/ 25 February 2005

Gabon cracks down on child trafficking

Children’s rights activists have long expressed concern over the extent of child trafficking and exploitation in West Africa. Recent events in Gabon might give them cause for hope, however.

For the first time in its history, the country is to try persons accused of these crimes.

Eight nationals from Benin and Togo who have been indicted for trafficking and exploitation face imprisonment of up to five years if convicted — and fines of between $200 and $2 000 (R1 170 and R11 700). These penalties are stipulated in a law aimed at protecting children against exploitation that was adopted in 2002, but which has yet to be enforced.

”Before this law existed there was a legal vacuum, making it very difficult to pursue child traffickers,” says Assistant Minister for Family and Child Protection Angelique Ngoma. ”But now, we have access to the proper tools.”

The trial of the alleged traffickers, expected to get under way next month, comes after the arrest on January 24 of about 20 persons thought to have been exploiting children. The suspects were detained in Gabon’s capital, Libreville, along with 60 youths aged between eight and 29 who came from Benin, Nigeria, Togo and Ghana.

Most of the 20 alleged traffickers were later freed. Several of the youths were also released; 21 were taken to reception and transit centres in Libreville to receive psychological evaluations and treatment, so that they could recover from their experiences at the hands of the supposed traffickers.

The resident representative in Gabon for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), Kristian Laujberg, nonetheless expressed concern at the conditions the children were held under after they were detained by police. He believes proper facilities were not put in place to receive the youths.

Children who are brought into Gabon are often put to work as domestics or street vendors. From the early hours, they can be seen crisscrossing the capital, selling food and other oddments.

As 10-year-old Ablavi Mensah says at the Agondje Transit Centre in Libreville: ”I sell milk curds and water for 100 CFA francs [about R0,12] around markets and construction sites. That brings in about 5 000 to 8 000 CFA francs a day [between R58 and R92].” Mensah was born in Togo.

Officials estimate that vendors can earn from R1 100 to R3 400 a month for those who bring them into Gabon, and who later become their so-called ”guardians”. The children receive no money for the work they do: at best, a share of their earnings is sent to their parents, in surrounding countries.

Few, if any, of the trafficked children are enrolled in school. Most of those who serve as domestics and vendors tend to be between the ages of eight and 15. Girls who are older may be forced into prostitution.

”This raid [of January 24] has raised hopes that this scourge [of child trafficking] will be eliminated. But it’s not enough, since the plight of child labourers remains of great concern in Gabon,” says Yvette Ngwevilot Rekangalt, president of SOS Mwana, an NGO that assists abandoned and mistreated children.

Unicef also believes Gabon still has much to do in stamping out child trafficking.

”As long as the traffickers do not receive severe penalties, the children who are sent back home will be caught up in the traffic again,” Laujberg says.

Oil wealth in 1970s

Child trafficking to Gabon gained momentum in the 1970s, when the country’s oil wealth made it a magnet for the nationals of poorer neighbouring states. Parents allowed their children to be taken to Gabon in the hope that they would find work there — and send money home to their families. Côte d’Ivoire, with its cocoa and coffee earnings, also became an attractive destination for traffickers.

Initially, Gabonese officials paid little attention to this trend — something reflected in the fact that no law was introduced to stop it. It was only in the early part of this decade that authorities finally yielded to critics by admitting that trafficking posed a problem in Gabon — and by making efforts to deal with the matter.

The extent of child trafficking in West Africa also came to international attention at that time, when a ship called the Etireno, which was suspected of carrying about 250 children, was prevented from docking in Gabon.

The boat was finally admitted to the port in Benin’s capital, Cotonou, where about 40 children were discovered to be on board. This incident took place in 2001.

According to the ministry of social and family affairs, there are currently about 25 000 exploited children in Gabon — about half of whom come from Togo, Nigeria and Benin.

No official statistics are available on the number of children who are trafficked into the country each year. However, it is known that most come from Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Mali — and that the majority of traffickers are West Africans.

Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea serve as transit countries. Most trafficked children arrive in Gabon and other destinations by boat.

About 90 children from Togo and Benin who were trafficked to Gabon have been repatriated during the past four years.

Unicef assisted with this operation. The United Nations Development Programme has also helped the government to set up transit centres that prepare children for their return home, while Unicef provides further help in the countries to which children are repatriated. Consular officials from these states assist children in finding their families.

In recent months, Unicef and Sweden have allocated $270 000 (R1,5-million) to assist Gabon in the fight against trafficking. However, the UN agency is calling on the government to allocate more money to this battle, saying funds are needed to train police officers and social workers who deal with trafficking — and to educate the public about the extent of the problem.

At present, says Libreville-based sociologist Anaclé Bissielo, many people are failing to grapple with the issue.

”Gabonese citizens … are too preoccupied with other social problems that have to be solved to speak out against trafficking,” she says. — IPS