Traffickers hold thousands of children, women in bondage

Silinu Sogbonsi was five years old when unknown men seized him as he walked home from school in Selinu, a little town in the southeast of Benin, near the Nigerian border. Blindfolded, he was pushed him into a waiting car which sped away.

For several days, Sogbonsi was hustled along by his captors on motorbikes through bush paths and on buses along highways.

Finally he arrived in a little village he was to identify as Alamutu, near Abeokuta city in southwest Nigeria. Here Sogbonsi joined other children, aged five to 15 on a daily routine to dig up stones for their masters from the quarries that litter the area.

The children, who earned 50 naira (US $0.38) a week, each worked 12-16 hours, crushing enough gravel to generate 35,000 naira ($269). Every evening a lorry delivered the gravel to construction sites in Nigeria’s southwest region.

"We often slept in the forest where we dug," Sogbonsi, now eight, told the police and officials of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that recently rescued him. "We were always tortured and beaten, at times until we fainted."

He was one of the 194 children rescued by the police from various work sites around Abeokuta between September and October this year and returned to Benin under a renewed crackdown on human traffickers.

All the children had the tell-tale signs of malnutrition – yellowing hair, skinny limbs and distended stomachs – in addition to palms calloused by two to six years of digging granite.

Police said at least 13 children from Benin were found dead and buried around the sites where they had worked before the racket was cracked, following a tip-off by local people and non-governmental organisations.

Thousands of children in Nigeria

Security agencies and human rights workers blame traffickers operating an international network that covers most of West and Central Africa and several European cities, for the plight of tens of thousands of children exploited for their labour and women bonded into prostitution.

Some of the children returned to Benin said they were taken willingly from their impoverished parents in remote villages with promises that they would be taught useful skills in the cities. Others were obtained in exchange for token gifts (such as bicycles, radio and television sets) and promises of monthly payments that never came.

Yet there were several, like Sogbonsi, who were kidnapped – indicating a new level of desperation among the criminals.

Nigerian police said its intelligence reports indicate that 6,000-15,000 children trafficked from Benin were being used as child labourers in Nigeria. The largest concentration is believed to be in the southwest states of Ogun, Lagos, Oyo, Ondo and Osun. Most of them work in cocoa farms.

"We are still expecting more recoveries and more handovers of children to their home country," Chris Olakpe, Nigerian police spokesman, told IRIN.

Yet the movement of children between Benin and Nigeria forms only one part of an increasingly sophisticated regional trend in human trafficking.

Other children from Benin and Togo are brought to Nigeria in transit to destinations like Cameroon, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea – where the boys are often used as farm labourers and girls as domestic hands or prostitutes.

The trafficking routes

The children destined for Central African countries are usually moved from the southwest to southeast Nigeria - on the Atlantic coast bordering Cameroon - from where they are put in sea vessels that transport them to these countries.

The journey is often hazardous, the vessels locally built without navigational equipment and the children invariably overloaded along with goods. In the last decade, hundreds of children have perished in the Atlantic waters in accidents in which vessels carrying them, sank.

Central African countries are also a favourite destination of trafficking rings that source children from the southeastern Nigeria states of Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, Cross River and Akwa Ibom, according to the Committee on Human Trafficking in Nigeria.

In recent years hundreds of such children have been returned from Gabon and Equatorial Guinea with the assistance of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Nigerian embassies there.

Traffickers are also active in Burkina Faso and Mali, where children are recruited and taken to Cote d'Ivoire to work in the cocoa farms of the world's leading producer. Most of the children originate from Mali and are boys from the areas of Ségou, Sikasso and Mopti.

Activists say trafficking networks to Côte d'Ivoire were established in Mali in the early 1990s due to a demand for cheap labour on its cotton plantations. Most of the children are recruited by intermediaries who sell them to plantation owners.

Others were promised work by relatives or friends and arrived on the plantations, mines, construction sites passing through family networks.

In Ghana children have for decades been bonded to fishermen in the Volta Lake region where they worked long hours for little or no pay. In September hundreds of these children were freed from the employment of these fishermen. A draft Trafficking In Persons Prevention Bill has been prepared by the Ghanaian authorities to check the practice.

Women trafficked to Europe

Equally worrying are the activities of human traffickers in West Africa which operate criminal rings that specialise in obtaining women and sending them to Europe to work as prostitutes.

Activists estimate that 60 percent of prostitutes walking the streets of Italy are from Nigeria. Spain, France, Belgium and The Netherlands also have significant populations of prostitutes from West Africa.

Titi Abubakar, wife of Nigeria’s Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who runs the Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF), said 19,774 Nigerians have been deported from Europe since 1999 for offences related to trafficking and prostitution.

Between March and August 2003 alone 4,835 Nigerians, mostly women, were either arrested in Europe or deported to Nigeria for similar reasons.

Traffickers who specialise in taking young women to Europe, where they are held in debt bondage and forced into prostitution, have established networks all over West Africa, according to police and NGO sources.

From bases scattered all over the region the women are taken on the tortuous journey across the Sahara Desert to destinations in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya, from where attempts are made to smuggle them to Europe.

"Every year scores of young men and women die either from dehydration during the Sahara crossing or by drowning in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe," an Interpol official told IRIN in Lagos.

Security agencies, local NGOs and UNICEF and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), who have been involved in battling human trafficking in West Africa in the past decade, believe the trend is growing despite their efforts.


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