Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Borderline slavery: child trafficking in west Africa

April 28, 2003

In a new report released this month, Human Rights Watch, a humanitarian watchdog group based in New York, is charging that governments in west Africa are failing to address the problem of child labor, specifically, the practice of "child trafficking." Numerous UN declarations on the rights-of-children define such trafficking as the removing, transporting, selling or placing of a child into an exploitative context. No matter how it's defined, the practice means a failure on the part of governments to protect the weakest among us, children.

Skip to next paragraph

The 79 page report highlights Togo as a case study of child trafficking in the region. Jonathan Cohen, researcher with Human Rights Watch and author of the report "Borderline Slavery: Child Trafficking in Togo," spoke with's Jim Bencivenga about the problem and about what individuals can do to help. Can you help us understand the mindset of how adults would knowingly exploit children so routinely? Is the poverty that bad?

Cohen: In countries known for "sending" children abroad to work, poverty is extremely dire indeed. About 80 percent of Togo's rural population lives on less than US $1 per day. But it's true that poverty may not be a complete explanation for child trafficking, in the sense that there are areas where poverty is extreme and child trafficking does not occur. It's important to remember that traffickers typically entice parents with false promises of high quality education, paid work, and vocational training [for the child]. Extreme poverty, often combined with the death of one or both parents, makes such offers very difficult to refuse. In addition, traffickers exploit a tradition of using girls as domestic workers and of sending children abroad to live with family members during the period of their schooling. In dire economic times, these traditional practices can sometimes collapse into exploitation. What are the overall numbers of children being trafficked? Is it going to get worse? Or is there some reason for optimism that the economies in that region will improve and child trafficking will diminish?

Cohen: There are unfortunately no precise estimates of the number of children trafficked in west Africa overall. The UN has estimated 200,000 children per year, but even UNICEF is unaware of the origins of that figure. Government estimates tend to be more conservative: for example, the Togolese government estimates that approximately 200 to 300 children are trafficked from the country each year. One Togolese NGO (non-governmental organization), by contrast, estimates that there are over 15,000 Togolese children working as domestic workers in Gabon alone. It can be said with certainty that the problem is significant and, as of now, not abating. We estimate that it will grow worse, particularly as AIDS and other diseases orphan increasing numbers of children in west and central Africa.