Twelve-year-old Arouna* stands shirtless in a cocoa field in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire holding a hoe, his ribs clearly visible under his dark skin.
“I have to get up very early each day to be the first in the field with my younger brother, aged 10, to start clearing [the land],” he told IRIN. “I’m so tired.”
Arouna, who was born across the border in neighbouring Burkina Faso, was sent to Côte d’Ivoire’s Sassandra village eight months ago to join his father and his father’s second wife, who needed help – in the form of free labour – cultivating cocoa.
He told IRIN he thought he was coming to Côte d’Ivoire to continue his studies. But upon arrival, Arouna was taken into the forest and subjected to hard, manual labour in the cocoa fields each day. He has yet to step foot inside a classroom.
Côte d’Ivoire continues to show signs of economic and social recovery following a 2010-2011 political crisis, which left 3,000 dead and 500,000 displaced, but stories like Arouna’s are becoming more and more common.
As peace and security have improved, the number of people willing to cross the border – and send their children – to work in Ivoirian cocoa fields is on the rise.
Between 2009 and 2014, the number of children involved in hazardous work in cocoa production in West Africa increased by 46 percent, according to recent research by the US-based Tulane University.
The estimated number of child labourers in Cote d’Ivoire has more than doubled, from 800,000 pre-crisis to 1.62 million now, according to a joint investigation by UNICEF and the Ivoirian government. The vast majority come either from abroad – Mali, Burkina Faso and Togo – or from the poorer, rural parts of Côte d’Ivoire in the north and centre of the country.
A growing problem
More than 70 percent of the world’s cocoa supply comes from Côte d’Ivoire and neighbouring Ghana. The market price for cocoa beans has fallen sharply since the 1980s and local farmers have increasingly turned to the practice of recruiting children to work the fields.
Much of the recent increase in child labour in Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa fields came in 2011, following the end of the country’s post-election crisis, when Burkinabe farmers – traditionally a significant part of the sector – once again felt safe enough to come and work their fields.
“Over the past four years there has been a strong migration of people from countries like Burkina Faso into Ivoirian forests,” said Maxime M’bra, head of Stop Child Trafficking, a local NGO that fights against child labour.
More than half the child labourers in Côte d’Ivoire work in agriculture, with as many as one million children being exploited within the cocoa sector, according to the International Cocoa Foundation Initiative (ICI).
While the majority of these children are officially “employed” by their parents, an estimated 10.9 percent are victims of cross-border human trafficking, according to UNICEF.
“Despite significant efforts by the government, including educating families about the dangers of child labour and requiring all children between the ages of six and 16 to attend school, child labour and poverty is still rampant in the cocoa plantations of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana,” the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF) has said.
See: Efforts too small to curb child labour on cocoa farms
Forced child labour is technically illegal in Côte d’Ivoire, with penalties ranging from one to five years in jail and between $800 and $2,200 in fines. But the reality is that the law is rarely enforced and prosecutions are almost unheard of. The US State Department says Côte d’Ivoire fails to fully comply with the “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”
Since 2013, the country has invested an estimated $40 million in initiatives to reduce child labour, including building and rebuilding schools, and creating a tracking system intended to identify kids at risk and conduct investigations.
Martin N'Guettia, Executive Secretary of the Inter-ministerial Committee of Côte d'Ivoire and national coordinator for the operation Akoma, which fights against child trafficking, said these actions would make little difference unless the culture of legal impunity changed.
“The actions of prevention and protection cannot eradicate the phenomenon of child labour without vigorous action of prosecution and punishment against the perpetrators of trafficking and exploitation by offenders,” he told IRIN.
In June, more than 48 children not far from Arouna’s village in Sassandra were rescued and 22 people – mainly parents – were arrested as part of an Interpol operation targeting the trafficking and exploitation of children in Côte d’Ivoire.
Most of the rescued children were between the ages of five and 16. They were found working in conditions that were adjudged “extremely dangerous” for their health.
“The victims, some of whom had been employed in the fields for more than a year, told authorities they regularly work long hours without receiving pay or education,” Interpol said.
But many children, such as 10-year-old Aicha* who works in a field next to Arouna, are too afraid to describe the conditions they actually work under.
“In the morning, I help each day in the family farms,” Aicha told IRIN. “Then we pick fruit that I must go and sell before dusk to buy oil and salt. This is what I do every day.”
She said she would never admit to the authorities that her parents were forcing her to work.
“I’m too afraid of being taken away and living alone.”