Fighting the many heads of the child-trafficking beast

In Nigeria, child-trafficking is a multi-headed beast. West Africa's regional powerhouse attracts hoards of children from its own impoverished rural areas as well as poorer neighbouring countries and while some are forced to work in Nigeria, itself, others are shipped off overseas.

"Nigeria is one of the most important and interesting countries - if I can use that word in this context - in regard to the problem of child trafficking," said Andrea Rossi, co-ordinator of the child trafficking unit run by the United Nations Children's Agency.

"It is both a source country for children and one of the major destinations and transit points for trafficked children in Africa," he told IRIN.

A 2003 study by the International Labour Organisation and Nigeria's Federal Office for Statistics found that at least 15 million children were engaged in child labour in the country.

Trafficking hit the headlines again earlier this month, when police pulled over a truck en route to the commerical capital, Lagos. The vehicle was designed for transporting fish but packed inside were 67 children, aged between one and 14.

"These children were stacked in an unventilated container all the way from Niger State," Lagos police spokesman Ademola Adebayo told reporters.

A middle-aged woman accompanying the driver told police that the parents had given her their children so they could work as domestic servants in the economic capital, Lagos.

The same week, immigration authorities stopped another truck, carrying 52 Togolese children to work in Nigeria.

As Africa's biggest oil producer, Nigeria is relatively better off than many of its West African neighbours. Since the 1970s its cities have attracted economic migrants from impoverished rural areas at home and abroad and child traffickers have followed suit.

Boys and girls from Benin, Togo, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana have found themselves in Africa's most populous nation, providing cheap and in many cases free labour in Nigeria's homes, markets and quarries.

"While the challenge of women and children being trafficked to Europe remains in the limelight, a big problem is the children being used as domestic help in big cities and towns within Nigeria," said Robert Limlim, head of UNICEF's child protection programme in Nigeria.

"The recent cases illustrate both the magnitude of child trafficking in Nigeria and the efforts that are being made to combat this illicit trade," UNICEF said.

Nigeria is a destination, source and transit point for trafficked children

Tougher laws

The operating environment is getting tougher for child traffickers in Nigeria. In 2003, President Olusegun Obasanjo brought in comprehensive legislation to combat the problem and established a National Agency on Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) to enforce it.

NAPTIP spokesman, Orakwue Arinze, says the new laws have provided a fresh impetus to the child-trafficking battle, with more interceptions, arrest and prosecution of traffickers. The agency has also set up six centres to help resettle rescued children.

But mentalities also need to change.

According to a 2004 UNICEF study released in February, a third of children trafficked from within Nigeria ended up in forced labour and another third become domestic workers.

"Nigerians tend to prefer to employ Nigerian children because they can trace where they come from in case of any theft of household property," Limlim told IRIN.

And, says social worker Oluchi Azubogu, a continuing tradition of giving children to extended family members makes it easy for traffickers to seduce children and their parents.

"An extended family system where children are traditionally given to relations or people from the same home town to live with or work in tutelage appears to have worked in favour of the traffickers," Azubogu said.

He agrees that the legislation has helped in the fight against child trafficking but says the underlying causes, like a lack of education and poverty, must also be tackled.

"The government can't fight child trafficking successfully unless widespread poverty is reduced and all children are given a basic education," he told IRIN. "Then the baits with which these children are taken away will be neutralised."

But while Nigeria attracts traffickers wanting to pedal child labour, not all the children end up staying there.

"There is a high demand for cheap, commercial African labour in other countries. Nigeria is a transit centre for this racket. There's a lot of money flowing through here," Limlim said.

Nigeria's geographical proximity to Cameroon and Gabon, two other relatively wealthy African countries, has established it as a major transit centre. Most children are transported by road or boat as surveillance and monitoring is seen as less thorough.

Further afield, UNICEF has documented numerous cases of girls from Nigeria being sold into prostitution in Italy.

Though most children are trafficked as cheap labour, there have been cases that hint at more sinister motivations.

A police raid on an orphanage in Lagos in February following a tip-off that the place had connections with a child trafficking ring, led to the discovery of charred baby-bones on the rubbish dump. Detectives are now working on a theory the orphanage may have been involved in the sale of human body parts, possibly for use in rituals.

The owner of the orphanage lured teenagers with unwanted pregnancies to her orphanage to give birth, police said. The babies were then sold to buyers for 250,000 naira (US$1,800) each.

In 2001, a torso of a young boy traced to Nigeria was found floating in the River Thames in London. Subsequent investigations led to the arrest of a child trafficking ring for body parts used in the occult or 'Juju'.