By Aurore Bonny
DOUALA, Cameroon (AA) – Cases of child trafficking, forced labor, and forced recruitment by armed groups are on the rise in Mali due to increased conflict, growing insecurity, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Refugee Agency warned on Tuesday.
“More cases of child recruitment were documented in the first half of this year (230 cases) compared to the whole of 2019 (215 cases),” UNHCR said in a statement, citing a report by Global Protection Cluster, a network of UN agencies and NGOs.
With schools closed because of conflict or the pandemic, the agency said more children are being forced to work in Mali’s gold mines, particularly in the Gao and Kidal regions “where many areas are controlled by armed groups.”
Some 6,000 children, disproportionately boys, were found to be working at eight mine sites, exposed to “the worst forms of child labor, economic exploitation, and physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.”
Profits from the trafficking of children to work in gold mines are being used to “enrich combatants, fuel the arms trade and finance the violence,” the UN agency said.
“Some children arrived on the site on “credit” – whereby a third-party finances their transport and food,” read the statement.
“Others reported having worked days without being paid. The children are forced to work for an unspecified time until they pay off recruitment and travel ‘debt’.”
In the Sahel region in general, the UNHCR found “some of the most flagrant violations of human rights.”
“Children are being forced to fight by armed groups, trafficked, raped, sold, forced into sexual or domestic servitude, or married off,” said Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection.
“Many more children are at risk in the Sahel, a region which is becoming the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis in the world.”
The victims are Malian, as well as refugees, asylum seekers or migrants, as Mali remains a critical point for refugees and migrants trying to reach northern Africa and Europe, the UN agency said.
“Reports of communities of women and girls being abducted, sexually assaulted and raped have been received from the Mopti region [in Mali], where are over 1,000 cases recorded in this area so far in 2020,” read the report.
The UNHCR warned that child marriages are also likely to further surge in a country where “an estimated 53% of girls are married before the age of 18.”