• Kenny Brian IRAKOZE | Communications Assistant, IOM Burundi

*The names in this account have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

Gitega, Burundi – Child labor and trafficking remain persistent crimes, particularly high among developing countries (DCs) such as Burundi. An estimated one in four children in DCs, including Burundi, are engaged in some form of exploitative work, often lured by false promises of well-paying jobs in neighbouring countries, despite the minimum employment age in Burundi being 16 years. In 2020 this reality became all too real for Muco, a 14-year-old Burundian boy at that time, as he and his family struggled to make ends meet.

In Burundi, many vulnerable children like Muco are targeted by unscrupulous traffickers who prey on their families' desperation. According to the World Bank, over 70% of the Burundian population live below the poverty line, and economic opportunities remain severely limited across the country's fragile socioeconomic landscape. It was in this context that a man from Muco's own neighborhood approached him one day. "He said he had just come back from Tanzania and was making good money there. He told me he could get me a job, too, and that I could earn enough to help support my family," Muco recalls. Playing on Muco's vulnerability and the family's need for income, “he convinced me that this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up”, Muco says.

In Developing countries, including Burundi, one in four children are coerced into labor, exploitation and trafficking. Photo: IOM Burundi 2024/Kenny Brian IRAKOZE

Driven by the need to provide for his family of four - his mother and two younger siblings – Muco made the difficult decision to leave Burundi, unaware of the dangers that lay ahead. He vividly remembers the harrowing moment of departure: "The guy told me, 'You can't say goodbye to your family because they won't allow you to go. We must leave in the middle of the night and not tell anyone.” With his family struggling to survive on the meager income that his single mother was earning sporadically, the trafficker's promises of lucrative work in Tanzania proved too tempting for Muco to refuse: "We snuck out of our village late at night and embarked on a multi-day trek through challenging terrain towards the Tanzanian border.”

Over the course of several days, the trafficker made Muco and 17 other children from the same neighbourhood walk approximately 47 kilometers, traversing Gitega province to Karusi province, passing through dense bushes and enduring the physical and emotional toll of an arduous journey. With increased border controls at official border crossings, the trafficker was aiming to use one of the many unofficial border crossings from Burundi into Tanzania to pass undetected. To avoid the heightened security measures, the trafficker stirred the group of children from Karusi province towards Rutana province, bordering Tanzania, to cross illegally via one of the unofficial points of crossing.

Fortunately, Muco's journey was interrupted when border patrol officers in Rutana became suspicious and intercepted the group, identifying him and the other children as victims of child labor, exploitation and potentially trafficking. Acting quickly, the officers arrested the trafficker and then coordinated with local authorities and directly referred the case to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in accordance with the Standardized Operating Procedures (SOPs) that had been set up, to ensure Muco and the other rescued children were safely returned home to their families.

IOM is working to build the capacity of law enforcement agents in Burundi's border regions, equipping them with the skills to rescue victims, provide immediate support, and prosecute perpetrators. In addition, IOM is working hand-in-hand with the Government of Burundi (GoB) to tackle the urgent issue of trafficking in persons (TiP) and provide comprehensive reintegration assistance to build the resilience of TiP victims and potential victims of trafficking (VoTs), address their vulnerabilities, and meet their specific needs, ensuring long-term sustainability and empowerment within their communities.

In Muco's case, IOM worked closely with his family and the 17 other affected households, providing essential supplies, vocational training, and income-generating activities to help them rebuild their livelihoods. Moreover, the children received assistance to reintegrate into school and continue their education.

Aline reflects on her fears and emotions from the night her son Muco departed. Photo: IOM Burundi 2024/Kenny Brian IRAKOZE

"I had no idea where he was or what had happened to him. I was devastated, but I never lost hope that he would return," recalls Muco's mother, Aline.

"Not only did they [IOM] help us regain stability, but they also connected us with the local community and provided me with the tools to support my family," Aline shares. "Muco is now going to school and will graduate next year."

Students at a local high school in Gitega during IOM’s child exploitation awareness raising session. Photo: IOM Burundi 2024/Kenny Brian IRAKOZE

With trafficking often being a crime of cross-border nature, IOM's efforts extend beyond Burundi's borders, and the organization collaborates with the Tanzanian government to disrupt cross-border trafficking networks and strengthen border controls. The organization also conducts community-based awareness campaigns in bordering provinces, educating families about the risks of exploitation and trafficking, irregular migration and the importance of regular and formal employment pathways.

Ndayizeye during IOM’s community awareness raising session in Gitega Province. Photo: IOM Burundi 2024/Kenny Brian IRAKOZE

"These group sessions help us and our community a lot," says Ndayizeye, a mother whose son was also approached by traffickers. "Now my son knows the good from the bad and recognizes the signs of ill-intentioned individuals."

"I have been approached multiple times by men claiming that life in Tanzania is easy and promising great financial rewards. However, hearing stories about the hardships children face once they arrive there, there is nothing to envy," says Mugisha - Ndayizeye’s son.

At all stages of the migration process, migrant children are disproportionately vulnerable to violence, abuse, exploitation, trafficking and detention. According to UNICEF, 90% of children aged 1-14 years have faced violence, while 31% aged 5-17 are economically exploited in Burundi. The International Labour Organization (ILO) also indicates that one-fifth of all African children are involved in child labor, a proportion more than twice as high as in any other region. IOM’s work focuses on protecting the rights of migrant children, whether they are in their home countries, en route, or at their destinations.

IOM's awareness session empowers Mugisha to recognize trafficking risks. Photo: IOM Burundi 2024/Kenny Brian IRAKOZE

Burundi's struggle with ending child labor and trafficking reflects a broader regional and global crisis. Across Africa, an estimated 72 million children are engaged in child labor, many of them subject to hazardous work or forced servitude. Addressing these crimes requires sustained international cooperation, stronger policy frameworks, and dedicated investment in social safety nets and sensitization of vulnerable groups and communities.

Students rally outside to say NO to child labor after IOM’s awareness session in Bugendana, Gitega Province. Photo: IOM Burundi 2024/Kenny Brian IRAKOZE

Since 2020, IOM has supported the sustainable reintegration of 226 migrant children who have been victims of the worst forms of child labor, along with their families. While progress has been made, the fight against child labor and trafficking in Burundi remains an uphill battle. In close collaboration with the Government of Burundi, IOM, with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is dedicated to developing long-term solutions. This includes advocating for policy reforms, investing in community development initiatives, and fostering cross-border collaboration to address the root causes and effects of child labor and trafficking in Burundi.

Muco in his classroom after taking his math exam. Photo: IOM Burundi 2024/Kenny Brian IRAKOZE

Four years after his ordeal, Muco is a thriving, resilient 17-year-old young man, set to graduate in 2025. He confidently declares, "I would like to become an economist in the future so that I can provide for my family." Muco's story serves as a testament to his and other survivors' resilience, highlighting the power of comprehensive support and the unwavering determination of those working to end child labor and trafficking in Burundi.


This story is written by Kenny B. IRAKOZE, Communications Assistant, IOM Burundi.

SDG 1 - No Poverty
SDG 4 - Quality Education
SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities