Forced and Trafficked Workers of Mali

Christopher P. Isajiw
International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC)

Editorial credit: Senderistas /

Forced and Trafficked Workers of Mali

Executive Summary

Mali, one of the poorest countries in West Africa, is nonetheless resource-rich in global commodities such as oil and gold. Gold is Mali’s primary export, and the industry surrounding it attracts many at-risk migrant laborers to work in “artisanal mining.” This “mining” consists of women, children, and men panhandling in rivers for meager quantities of gold. Many of these migrants are also refugees from ongoing conflicts in Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal. They are lured to Mali with promises of good-paying work and relocation to Europe but are subsequently trapped by gangs, including some religious extremist groups such as Al Qaeda “affiliates.” Job seekers are forced to work to “pay off” false debts to these gangs. Many laborers are trafficked and forced to become sex workers.

The Malian government is under-resourced and still growing its response to the problem. Malian police and security forces are not trained to deal with the humanitarian needs of trafficked workers and are political enforcers of the government, which is fighting many of the same armed gangs and extremists all over the country. The number and exact locations of trafficked workers is still anecdotal and unknown. The United Nations (UN) and its partner NGOs are only beginning to address the problem and find solutions. Civil society and NGOs like Caritas Mali and the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) may be best positioned to address the needs of Mali’s trafficked workers and prevent labor abuse.

The Problem: Political and Social Instability in Mali

Mali is physically one of the largest countries in Africa and is a landlocked country that shares borders with 7 neighbor states and is in the Saharan and Sahelian region of West Africa. Compared to many of its neighbors, Mali has a relatively small population. Mali’s political history has been punctuated by periods of revolution, coup, and insurrection with periods of relative political stability and central governance between 2013 and 2020. In 2012, there was a coup and uprising of various tribes that allied themselves with several religious extremist and Al Qaeda/Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) affiliated groups. Relative stability was restored after numerous combat operations led by the conscripted forces under the control of the central government and in co-operation with primarily French and other multinational forces, the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), and a UN peacekeeping operation, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). While the extremist groups were not completely defeated, they were considerably diminished. Since 2013, multinational forces and UN troops have remained in Mali and continue to conduct various operations against an ongoing insurgency and extremist movements by various groups.

While in economic, political, and social terms, some positive progress has been made in Mali, extremist and faction group violence has continued to be a problem in the northern part of the country. In 2015, the government-controlled regions saw several deadly terrorist attacks in the capital Bamako. There also has been a heavy-handed response by both Malian and French forces, which often has resulted in civilian casualties.

In 2018, violence was one of many pressing issues that affected the elections. In many areas, polling stations could not open due to a lack of proper security, and this situation caused low voter turnout. The former Malian President Ibrahim Keita was initially declared the winner until a subsequent coup in September of 2020 forced his resignation. A new “transitional” leader, Former Defense Minister Bah Ndaw, 70, was picked by the coup leader, Colonel Assimi Goita, to head a transitional government until new elections could be facilitated ostensibly in March of 2022. Security problems and distrust of the central government by the populace, as well as distrust of UN and French peacekeepers, exacerbate poverty – the primary challenge to the government and people of Mali.

Poverty and the Gold “Resource Curse”

According to the World Bank current, positive factors in Mali are that the COVID-19 economic impact has been minimal, and as Mali is a net oil importer, the relatively low price of oil has brought a small relief to the economy. In the past, tourism was one of Mali’s main industries, but this has been disrupted since the terrorist attacks in the capital Bamako, especially the high-profile attack on the luxury Radisson resort in 2015. Due to the ongoing conflict, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, the tourism sector has suffered enormously. While it does not feed into the local economy in the way that tourism does, industrial mining (of gold and other minerals) has operated nearly uninterrupted since the pandemic began.

Mali is the third-largest gold-producing nation in Africa and roughly the 17th largest gold producer in the world by metric tonnes.  In this production, it is very close to its West African neighbors, including Burkina Faso and Ghana. With the “noble metal” being considered a financial haven and as an investment commodity for the capital markets, the roiling of the global financial markets starting in March 2020 meant that the demand for gold, as well as its price, has increased significantly. While other traditional market sectors have started to see less volatility since later last year, the price and demand for gold have declined somewhat, but still proves robust in terms of demand and by being at near historical price highs.

Mali is one of the poorest counties in the world. With a large population of youth, Mali has few job opportunities resulting in a large demand for jobs of any kind. In turn, many Malians lack traditional job skills and access to primary education. While 80 percent of the Malian workforce is engaged in some type of basic subsistence agricultural farming, this cannot provide enough income, and the country still has problems with hunger and food security.  Artisanal gold mining in Mali is poorly regulated but is a large source of basic subsistence employment, although the practice is illegal.

Most of the world’s large-scale mining companies have operations in Mali. Despite the pandemic, the recent coup, ongoing conflicts in the north of the country, as well as extremist violence in the central and southern regions of the country, mining operations have continued largely without disruption. While the large scale mining operations do provide employment for many Malians, as well as migrant workers from neighbors like Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, and others, some of the mining in Mali is done by local and foreign migrant workers on a low-tech small scale level often referred to as “artisanal” mining.

The Trafficked Workers of Mali

The growing demand for gold has led to a proportionate growing demand for the low-skilled so-called “artisanal” gold miners. Many of these laborers come from the rural Malian countryside and from neighboring countries. Many of these migrant laborers are also refugees from various conflicts in both Mali and neighboring countries. Many are falsely lured to Mali by criminal trafficking gangs and wind up forced laborers. The most vulnerable and at-risk populations of these forced laborers are women and children. They often find themselves forced into sex work. In Mali, over 12 percent of sex workers in mining towns are between 15 and 19, and a majority are foreign workers from Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire. Child prostitution and child sex trafficking has been noted anecdotally around mining camps in Mali.

