Friends in need: the children's support network helping migrants in west Africa

A grassroots volunteer group is helping child migrants in west Africa, by treating them as friends rather than inferiors

Across west and central Africa, groups of adolescents have created a network to support young migrants travelling alone. Treating them like friends, they offer advice, shelter and opportunities for training.

It is not unusual for minors in the region to move around unaccompanied. They can be sent to stay with family members to study, for instance, or may get a job away from home to provide their household with an extra income. In the worst cases they are fleeing wars, abuse or violence at home, including early marriages. But young people have other reasons to move too, which may involve aspirations for the future and a desire to discover the world.

The decision to depart home is usually made between the ages of 14 and 18. Bus rides, long walks and lifts on motorbikes are seen as part of an adventure before realising that with the journey comes isolation, a struggle for food, no place to sleep and exposure to exploitation.

Mariko Fatoumata, a 16-year-old from Mali, has met many children on the move in the bustling market facing her mother’s restaurant in the outskirts of Bamako. She is one of more than 30 youth volunteers with the grassroots organisation African Movement of Working Children and Youth (AMWCY)’s child migration programme who meet at the restaurant every week.

“It is a good place to keep an eye on children passing by,” she says. “If they seem to need help, we approach them. Sometimes we offer meals to those who cannot buy food. Each of us has committed to sponsor a migrant child, taking them home to sleep and walking with them into the city the next day.”

Across the region, the movement has established listening centres, where children can go to talk and receive guidance. Word of mouth helps spread information about the group, as does Facebook, radio programmes, cartoons, flyers and newsletters. Volunteers also run awareness sessions in villages where teenagers are likely to leave from.

Other initiatives are more formal. Starting in Benin and now covering 10 countries, the association has set up mobile phone networks to keep contact with young migrants from the village of departure to destination. In Niger, the movement’s membership card is known by the police as an identification document. This is helpful in areas where children without papers are easy prey for traffickers.

Another component of the work is vocational training to help children learn a profession or start a small business. “Once we were called by the police to help with a child who had gotten in trouble,” Fatoumata says. “He was a porter at the station and had a fight with another child about who should carry a bag. He had left his village, but he just really wanted to be his own boss. So we helped him buy chickens that he could raise back at home. Later, he started an AMWCY group in his own community.”

Most young volunteers taking leadership roles in the organisation have direct experience as beneficiaries of the service. James Suru Boyon, in Nigeria, joined the association 10 years ago when he was 16. His father died a few years earlier and he wanted to study and to help his mother. Like many others, he was thinking of leaving home to find a job in the city, but a friend introduced him to the movement. With their help, he stayed at home, got an income selling sewing material and studied engineering. Together, they also created a group to help other children in the village. This is how the movement keeps growing.

Funded through membership fees and contributions from UN agencies and humanitarian bodies, the organisation now counts more than 830,000 supporters in 27 countries. Over 270,000 are active members, 73% are below 18 and 57% are girls. They say it would be difficult to travel 200km in west Africa without meeting someone from the association.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), in 2009 about 8.4 million people were mobile in west and central Africa, representing “the largest total migrant stock in Africa”. Most stay in the region. “Sub-regional migrations have always occurred and are a fundamental part of the local economy,” explains IOM migrant assistance specialist Michele Bombassei. This mobility involves “hundreds of thousands of children” but international agencies struggle to collect figures, as there are no mechanisms to monitor informal movements.

Humanitarian organisations have seen that preventing children from migrating, or sending them back home once they have, is not effective. “If I escape from a difficult situation and you take me back without a solution, I will obviously try to escape again,” says Boyon.