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Impoverished families trade their children

[Togo] Tens of Togolese children fled to safety in Benin on their own after violence erupted in the wake of disputed presidential elections in April. They have no idea where their parents are.
Togolese children who fled (IRIN)

Thousands of children are taken each year from the poorest regions of West Africa and trafficked abroad for profit. Often, their own families are behind the trade.

It was just after his father died that 10-year-old Dieudonne was taken from his hometown of Zakpota, Benin, put in his uncle's car and taken over the border to work on a farm in Nigeria. But that lasted less than a week before he was hauling rocks in a quarry.

When Zenabou was eight, her older sister working in Gabon sent a friend to collect her from her parents' home in Sokode, central Togo. But the promised schooling never materialised and Zenabou was set to work first as her sister's unpaid domestic worker, then as a market trader.

Zakpota and Sokode are impoverished regions in two of the world's poorest countries, where the majority of the population scratch out an existence on less than a dollar a day, according to UN figures.

The governments of Benin and Togo are both working with NGOs and the UN children's agency UNICEF to prevent the trade, but it's not that easy.

It is not uncommon for West African parents to give custody of their children to a relative who might be better placed to send them to school or to teach them a trade.

But that custom is being abused, according to Benin's minister for foreign affairs and African integration, Rogatien Biaou. Crushing poverty drives families to it, he said, and porous regional borders make it easy for the traffickers to evade arrest.

Dieudonne's story

Dieudonne is from a poor family of subsistence farmers in Zakpota, two hours drive from Cotonou. His mother promised Dieudonne to the child traffickers, as she needed the money to keep the family going.

"In return for my son's time in Nigeria I was given 20,000 CFA [US $40], some cloth, shoes and a small portable radio," said Dieudonne's widowed mother.

Two years ago, Zakpota was at the heart of a child trafficking scandal: the community's children were being used as a labour pool for Nigerian quarries.

Recently, Dieudonne experienced that racket first hand. Now 14 and still rough-handed from his years of labouring he is just back home, back in school and happy after Swiss human rights group, Terre des Hommes, intervened on his behalf.

He begs all parents not to fall for the blackmail and temptations of the traffickers, like his own mother did.

Life in the quarry was tough, he remembers:

"There were three of us kids that would work together in the quarry to fill the lorry with gravel," explained Dieudonne, standing in tattered trousers reddened by the rocks he once mined. The plastic sandals on his feet are worn out.

Dieudonne and other kids his age would work for 12 hours a day to extract tonnes of gravel used in construction work across Nigeria.

"The boss would get 7,000 Naira [US $53] for every lorry that we filled - we'd get nothing," he said.

The work was tough and the food and shelter the most basic imaginable.

"We'd live on plates of maize paste, or 'gari' [granulated cassava] with only salt and pepper to go with it," said Dieudonne, describing the twice-daily rations the junior miners lived on.

After a day's labouring, Dieudonne would curl up on the rough quarry floor at night with the other boys under a plastic tarpaulin, he said.

Zenabou's story

"My big sister left home [in Togo] and went to Gabon in 1993. One day, I was in the house when a man visited, saying that he had come on behalf of my sister," said Zenabou, now 18 years old.

The man explained to the family that Zenabou's sister wanted the then eight year old Zenabou to join her in Gabon. She would be sent to school and well looked after there, he said.

"My poor mother!" exclaimed Zenabou. "If she had ever imagined that her own daughter could abuse her confidence like that, she would never have sent me to live with her in Gabon!"

Soon afterwards, Zenabou was setting out for Gabon with a load of other trafficked children.

"I can't remember how many of us kids there were, but we were quite a few. We headed out for Gabon by boat."

"I remember there was a two week stop over in Nigeria where we were only given one meal a day. We arrived in Gabon tired out and hungry," she said.

Zenabou thought all would be well when she got to her sister's, but the promised school enrolment never materialised.

"For four years I did the housework for her at her place. Then in 1999 [when Zenabou was 12] I began my martyrdom in Gabon." Zenabou was set to work at the market.

"I would get up at 3 a.m. every day to pack and fry fritters ready to sell by 10 a.m."

"Everyday I would make 30,000 CFA [US $60] but never had any of it for myself. They told me once that money was sent home to my parents, but that was a lie," she said.

"One day on doing the accounts when I got back from the market, it was clear that there was 100 CFA [20 cents] missing. I didn't dare say anything even though it was me that took it [to buy food] - I was so hungry - but I knew I would be punished."

"I was beaten black and blue by my sister, even a chicken thief would not have deserved such a hiding!"

It was after that beating that Zenabou vowed to get home.

One day in the street she heard that the Togolese embassy was helping children like herself to get repatriated.

After explaining her situation at the embassy, the Togolese ambassador intervened on her behalf and Zenabou's sister was forced to buy her a plane ticket home.

Zenabou is now back in Sokode and learning dressmaking at PASEORSC - the local NGO that traced and reunited her with her family.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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