Victoria Adjo Climbié had a smile to remember. Ten years this February, she was murdered by her guardians in London. The once happy little eight-year old girl from Ivory Coast had suffered a catalog of abuse right up to her death in February 2000. A United Kingdom- government inquiry reported that there were 12 missed chances to save her. All the agencies and people with power to do something —the police, social services department of many local authorities, the National Health Service, the NSPCC, and local churches—had failed. All of them had noted the abuse and done nothing. Victoria was found with 128 separate injuries when she died.

Since then, the U.K. government has done much to protect children. Part of their plans included working with London's African communities that develop and strengthen community-based preventive activities in this field. AFRUCA was one of them. Established in response to the need for support at a grassroots level, Africans United Against Child Abuse has built a track record of contributing to the safety, quality of life and well-being of African children in the United Kingdom. To find out more about AFRUCA, I did a Facebook chat with Debbie Ariyo, the charity's founder. The interview covers the work of AFRUCA’s campaign against the abuse and exploitation of African children.


Q: Why do you do what you do?

Debbie Ariyo: I started AFRUCA to make a difference in the lives of children.

Q: Children are the future, but there are so many problems. Why did you choose this issue or did the issue choose you?

DA: I was born in the U.K., but I grew up in Nigeria from the age of four. I wanted to work with children because of my own personal experiences and because of the many issues I saw happening around me. Africa is a very unfriendly place for children to grow up. When I returned to the U.K. in May, 1990, I realized that the situation for many African children here is no different.

Q: What were some of the things you saw growing up as a child?

DA: How children's lives can be blighted by their experience of various forms of abuse in the home: physical abuse, issues around discipline. How our extended family setup encourages or fosters child sexual abuse, and the terrible phenomenon of child domestic servitude. Most people talk about what happens to children outside the home - forced labor, working on the streets. I think most children experience some form abuse in their own homes.

Q: You started AFRUCA almost ten years after you returned to the U.K. Is there something significant about May?

DA: It was the right time and I had the opportunity. It was dictated by ongoing events in the U.K. at that time —newly-arrived children from Africa being killed by their carers e.g. Victoria Climbie; difficulties experienced by newly arrived families, increasing numbers of children going into care. It had nothing to do with the date I returned.

Q: You must have felt driven, with a lot of passion. What else did you bring to the table?

DA: I brought the right skills. I was a middle-ranking manager and had spent all my work life prior to setting up AFRUCA in the U.K. civil service. I had been working for five years in policy development, so I knew setting up little projects to reach a few children was not the answer. The answer lay in influencing government policy on a wide range of issues and that is what we started to do via campaigning activities etc. Of course, I had never worked in the voluntary sector before then. So moving from the civil service to this sector was a real culture shock. There is a lot of rivalry in the black voluntary sector here. This meant that I probably did not make a lot of friends earlier on. However, I think the focus and the genuineness of purpose were clear. Also, if you don’t get involved in the mundane, to-ing and fro-ing, people generally leave you alone to get on with it.

Q: Initially, your work targeted children at risk.

DA: If children are going to receive appropriate services then the practitioners working with them need to have the right skills. So we run a national training program on working with black African children and families for a wide range of practitioners - social workers, teachers, mental health practitioners, medical staff etc. For most parents, our training courses are seen as a welcome help. We provide them with key information that helps them in dealing with their children to prevent abuse.


Q: What would you say are the main pressures on at-risk African families?

DA: Poverty and deprivation; trying to bring up children on some of the most dangerous estates; gangs, guns, and knives; how to deal with their children in dual cultures—children who would rather be British and who don't give a toss about their parents’ ways of life. Of course, add the issue of unemployment or underemployment, lack of papers, and you see that most parents are living a very pressurized life. In many cases, they take out their frustrations on their children.

A key issue is the disproportionate number of black African children going into local authority care across London and in other places. Eighty percent of these children go in because of physical abuse and neglect. Children are being lost to the care system because parents believe in beating their children. We run a child protection training program for parents in four cities to provide them with basic knowledge and skills in child protection.

