A child soldier in Mali | Photo: EPA/Nic Bothma
A child soldier in Mali | Photo: EPA/Nic Bothma

The trafficking of children has increased in Mali, according to UNHCR, due to conflicts, COVID-19 and deteriorating economic conditions. Children are forced to work in mines and to fight for armed groups; many girls are sexually abused. Among the victims: Refugee and migrant children.

War, food insecurity, the pandemic and the deteriorating socio-economic situation in Mali have led to an increase in child-trafficking, forced labor and forced recruitment by armed groups, said the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR on Tuesday.

The victims of this are not just Malians, but also refugees, asylum seekers or migrants, according to the agency.

Forced to fight, work in mines

"Some 230 cases of child recruitment [by armed groups] were reported during the first half of the year, compared with 215 cases for the whole of 2019, according to a UNHCR-backed study," the agency said.

UNHCR added that "armed groups are also trafficking children to work in gold mines, with the profits being used to fuel the arms trade and finance violence."

The agency said about 6,000 children -- most of them boys -- are working across eight mine sites in the country, where they are exposed to "the worst forms of child labor, economic exploitation, and physical, sexual and psychological abuse." Many of them reportedly work without being paid.

53% of girls married before 18

UNHCR said that many children were also "raped, sold, forced into sexual or domestic servitude, or married off." Sexual abuse and child marriage often affect girls, in particular. According the the UNHCR, an estimated 53% of girls in Mali are married before they turn 18 currently, and the agency fears the number could soon be even higher.

The agency reported that in the region of Mopti in southcentral Mali, there had been over 1,000 cases recorded so far this year of women and girls being "abducted, sexually assaulted and raped."

Schools closures make things worse

UNHCR said that school closures due to the conflicts in the country and the COVID-19 pandemic are aggravating the situation.

"The profiles of those who exploit children range from organized criminal or armed groups, tribal chiefs or state authorities, to sometimes even parents, relatives or community members," UNHCR said. "As a result of conflict and socio-economic deterioration worsened by the pandemic, we are seeing some of the most egregious human rights violations in the Sahel."

Migrants and refugees in Mali

Mali is a critical transit country for many refugees and migrants attempting to reach northern Africa and Europe. UNHCR said they are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Many are forced to work in the agricultural sector, while others -- particularly women -- fall into the hands of criminal groups and are "forced to engage in survival sex," the UN agency said.


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