Jacques wanted to start working when he was 10. His father refused so he left his home in Tema, Ghana, to live in nearby Benin, like many young children in search of a better life.
“I got on a bus to Cotonou sticking to a lady as if I were her son,” says the relaxed young man, as if travelling several hundred kilometres alone at such a young age was no big deal — even if it was to his mother’s native country.
Seven years later, Jacques is living in the cosmopolitan but down-at-heel neighbourhood of Placodji in Cotonou, where he has trained as a cook.
He is considering another move east to Nigeria, the economic giant of West Africa.
Josephine, a 16-year-old girl from Togo, left Nigeria in February.
She had lived there since she was a child with her mother, who remarried a man from the town of Badagry, near the border with Benin.
But the teenager decided to leave Africa’s most populous country of 190 million people to live in Seme-Krake, Benin.
“If I’ve got a job I can take care of myself anywhere,” the self-assured teen, who has never gone to school, says in English.
“I don’t see my mother but my boss is good and everything is fine,” said Josephine, smiling in her yellow and green uniform of an apprentice seamstress.
Migration has been a way of life and a key to success for centuries in West Africa, where 75 percent of migration happens within the region.
The phenomenon is common among minors and especially prevalent in the Abidjan-Lagos corridor, a coastal strip of some 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) between Ivory Coast and Nigeria.
But the younger the children, the higher the risk of exploitation, including abuse and prostitution.
– Risk of exploitation –
In 2017, the NGO Terre des Hommes and the African Movement of Working Children and Youth (AMWCY), a pan-African network with a strong presence at the community level, set up a project to protect, accompany and, above all, inform children and young people about migration.
Last year, it helped make 7,500 children aware of the dangers and how to protect themselves.
“The view of this migration has changed. Before, any movement of children was systematically equated with trafficking,” said Alfred Santos, regional coordinator of the Terre des Hommes project.
“But sometimes minors themselves decide to leave their home environment in search of opportunities and well-being,” he said.
“We can’t stop them but we have to prepare them, supervise them and avoid early migration.”
About 40 meeting points are spread along the Lagos-Abidjan corridor. Open to all vulnerable young people, they are places where migrants can rest, receive help or report others in need.
In Come, a city of 80,000 people and a popular stop along the road from Benin to Togo, taxi and moto-taxi drivers have been trained to accompany migrant minors and work with police, the community centre and authorities.
Felix Segniho, president of the inter-city drivers collective, is used to driving to and from the border with Nigeria.
He and his colleagues have been made aware of the children they might encounter.
“Even if they don’t have money, we take them. We ask questions: why did you leave? Where are you going? With whom and why?” he says.
“Some say, ‘I go to Cotonou or Lagos where it’s a good place to live’. If the child has no destination, we stop at Come, go to the police station and look for his family.”
– Motivation to migrate –
While the causes of migration are generally economic, they are also underpinned by complicated family dynamics, such as the remarriage of a parent, where the child feels more threatened than protected.
The fact that a loved one has already left is also an important factor.
“A young person can leave if a family member or a friend has gone to Nigeriaand comes back to the village with a motorcycle or smart phone. It motivates them to do the same,” said Omar Boconon Adihou, from the AMWCY.
At the border, which a minor is not supposed to be able to cross alone, the police have been trained to try to help address the issue.
In Nigeria, there has already been training held to help unaccompanied children, who up until that point had simply been refused entry.
But this affected only a small part of them: just like adults, most children have no papers and don’t pass through official border posts but through the bush.