This is our biggest project in the U.K. Working across London, in Manchester, Newcastle and Liverpool we reach at least 400 parents each year, since 2009. Working with parents has not been as challenging as we thought. This is because many parents themselves know they require support in order to keep their families together.

Q: It's sad that parents only come to you after family relationships fracture.

DA: What we are trying to do is to reach them before problems arise. The key strategy we use is to go and find them where they are: in churches and mosques. Many of our courses are run in partnership with faith organizations.

Q: Earlier, you said that you knew from working in policy development in the civil service that it was better to focus on influencing government policy on a wide range of issues. But for every problem there are multiple solutions, each one perhaps as viable as any other. How do you avoid getting bogged down in particulars and politics?

DA: Most of our work in the early days, e.g. the first five years was reactive. It was all dictated by events or other developments. Even if we wanted to be more proactive there were a multiplicity of issues and we had to deal with them as they occurred. In the earlier days, it was very clear to me that one of the major problems facing our community was the trafficking of children for domestic servitude. We raised this issue at many policy meetings, at conferences. We even issued a press release in 2002 to highlight this problem. The government said they had no evidence this was even a problem in any way. Then from about 2004, they made a volte-face. They now have local authorities reporting an increasing number of children coming to their attention as victims. That u-turn has helped to enable many agencies put in place strategies to help support victims.

Q: How did you identify the problem of buying and selling of children in immigrant communities?

DA: One of the great benefits of holding community activities is that it enables people to talk. People talk about what they know, what they have seen. People share their stories. This is all anecdotal, of course. However when you do get a range of people from different backgrounds telling you the same story, you know there is an element of truth and you start to build a picture. The problem of course is that people will tell you things in confidence, but will not take part in a formalized data gathering exercise. In many instances, we had to start to collate some of this stories and it enabled us to build a picture. It became more poignant when victims themselves started to come forward.

Q: When real life survivors started coming forward did this change the nature of your campaign?

DA: When genuine victims started to come forward, or were becoming identified, that changed the scenario. There have been a few research projects done. Not by us, I'm sorry to say, but these have now helped to give a better picture of the situation. However, this was just an element of our work. We had other issues we were focusing on.

Local authorities were experiencing problems trying to understand many of the cultural issues which were present in many of the families they were working with. So we started to run training courses for them on culture and child protection issues. This is still ongoing.

Q: Cross cultural issues are complex and full of potential minefields. It becomes even more difficult when your organization is focused on wide ranging issues. If you were to list what you do in order of priority, what would they be?

DA: We have a range of intervention strategies to enable us ensure we can cover the myriad of issues affecting children's welfare. In order of priority: The work on child trafficking is very important to us as we have built a range of knowledge and expertise in this area. We now have a London wide project on CT working with survivors, providing them with different forms of support and therapy to help them overcome their terrible experiences. We work with about 20 young people at any one time. It became necessary to do direct work with young people and not just focus on advocacy. When they come to us, they want us to help and not refer them to others. So now with some funding we are able to work closely with them by sorting out the key issues they face around lack of identity, lack of status, lack of housing and health issues by referring them to partner agencies, including law firms to lodge their immigration applications, and the local authority to provide them with housing and some stipend to live on while awaiting the results of their application. We've also provided expert advice leading to convictions in a court of law

Q: Tell us about your success stories, the young women/men who have escaped from their captors and are now making their way to a normal life.

DA: In 2008, we had eleven girls who were all brought into the country. Some members of a Nigerian church came to see us, and we referred them as usual. So far out of the eleven, about seven of them have now been settled with a leave to remain in the U.K. and we are waiting to hear from the Home Office about the others. This is good development because many victims’ claims of trafficking have been rejected by the government and we do know many who have been deported back to their countries. So being granted an opportunity to remain in the UK is really an acceptance that their stories of trafficking are valid. These young people are now going to school, picking up their lives and moving on. One of the things we want to be able to do in our work in Nigeria is to help them trace their families. Many of them cannot find their parents because they've moved on from where they were.

Q: How did they get to London? Directly from Nigeria or via several stops?

DA: Most came direct. Others through other European countries, some via other African countries

Q: On average, how young were they when their ordeals began? Where are they from typically?

