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African children in the UK vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, say Ariyo

Africans are the fastest growing ethnic minority group in the UK but, says charity leader Debbie Ariyo, migration for a better life makes African children vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Graham Hopkins reports

Think of an African child and the chances are the first images you conjure up are of either a “happy, smiling” child or, failing that, of a “starving” child.

“The notion of the happy African child as we knew it no longer exists,” says chief executive of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca), Debbie Ariyo. “From being trafficked from one country and continent to another, to being exploited as domestic servants, being recruited to fight in wars as soldiers, being oppressed as slaves working on plantations and in mines, to being exploited as sex workers, the African child suffers gross violation of their rights as a human being, as a citizen of Africa and as a child.”

Now into its fifth year, Afruca promotes the welfare of African children in the UK, Africa and Europe. And with some sections of African communities involved in witchcraft, physical punishment, female genital mutilation, child trafficking and asylum seeking, the need for the organisation has never been stronger.

A particular focus at the moment is child trafficking. “It’s a significant part of the work we do between Africa and the UK,” says Ariyo. “Parents and relatives are willing to give their child away to total strangers in the belief that they will be coming to have a better life. We hold events in African countries showing that this notion of ‘a better life’ simply doesn’t exist; that they often become victims of sexual exploitation or domestic servitude.”

Afruca similarly targets African communities in the UK. Says Ariyo: “We are doing advocacy work to raise awareness and change attitudes, explaining what child abuse is, how to detect it and what you have to do to safeguard children.”

Indeed, Afruca is setting up a Safeguarding African Children Advocacy Project in Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle, which seeks over three years to educate and raise the skill levels of practitioners and communities in these cities which have the most identifiable African communities outside of London.

In raising awareness, Ariyo realises that faith organisations play a critical role. “There was the case of the pastor of a church who over about five years would see lots of families with many children coming and going calling the adults aunties and uncles – and he didn’t find anything strange. He just assumed they were extended families helping out and didn’t think anything of it. But the children were being exploited for domestic servitude.”

The recent child-trafficking case of the Kenyan evangelist Gilbert Deya and the “miracle babies” highlights the potential for exploitation. “People are setting up church groups as commercial enterprises rather than religious vehicles and getting rich,” says Ariyo. “We want to urge church groups to take up self-regulation. If you want to set up a restaurant you need to have a licence, but to set up a religious group there is nothing – even though you’re still dealing with human beings and public welfare.”

She continues: “Those who register as a charity or set up to do good works have nothing to hide: the ones who have something to hide are the ones who never show their faces. If there is going to be any abuse or cruelty to children then that’s where it will happen.”

As with witchcraft and female genital mutilation, physical punishment is considered problematic here because it is a “cultural” practice for Africans. Not so, says Ariyo: “They are not cultural things. Many Africans are strong advocates against such things.

It’s more to do with looking at how to safeguard children. I know people from Nigeria, where I come from, who have never been outside and would never beat their children because they don’t think it’s the right way to raise children.”

And Afruca is taking its message on the right way to raise children fearlessly and proudly into the UK’s African and faith communities.

Out of africa

  • There are more than 587,000 Africans legally resident (2001 census).
  • 78 per cent of Africans live in London.
  • In 2003, Africans accounted for 41 per cent of asylum applications.
  • Africans are the fastest growing ethnic minority group.
  • From 1992 to 2000, the number of African children increased by more than 50 per cent from 96,667 to about 145,667.

    Further information
    Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca)

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