A series of media investigations link charitable children’s institutions (CCIs) to child trafficking and forced begging networks, both locally in Kenya and regionally involving Uganda and Tanzania.
CCIs are private centres regulated by government. They include orphanages, and disability and protection centres for vulnerable children. A third of human trafficking victims in the world are children. In Kenya, almost 20% of trafficked victims are minors. Abuse of children is a crime, and even more so when it is conducted for the sake of profit.
Forty one percent of all children trafficked in East Africa are recruited into trafficking through their families, and most children in CCIs have families who placed them there. This is largely because families believe their children can get an education and food and be kept safe. Other families pay CCIs a small fee for their children’s admission.
Michelle Oliel, co-founder of the Stahili Foundation non-profit organisation working on child protection, tells ENACT that CCIs, especially along Kenya border counties with Uganda and Tanzania, are involved in trafficking. These CCIs run as orphanages or disability centres, and recruit children for street begging. Border towns in Kenya are busy areas of commerce cutting across Uganda and Tanzania.
Children, especially those that are disabled, are placed at strategic points in the respective Kenya border streets with Uganda and Tanzania to beg. Each cluster of children has a supervisor who directs them on who to follow and ask for money. The supervisor collects money three to four times a day from these points. It is unclear what the money is used for, but apart from personal gains, cash is easily laundered because the currencies of both countries are widely accepted in Kenya’s border counties.
Another form of forced begging happens in CCIs operating in Kenya’s urban areas. There are ‘orphanage tour safaris’ that offer ‘packages’ to foreigners who want to visit and volunteer at CCIs. Package rates are high, starting from US$3 000 a week excluding flights and visa costs. Most of the money collected doesn’t improve the deplorable state of some of the CCIs. Oliel says the people who run the CCIs live large in upmarket places in their respective towns.
Leah Wambui, a youth and former resident of a CCI in Nairobi, tells ENACT that when she was there, children were forced to sing and act ‘humble’ to attract sympathy whenever foreigners came. It was forbidden to talk openly to the foreign tourists or volunteers. Wambui was assaulted by the CCI management for informing the volunteers that their welfare was not catered for and that they were confined with no freedom of movement.
CCIs are meant to be temporary and last-resort institutional care centres for children. The government standard is that a child should not be placed in a CCI for more than three years, after which a permanent placement should be found. But because it’s lucrative for these CCIs to use confined children as bait, most children stay for a long time.
The government also doesn’t distinguish between children who have been trafficked (especially from outside the country) and Kenyan children who have been placed there by families in need or are orphaned.
The Kenyan government started the process of transforming CCIs by setting up guidelines for alternative family care of children. These guidelines are informed by several children’s laws in Kenya such as the CCI regulations, 2005, and internationally such as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, 1990. The guidelines led to the 2015-2022 action plan for children in Kenya.
Key among the changes was the 2017 moratorium on registering new CCIs. This is a positive step that led to the mapping exercise of existing CCIs. There is a data gap in the number of children in CCIs. The government of Kenya and United Nations Children’s Fund reported that 42 000 children were recorded living in over 700 CCIs, some of which were not legally registered. Experts say this is an understatement.
A government ban on all these institutions would have negative consequences on the good work some CCIs are doing in sheltering and providing a family-like environment for children, given the large number of children living in CCIs.
There is no comprehensive data on the number of children in CCIs. This has been one of the factors that has hindered intervention in addressing trafficking in these institutions. Due to the call from the child protection experts to ban all CCIs from operating, the government is involved in a pilot project with five counties collecting data on the number of children in CCIs. Sources involved in the project also confirm that some of these CCIs are involved in child trafficking, and some are either improperly registered or unregistered.
Data from this project will help government and other child protection stakeholders such as NGOs, child rights advocacy groups and CCIs in coming up with strategies for addressing child trafficking in Kenya’s CCIs. This data could also inform a regional initiative involving Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to help address the problem of cross-border trafficking of children.
Mohamed Daghar, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS