since he was 12 – his only possessions a tattered Chelsea football kit, a thin sheet of cardboard to sleep on, and a wicker basket for clearing rubbish from the street, which earns him enough money to buy a little food.
All the children who spoke to IPS talked of the fear of abuse, to which they are very vulnerable. Crimes against street children are rarely investigated and are often allegedly committed by the police themselves.
“The police are not there to protect the children,” says Wagner. “They are there to exploit them.”
The medical report from one street child who was arrested, and claimed police beat him while in jail, details a series of arm wounds allegedly inflicted with batons and an electric probe.
A police spokesman denied the allegations. “It is absolutely false,” he tells IPS over the phone. “A deliberate attempt to smear the reputation of the Sierra Leone police. The station does not usually even have electricity, so how can we electrocute him?”
A few NGOs are taking action to reduce the prevalence of trafficking in Sierra Leone, and to reunite the victims with their families.
The Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking (FAAST) has been raising awareness about the problem, as well helping to integrate trafficking issues into police training programmes. “All the recruits should now be getting training on what trafficking is, and how to deal with it,” says Janet Nickel, the organisation’s country director. FAAST also recently started a shelter for trafficked children.
Similarly, Don Bosco Fambul runs various shelters and programmes to support homeless children. “Child protection is simply not a priority of the government,” says Wagner, adding that it has neither the capacity nor the funding to protect children.
Back at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs in Freetown, Kamara disagrees. She highlights some of the government’s successes in tackling the problem, including the conviction of 13 traffickers since 2005, who received sentences of up to 22 years. “The government is really helping, and working hard to eliminate trafficking in Sierra Leone” she says.
A 2012 report by the United States Department of State concluded that while the government is trying its best it is still not yet fulfilling all its anti-trafficking responsibilities.