DA: Most victims we have worked with are in two categories. Those brought for sexual exploitation (SE) and for domestic servitude (DS). There are others but they are fewer in number. SE victims are usually in their teens and are from all over Africa—Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, etc. One girl was brought from Guinea via Sierra Leone. The girls brought for DS are typically younger, in their early teens. One victim we worked with was nine years old when she came. Most of the victims here are from Nigeria and most are female although we’ve had some male as well.

Q: How do the SE victims get into the drag net?

DA: Mainly through deception. They and their parents have been provided "help" by a good family friend; neighbor etc. to bring the victim to Europe to work in a restaurant, as hairdressers etc. They don't know they are being trafficked till they get here and realize their job is to service twenty men a day

Q: How many survivors are HIV positive? How many are addicted to drugs? How many have returned to prostitution because it’s the only life they know?

DA: Those figures are hard to compile. I only worked with one girl who contracted HIV. I worked with another who had VVF (Vesicovaginal fistula). I don't know any who are drug addicts. One key thing to highlight is the resilience and inner strength of many of the girls. Many also use religion to cope, so the idea of drugs or even cigarettes is strange to them. I'm not sure about the last question because some victims disappear and we are not sure what's happened to them —if they've returned to their trafficker, if they are still in the country or been re trafficked. It is unlikely they can enter the prostitution market alone with no trafficker involved.

Q: How many people have disappeared like this?

DA: None that I can think of, because once they come and they've been in the system for some time, e.g. their application is being processed, they are likely to stay. Most of those who run away are just coming into the country. They claim asylum on arrival and, as children, the government has a duty of care so they put them up in a home. The young girls contact their traffickers and within weeks at most they disappear.

Q: Just so I understand. You have cases where you have trafficked people calling their abusers and then disappearing?

DA: Yes, because they've been given instructions to do so. I think the reason is that, at this point, these young people do not know they have been trafficked, because exploitation has not come in. They still believe their traffickers mean well for them and are keen to go themselves because they are here to work, not to be held up in a home!

Q: It's a complex problem.

DA: Yes. We are producing a DVD to distribute among local authorities. I was surprised to find out that when these young girls come, and even though they are suspected victims of trafficking, no briefing sessions are held to alert them to what might happen. For example, that the trafficker will move them somewhere else where they will be abused and exploited. We are now working with a film company and our survivors to produce a DVD and distribute this to local authorities. All they have to do is to put it on and allow young people to watch it and learn about the possible dangers they might be in.

Q: How do you plan to approach the global problem of sexual exploitation and domestic servitude?

DA: In the U.K., we have four levels of intervention with survivors, policymakers, in communities, to raise awareness, and now with potential victims via the new product and possibly other means. This is the demand side. We want to start to address the supply side through our newly developing work in Nigeria to start off with.

Q: What are your plans for Nigeria?

DA: This is a more intensive and potentially more dangerous area. Our work will focus on disrupting supply through advocacy, raising awareness and other preventative work, including poverty alleviation. We will work with victims that are being returned from Europe to help them put their lives back on track and we will help survivors in the U.K. trace their families so they can be reintegrated.

Q: How do you plan to protect local outreach workers?

DA: A large proportion of our running costs will be on security. We will have to ensure we have as much of security cover for our staff as possible, and also put in place very strict security procedures to protect data and staff. We have to train staff extensively in how to protect themselves. There are other agencies who are working in this area and this is their approach and it seems it works.

Q: Trafficking of cocaine from West Africa to Europe used to need “human mules” but now drug cartels have made so much money they need a pipeline of people to staff their businesses. Are you up to the task of fighting against these criminals?

DA: It’s going to be extremely difficult to even attempt to fight such powerful mafias. I'm not under any illusion that we can win that war. In Nigeria, they have the only anti trafficking agency in Africa and they do a lot of work in terms of prosecuting traffickers. They are finding it tough as well. What we are going to be doing is work in partnership with others to disrupt human trafficking. We can do this in many ways. Through awareness raising and prevention in the short term and through working with others to begin to remove the push factors that makes it attractive for young people to want to come to Europe —even when it’s so obvious that it’s going to end in tears. That is more longer term.

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