by Giulia Inguaggiato, Mani Tese Cooperator in Guinea-Bissau

Almost a year has passed since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in West Africa, when the restrictive measures imposed by states in an attempt to contain the spread of the disease and avoid the disastrous consequences that had already been seen for some months in the rest of the world, highlighted the seriousness of the phenomenon of Talibé minors.

With the Senegalese government’s imposition of a curfew, the weakness of those who had no home to live in and who had made the streets their home became more apparent. In May 2020 alone, more than a thousand children in vulnerable circumstances were identified. Important numbers that have increased over the months and that have led the Senegalese Ministry of the Family to take the decision to withdraw the children from the streets and welcome them in the various governmental and non-governmental reception centers present in the country.

After the usual operations aimed at identifying the nationality of the minors with the purpose of taking them to their respective communities, the cross-border nature of the phenomenon was confirmed. Most of the children were Senegalese, but numerous unaccompanied minors from Guinea-Bissau, Guinea Conakry and Gambia were also identified. Smaller numbers were recorded for those from Mali, Nigeria and Togo. While children of Senegalese origin were quickly reunited with their families, minors of other nationalities met a different fate.

The information that arrived daily in Guinea-Bissau from the neighboring border country led institutions, international organizations, NGOs and local associations to establish a cross-border Task Force to facilitate the return of minors of Guinean origin. However, despite these efforts and joint actions, the minors were not able to return to Guinea-Bissau until November of the same year. The pandemic emergency, in fact, was a powerful addition to the chronic emergency in the country, highlighting the fragility of a state that alone is unable to deal with a large and complex phenomenon. The closure of land borders has certainly slowed down the return operations, but the lack of means and resources on the part of the State, together with the structural deficiencies caused by the lack of state centers and the impossibility of providing an effective response capable of dealing with such large numbers, have hindered the possibility of intervening more quickly.

The contribution of AMIC, a local association that deals with the protection of Talibé minors and with which Mani Tese has been cooperating for several years now, has been fundamental in overcoming the stalemate that had been created. Thanks to the project “Investing in the future: protection, training and employment for returning migrants, potential migrants and unaccompanied minor migrants to Senegal, Gambia and Guinea Bissau”, co-financed by the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation, it has been possible to act with concrete answers. Since the first entry in November, 90 Talibé children have been welcomed and reunited with their families. All the minors hosted in AMIC’s temporary reception center in Gabu, the only one in the country, have received initial psycho-social support and health care, as well as hygiene kits and clothes.

Over the course of these months, we have also contributed to making AMIC’s center more welcoming, purchasing furniture and beds, equipping it with a lighting system powered by solar panels and providing the kitchen with the goods and services necessary to ensure daily meals. We have also bought musical instruments, games and recreational material and we are equipping the center with a playground to guarantee the minors a suitable welcome and try to give back, in part, a childhood often denied.

Aware that reintegration into communities can often be difficult and complex, we are also providing post-entry accompaniment. Thus, once reunited with their communities of origin, children and families continue to receive psycho-social support, provided by a psychologist and a social worker who visit the villages and, at the same time, ensure school reintegration by meeting with community school teachers, paying tuition fees and providing school kits.

We are doing our best to respond effectively to a crisis that does not seem to be over. We continue to receive lists containing the names of minors of Guinean origin identified in Senegal and now, given the imminence of the rainy season which will make the operations of entry and reintegration of the minors even more difficult and the imminent conclusion of the current project, we are running a real race against time.

We will continue to act as long as we can, but it is clear that a more structured intervention on the part of the State and a response that can cope with the complexities of a phenomenon in which uses, customs and traditions are now amalgamated with the economic hardships in which many families in the most remote areas of the country still live and which will probably be exacerbated by the pandemic.

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