RITA VENKATASAWMY, OSK
Ombudsperson for Children
On Saturday 10 May 2019, I was informed that drugs were concealed in the luggage of two young children travelling from Paris. I was not only shocked by this news, but also very angry. Clearly adults had used these children to smuggle drugs, thinking that the latter would easily go unnoticed through customs in Mauritius. It is a fact that, around the world, young children are given special treatment at airports, especially when they are travelling as unaccompanied minors. They are undoubtedly Very Very Important Persons (VVIPs)! Nevertheless, what these adults were unaware of is that, even if children are VVIPs, their luggage can be inspected by customs officers. Indeed, this is what happened with the two young children at the SSR International Airport in Mauritius.
Both the Customs Department and the Anti-Drug and Smuggling Unit (ADSU) must be praised for their good job for different reasons. Firstly, drugs worth approximately 3.4 million rupees were found. Without their intervention, these drugs would have been circulating in our country to the detriment of the health and well-being of both children and adults. Secondly, the ADSU staff treated the two children with dignity and they did not stigmatise them during the performance of their duties. I was apprised that, at no point in time, the children were treated as criminals. It was reassuring to hear that they were not arrested.
The ADSU and the Child Development Unit (CDU) worked hand in hand to protect the rights of these children. I can imagine how traumatic it can be for any child to come back from holidays abroad and learn that his/her parent has been arrested by the Police, and that he/she cannot go back home but to a residential care centre. The CDU Officers must have had a challenging time handling the children’s and their family’s mental states in this delicate situation.
Today I am very much concerned by the fact that Mauritian children are being targeted by unscrupulous adults who groom them to become drug mules. The current case may have been unprecedented in the Mauritian context, but a considerable number of children are known to have been caught acting as drug mules in several countries of the world. This is clearly a form of child exploitation which merits as much attention as child sexual abuse. When children act as mules, the adult drug dealers are removed from the frontline activity which makes them hard to be traced. A former gang leader in the United Kingdom who was put into jail several times for serious drug-related convictions affirmed in the following words that it is very easy to groom children as drug mules: “The promise of quick cash, the lure of gangster life and a lack of alternatives leave many children prey to criminals who traffic them to transport drugs around the country” (Thomas Reuters Foundation, 2018)1.
What happened last Saturday at the SSR International Airport is definitely a wake-up call for all responsible citizens of our Republic. Our country must be prepared to rescue children from being used as drug mules. These children are very vulnerable and their rights must be protected. Police officers must be empowered to investigate efficiently on such cases so that they can reach the actual culprits and stop them from exploiting more children.
Furthermore, I would like to acknowledge that the media plays an important role on shedding light upon drug trafficking issues in the country. Nevertheless, as promoted by article 16 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC; United Nations [UN], 1989)2, it is of prime importance that the media upholds in their publications the right to privacy of children who may have been knowingly or unknowingly involved in such cases. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2006, paragraph 35)–3– had highlighted with concern that “the privacy of children who have been victims of abuse or in conflict with the law is not always respected by the press, as certain newspapers continue to report cases in a manner that makes it easy to identify the child, publish their photograph and names or make the child relate the details of the abuse. The Committee also notes that there is no legislation to ensure children’s privacy by the media.” In the present case, some local newspapers have published personal details related to the mother of the children including her name, age and picture, as well as the age and sex of the children. These details can be sufficient to know the children’s identities, which can put them and their family at high risk of bullying, stigmatisation and other forms of discrimination in society. It is really important that the media is sensitised on the matter and that the necessary law reforms are implemented to protect the privacy of children at all times.
Finally, I think that the current case has reminded us of the fact that our Republic has not yet legally determined a minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR). The current basis for assessing whether a child has to be prosecuted or not is through a test of discernment as prescribed by sections 44 and 45 of the Criminal Code 1838. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2006, 2015) – 4 – had emphasised in its latest two country reports to Mauritius that an internationally acceptable MACR should be established by our local legislation, juvenile justice tribunals with specialised judges should be introduced, and more alternative socio-educational measures for the rehabilitation of young offenders should be prioritised over deprivation of liberty. My office promotes the idea that the MACR should be set as late as possible and I am optimistic that important legislative reviews are on the way to ensure the protection of all the fundamental rights of the children of our Republic.
1.Thomas Reuters Foundation (2018). ‘Too easy’ to groom children as drug mules, says UK ex-gangster. Retrieved on 13 May 2019 from www.nst.com.my/world/2018/10/421903/too-easy-groom-children-drug-mules-says-uk-ex-gangster
2.United Nations (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child. Geneva: Author.
3.Committee on the Rights of the Child (2006). Concluding observations: Mauritius. Geneva: United Nations.
4.Committee on the Rights of the Child (2015). Concluding observations on the combined third to fifth periodic reports of Mauritius. Geneva: United Nations.