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A project in Mali to teach children about the dangers they could face during their migratory journey through West Africa.

Efforts to protect children on the move across West Africa received a significant boost last week, when countries in the region backed plans to shield children from all forms of violence and exploitation.

The 15 countries making up the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) committed to step up their efforts to protect children on the move in West Africa. They also pledged to combat sexual, physical and emotional violence against children, child marriage and child labour – and to make sure children are properly registered and more information is collected on them.

Both historically and culturally, migration has always been a significant part of West African life. Ten times more migratory journeys occur within West Africa than towards Europe, despite a recent increase in young people from the region risking the perilous Mediterranean crossing to reach Italy or Greece.

Children are moving across West Africa

Many of these regional and international journeys are undertaken by children, sometimes travelling without their parents or guardians. National borders cut through communities which share a common history and culture, often resulting in members of the same family living in different countries – explaining many of these journeys. Children also move to find work and contribute to their family’s income.

ECOWAS’ pledge to collect more data on children on the move is a vital forward step to deciphering the long-term effects this movement will have on them. For many children, migration can be a positive thing, allowing them to attend school, learn new skills and earn money for their families.

But moving from one location to another carries many risks for children undertaking the journey – especially those travelling alone.

They can become trapped in smuggling and trafficking networks, victims of violence, abuse and exploitation and blocked from healthcare, education and sanitation services. Xenophobic and discriminatory reactions from the communities they travel through and settle in can also be a problem.

What West African states should do next

Strong child protection systems in countries across the region can ensure that no child falls between the cracks and is exposed to danger – regardless of their nationality. ECOWAS’ pledge provides comprehensive protection for children against child abuse, neglect, exploitation and other forms of violence, as it brings together those working formally and informally with children in West Africa at local, national and regional levels.

Destination Unknown members Terre des Hommes and the International Social Service contributed to developing ECOWAS’ strategy, and are now calling for all West African countries to harmonise laws and mechanisms protecting children across the region, so they can enjoy safety and security wherever they are.

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