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Children head to diamond mines in pandemic-hit Central African Republic

SINCE the coronavirus forced his school to close in March, Papin has been working six days a week at a diamond mine in the Central African Republic (CAR) – hauling sacks of mud and rubble under a hot sun.

He is among a dozen children working at the open-pit mine near the southern town of Ngoto, where about 100 miners use shovels and sieves to scour the red earth for diamonds. It is back-breaking work and Papin longs to return to the classroom.

‘I came here to help my big brother,’ Papin, who said he was 16 but appeared younger, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as the site supervisor looked on, the few remaining trees offering little respite from the glare.

‘I prefer school. I prefer to think, here the work is too hard,’ said Papin, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

Lockdown school closures have caused a sharp increase in the number of children working at diamond mines in the war-torn country, which already had one of the world’s highest child labour rates, labour and rights advocates said.

Child labour at diamond mines increased by 50 percent in the months after schools were closed, according to the International Peace Information Service, an independent research service, which based its findings on the monitoring of 105 mines.

The country’s mining laws ban child labour, which is punishable by a fine and up to three years in jail, but enforcement is poor and authorities say they have minimal control over what happens in the mines.

‘We know there is no way to completely eradicate this phenomenon,’ said CAR’s mining minister, Leopold Mboli-Fatran.

‘But we have launched a schools building programme with USAID to incentivise parents to educate their children and give them the means to do so,’ he added, referring to the US government’s international aid agency.

There is no reliable data for the number of children working in CAR’s mines, many of which are held by armed groups that still control more than 60 percent of the country.

The diamond-rich nation has been rocked by violence since 2013, when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted then-President Francois Bozize, and much of the country remains beyond government control.

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