Concern grew this weekend over the fate of a shipload of children that local officials suspect is part of a growing problem of child slavery in West Africa.
An estimated 100 to 250 children have been aboard a Nigerian-registered ship, the Etireno, since March 30, when it set sail from Benin. Officials in both Cameroon and Gabon turned the ship away because they suspected it was operated by child traffickers. When it left Cameroon, officials expected it to return to Benin. But at press time, it had not arrived.
"UNICEF is concerned about the health, nutrition, and psychological welfare of these children," says Nicolas Pron, program manager for the UN children's agency in Benin. "They are very likely in unsanitary circumstances. We don't know about food. We don't know about water."
Benin is a West African clearinghouse for trafficking in children, aid groups say. Over the past five years, several thousand children, mostly girls, have fallen prey to the trade carried out by well-organized networks operating in remote parts in the south and center of the country.
More than 3,000 children destined for slavery were intercepted at the borders by Beninois police between 1996 and 2000.
'Exponential' slave growth
The growth in child slavery in the region has been "exponential," according to Marc Beziat of the Committee Against Modern Slavery. "The number of children intercepted at Benin's borders, headed for Ivory Coast, Gabon, or Nigeria, rose from 117 in 1995 to 1,058 in 1998. In 1999 and 2000 it was more than 700."
The Benin social protection ministry says 50 victims have been rescued so far this year. "Some are even found in the host country by their relatives and brought back to Cotonou," says a Benin ministry official, who asked not to be named.
"The real problem is poverty," says Hadi Lai Landou, a senior official with the Benin state shipping firm. "Benin people are very poor and need jobs. They see places like Gabon as an El Dorado."
Benin is one of the world's poorest nations, while Gabon, thinly populated and oil-producing, is relatively wealthy by African standards.
Seeking better lives
Desperately poor parents often give up their children for as little as $14 to agents who promise to educate them and find them jobs. The agents later sell the children to farmers in Gabon, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast for between $270 to $400.
Boys are then typically resold to cocoa and cotton plantations for as much as $340 in countries such as Gabon and Ivory Coast. Girls often end up as domestic workers or prostitutes.
Conditions are harsh. The children - some under 10 years old - work up to 12 hours a day, often go unpaid, and may never see their parents again, aid workers say.
"The children are spotted by small groups of well-organized villagers a few days before the smugglers arrive. They negotiate with the parents trying to give them the maximum reassurance," says Lady Nandjo, who comes from the village of Savi, Benin, which is reputed to be a source of child slaves.
"When the smugglers come, the children are secretly loaded onto vehicles, often covered trucks," she says.
Northern regions are spared from the trade, since children there are employed by their families on cotton plantations.
UNICEF, the Red Cross, and other humanitarian agencies have set up health facilities at Cotonou's harbor to receive the children if the ship arrives.
"If the boat comes here, and there are no children aboard, I would be even more worried," said UNICEF representative Estelle Guluman.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor