GUINEA-BISSAU: 52 children stopped from being smuggled to Senegal

[BISSAU, 16 November 2007] - Police in Guinea-Bissau have uncovered a child trafficking network which was preparing to send 52 children to Koranic schools in neighbouring Senegal, security officials in the West African country said on Friday.

Police found the children, aged between 6 and 11, during a search in the town of Bafata, 150 km (90 miles) east of the capital Bissau, following a tip-off. They were only able to catch one of the organisers as several others fled.

"A network of child traffickers which was preparing to smuggle 52 children to Koranic schools in Senegal was dismantled on Thursday at Bafata," a police official in Bissau told Reuters, asking not to be named.

Koranic schools, known as Daaras, are common in Senegal, a mostly Muslim former French colony and one of the most stable economies in West Africa. As in most of the region, they practise a peaceful, tolerant form of Sufi Islam.

Many Daaras house children from impoverished families in neighbouring countries such as Guinea-Bissau, who send their offspring away in the hope they will receive a religious education and stand more chance of making money in Senegal.

Some religious leaders, or marabouts, send the children out to beg to fund the Daaras in the belief that it will teach them humility. The children are known in the local Wolof language as talibe, from the Arabic word "talib" meaning religious student.

Begging widespread

The U.N. children's agency UNICEF estimates that 100,000 children in Senegal are forced to beg on a daily basis, exposed to violence and missing out on basic rights such as primary education and healthcare.

Children as young as 5, dressed in ragged clothes and holding tins given to them as begging bowls, are a common sight in the traffic jams and markets of Dakar.

Many educated Senegalese disapprove of the talibe being sent out to beg. But placing children with distant cousins or outside the family to try to secure them a better future is common in West African culture, meaning the practice is tolerated.

Experts say the phenomenon is becoming increasingly exploitative and business-oriented.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says poor security and poverty create the conditions for tens of thousands of West African children and women to be trafficked each year for labour and sexual exploitation both in Africa and overseas.

The highest-profile recent case is of 103 African children aged 1-10 who were to be flown out of Chad by French humanitarian activist group Zoe's Ark, six of whose members are now charged with abduction and fraud.

The group said it wanted to place orphans from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region with foster families in Europe and said it had the right to do so under international law.

U.N. officials say most of the children had at least one person they considered to be a parent and were not orphans.

Six French nationals from the group face possible sentences in Chad of five to 20 years forced labour if found guilty of trying to fly the children to Europe without authorisation.

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