According to Dr. Jason McSparren, a PhD in Global Governance and Human Security who has conducted field research in the mining region of Sikasso: ‘Poverty is the key driving factor that forces young people to migrate from rural Mali and elsewhere in West Africa to Europe or larger regional cities like Bamako. Mali has a youthful population, but the economy is not dynamic enough to provide work opportunities for broad swaths of working-aged people. The lack of economic opportunities and a cultural obligation to provide for the family, drives young people, both male and female, to migrate to urban areas as well as overseas, and some pursue the dangerous work of artisanal mining. The security situation in the central and northern regions of Mali is precarious because anti-government jihadist militias and transnational organized criminal groups operate across the region. These illicit groups earn money through the trafficking of people, weapons, narcotics, and other contraband. Economic migrants easily become victims of these criminal organizations.’

While the above quote pertains to the dynamics behind migration in Mali as a whole, similar dynamics exist regarding how migrants and refugees find themselves being trafficked and forced into bonded labor and sex work. As already noted, children and women are at the highest risk for this. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the deteriorating economic and social conditions in Mali are contributing to an increase in the trafficking of children and forced labor. UNHCR reports that in 2020, an estimated 6,000 children, disproportionately boys, were working across eight mine sites in the country. They are exposed to the worst forms of child labor, economic exploitation, and physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.

In January 2019, Nigerian authorities estimated more than 20,000 Nigerian girls are victims of sex trafficking in Mali, although this data has not been corroborated. Illicit gangs use children for labor in gold mines and use profits to enrich combatants, fuel the arms trade in efforts to finance their violence.  So-called “taxes” are extorted from adults working in those gold mines. Many unaccompanied minor children arrive at the worksites on “credit” and are held until their “debt” is paid off. Often, they are forced into labor indefinitely. Women and young girls also are lured to the gold mines and nearby villages to be used as sex workers. Many of the migrants also are forced into labor in the agricultural sector. Women and girls are trafficked on the way to supposed good jobs in North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Many end up in Bamako, or the mining or agricultural areas where they are forced into sex work.

Attempts at Mitigating the Problem: The Malian Government Response in Partnership with International and US Agencies

Despite suffering from lack of resources, the Malian government has made some sustained attempts at mitigating forced labor and sex trafficking in the country. No doubt much of this effort has been due to ongoing pressure from the UN, and the US Department of State (DOS). While Mali has yet to meet UN and DOS standards, the country has anti-slavery and anti-human trafficking laws in the criminal code. The Malian government does prosecute cases of slavery and human trafficking when it can be proven. However, Mali’s laws only prohibit hereditary slavery that results from human trafficking, they do not explicitly prohibit using, procuring, or offering children for illicit activities. While the government has made progress, especially in collaboration with the UN, DOS, and others, to mitigate the use of children in armed conflict, its law enforcement is more suited for paramilitary and counter-terror/counter-insurgency duties. The law enforcement and judiciary lack sufficient resources and understanding of forced labor and human trafficking. The Malian security and police forces are often viewed with suspicion because they resort to authoritarian enforcement actions against most forms of civil protest and dissent.

Attempts at Mitigating the Problem: Civil Society and Non-Governmental Organizations

International attention and subsequent robust action to mitigate the problem of forced and trafficked workers of Mali is still relatively new and in the beginning stages. As shown above, the problem is well known to the UN, DOS, and NGOs, but the extent and exact numbers of trafficked and forced laborers remain unknown. Due to the unpredictable security environment and a lack of adequate resources, the important work of combating and mitigating this problem is still lacking. International humanitarian and economic aid programs in Mali, while well established and generally well-funded, currently focus on the more typical aspects of aid. These include issues related to economic development and food security, public health and medical aid, and poverty alleviation. Due to the dynamic security environment, peacekeeping, counter-extremism, and conflict resolution take up much international resources and attention.

Despite this situation, a small number of NGOs is beginning to acknowledge the forced labor problem. For example, Caritas Mali, an NGO under the Catholic Church’s umbrella agency, Caritas International, plans to launch a new program to support workers. The program aims to leverage Caritas Mali’s expertise in organizing humanitarian aid in partnership with the International Catholic Migration Commission’s (ICMC) well-established capacity in helping migrants and refugees and survivors of human trafficking across the globe. The new one-year program will provide vulnerable adults and children with alternative means of income and skills building. The project will particularly target unaccompanied minors, adolescents, and young adults. With the support of trusted religious leaders, the organizations will reach out to community members and provide them with educational information on human trafficking and its risk factors. The organizations will develop public information materials such as posters and radio broadcasts and organize public events and pastoral visits to educate people about the dangers and warning signs of human trafficking. Outreach through social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp will be a new way to spread human trafficking prevention messages to at-risk populations. Survivors will be informed about available services including job training. Particular attention will be given to prevention measures to ensure that survivors do not fall back into the cycle of exploitation. The project will also increase international awareness and attention to this problem.

Human trafficking, forced labor, and sex work are increasing in Mali. Even though international organizations like the UN, DOS, and many NGOs are aware of the problem, statistics on these issues are often estimates or anecdotal. NGOs already engaged on the ground in Mali are best positioned to address the exploitation of migrant workers in a nimble, responsive, and impactful way. Greater research, resources, and attention need to be focused on this overlooked and growing humanitarian crisis.

Author Names

Christopher P. Isajiw

Date of Publication May 17, 2021


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