On Sunday, 5 April 2015, the return of a missing 15-year old en-route to join the religious extremist group of the Islamic State (IS) made headlines in the local newspapers. What has spun off or emerged from the series of events that took shape has focused largely on Islamic fundamentalism and how it has affected South Africans. Unfortunately, many people of this faith have come under scrutiny at the possible alignment with this radical fundamentalist group. The main issue to be questioned here with this particular incident is not IS’s influence with Muslims in a South Africa context, or religious groups but is one concerning children’s rights and the abuse of their vulnerability for the purpose of furthering political motives.
Exactly a year ago on 14 April 2014, over 100 girls were abducted from Chibok in Nigeria by the Boko Haram militia, the majority of who have still not been returned to their families, but have suspected to being subject to forced marriages. Unlike the girls in Chibok the 15 year-old in Cape Town, was recruited and was lured into leaving her home in Cape town to IS to fulfil a ‘romanticised’ idea of joining ISIS and living in the state. While the IS is often aligned with fundamentalist attacks and human rights abuses, the mention of this incident is devoid of the fact that children such as this 15-year old have become targets for recruitment and indoctrination, which would eventually lead to some form of exploitation to advance religious and political motives. What is most alarming is that children have become pawns or commodities and very often used as bargaining tools where socio-economic, political and religious conflicts exist.
The abuse of children’s vulnerability emerges in that very often they are abducted, recruited under false pretences resulting in exploitation of some sort whether it involves, forming part of the militia as child soldiers in conflict situations, forced into early marriages or to engage in forced labour, or are commercially sexually exploited. Although the 15-year old Capetonian girl was rescued this could have ended up as a potential child trafficking case where this circumstance or the end result could have been exploitation. Many reports have highlighted how very often disillusioned teenagers are lured via social networking sites to join the ‘perfect’ Islamic state where religious ideals can be fulfilled but in actual fact the reality is that on arrival most are forced into marriages and military training which highlights the abuse of vulnerability and exploitation that abounds in such situations.
One could argue this young girl’s agency and consent; however, Child trafficking by definition according to legislation is the movement of children for the purpose of exploitation. Consent is not a prerequisite for a minor (Prevention and Combating of trafficking in persons Act 2013). With this in mind the reality in South Africa is that unfortunately many cases or instances which could result in child trafficking go unreported and undetected. The Lexis Nexus report of 2015 highlights that from December 2014 to date, 76 cases were reported of suspected trafficking in the country and of the 76 only 17 involved children. If we are not aware of the crime then we will not define it as such and report it as such.
Although the details of the case are yet to be interrogated fully, what does emerge, is despite the fact the young girl consented to travelling abroad to join the IS, she was exposed to much vulnerability, firstly as an unaccompanied minor who was recruited and lured most probably under false pretences which would have resulted in exploitative practices. Both the Children’s Amendment Act (2005) and the Prevention and Combating of trafficking in Person’s Act 2013 (which is yet to be implemented), make provision for protective measures to be put in place to protect children and prosecute exploitative crimes committed against children. The recent amendment to the Immigration Act which will also only be fully implemented in July 2015, makes a provision for all minors travelling across borders, to have proof from parents or guardians travelling, possibly assisted the relevant officials in detecting that the unaccompanied minor lacked the permission and documentation from her parents to travel alone and thus saved her in the process.
The unfortunate reality is that despite children’s vulnerability many children are moved across border and internally within South Africa’s borders with little or no detection. The amended legislation will be important as far as minimising the risks of moving minors across borders. However, internally moved recruited minors still remain vulnerable to child exploitation. It will take on going training of civil society, government as well as non-governmental stakeholders to be able to effectively identify report and refer trafficking related cases. Most importantly beyond training, this incident and many unreported ones, highlight that the onus is on parents, guardians and families to ensure that the protection of children and minimising vulnerability, starts in the home. We have become a relationship deprived society and very often leave technology as a means of communicating within the family unit; it is at that point that children turn to social networking sites and forms of technology to build and establish relationships, leaving them vulnerable to a host of predators. Legislation cannot unfortunately be the panacea for preventing the exploitation of children. Guardians and caregivers have an onerous burden to ensure we are monitoring our children’s involvement on social networks but also doing our due diligence to inform them of the dangers of falling prey to instances that result in child trafficking.
- Matipa Mwamuka is Counter Trafficking Project Coordinator at ANEX.