BENIN: Poverty pushes youngsters into the employ of child traffickers

Summary: Facing hardship, families in Benin are sending their children to work in sometimes brutal conditions in neighbouring Nigeria.

The abuse Timothy Goudjana suffered as a teenage labourer in Nigeria still haunts him. But decades later, he sent two of his own children, at a much younger age, to a similar fate.

Human trafficking is the world's fastest rising organised crime. Each year, 4 million African children – equivalent to Liberia's entire population – are traded for labour before their 15th birthday.

Most come from villages like Zakpota, in central Benin, where hundreds of parents – pushed to the wall by destitution – send their children to neighbouring Nigeria. The working child, it is hoped, will bring in money, and be one less mouth to feed.

"It's a last recourse, a survival strategy – parents see it as a way for children to contribute to the family," says Jean Lokenga, Unicef's chief child protection specialist in Benin. With almost half the country's population plunging below the poverty line in the past decade, parents who ranged west Africa for work in their 20s are sending sons and daughters away at half that age.

In Zakpota, the flames of hardship are fanned by a brutal history. "Since ancient times people trafficking has been well organised here," Lokenga explains, referring to the vast pre-colonial Dahomey kingdom that grew rich on trafficking captives to European slave buyers.

These days, a trusted member of the community known as a "patron" – French for master – will typically place a child abroad in Nigeria or Gabon for two years after handing over about $200 in cash. Back home, their scanty wages buy sacks of rice and fertiliser, and pay off crippling debts. Saved carefully, the proceeds buy luxuries such as a bicycle or tin roof. Some children earn enough to return as patrons themselves.

As his family scraped by, Goudjana buried the memories of three years in a Nigerian quarry breaking stones with a crude hammer, eating thin cassava porridge once a day. "Then one year there was nothing to eat, no way to survive," he says, sitting in the shade of his mud hut.

Two teenage sons were earning an income, however meagre, as motorbike mechanics, but he took his two younger sons to an uncle connected with Nigerian smugglers. "The elder boy was waist height, the younger one was maybe eight," Goudjana says. After a moment's pause, he went on: "I wasn't like some other people. They offered me a radio before they took them, but I said no. When you take gifts, they can do anything to your child afterwards and you have to keep quiet." Goudjana's sons were placed as house helps until their Nigerian employer demanded younger boys he could pay a lower wage.

Like Segun Assis, 13, they turned to dredging sand to sell for cement. For three hours daily, Assis attaches weights to his ankles, dives beneath the oil-polluted waters of Lagos lagoon, then kicks his way back to the surface with bucket after bucket weighed with sand. He and 60 other Nigerian and Beninese teenagers earn $1 for each 15-seat canoe they load with sand. Sitting beside Miller, his smartly dressed master, Segun says he considers himself lucky to be working.

"But I don't wish this life on anyone. The dirty water enters our brains so we cannot sleep at night," he says, showing open sores on his ankles where salt water has irritated welts formed by the weights. Still, returning to Benin has never been an option. "If I go back, I can only be a thief." The local punishment for thieves was being burnt alive, he says.

Benin's government has made efforts to stem the flow of 50,000 children trafficked annually, making it a crime punishable by a 20-year jail term in 2006. Earlier this year, police arrested two Nigeria-bound boats carrying 85 children.

But traffickers are sometimes released despite evidence to prosecute them, an official of Benin's ministry of family admits. "There was one case where the village elders threw welcome ceremonies to celebrate their release. When we heard about it we wondered if we were dreaming," the official says.

Encouraging smaller families has made little headway. More important, activists say, has been breaking social acceptance of the practice, a wider trend reflected across west Africa's drought-prone Sahelian belt. "On the whole the population is aware that children shouldn't be used for full-time labour. But they also consider children working to be part of an important social education – learning to work with others, to fend for themselves, to contribute," says Odette Asaba, the director of Zakpota's government-funded Centre for Social Promotion, which last year rescued about two dozen trafficked children. "Many families feel betrayed when they discover their children are being mistreated."

As a 12-year-old, Paul Tougma in Burkina Faso learned this after being lured to Ivory Coast's cocoa farms by the promise of $200 and a bike. "I wanted to help my family but in the end, the patron laughed when I asked for my bike. He gave me 20,000 CFA francs [$40] for two years work. I cried for months afterwards," Tougma says.

Attitudes may be slowly shifting. Sitting on a raffia mat in Zakpota, Sylvain Viga showed scars on his back from being whipped when he worked in Nigeria's quarries. "I will never send my children away. We will eat sand if we have to," he says.

Further Information



Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.