(New York, April 1, 2003) - West African governments are failing to address a rampant traffic in child labor that could worsen with the region’s growing AIDS crisis, Human Rights Watch charged in a new report released today.
The 79-page report, “Borderline Slavery: Child Trafficking in Togo,” highlights Togo as a case study of trafficking in the region. The report documents how children as young as three years old are exploited as domestic and agricultural workers in several countries. Traffickers lure children from their homes with promises of high-quality schooling and vocational training abroad. Many of the children are orphans, forced to become breadwinners following the death of a parent from AIDS or other causes.
A scandal over the issue of child labor in West Africa blew up in 2002, when nearly half the chocolate produced in the United States was linked to cocoa beans harvested by child laborers in Côte d’Ivoire. Many of these children had been trafficked from neighboring countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso.
“The cocoa farms are the tip of the iceberg,” said Jonathan Cohen, researcher with Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Trafficking in child labor occurs along numerous routes in West Africa, and governments aren’t doing enough to stop it.”
Girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch were told to board ships for Gabon, where they worked as housemaids or in markets. In a September, 2001 case documented in the report, a boat ferrying hundreds of trafficked girls sank off the coast of Cameroon, killing nine. Other cases document girls being treated as virtual slaves, forced to work day and night peddling goods in the market, fetching water, and caring for young children. Most endured beatings and psychological abuse, including death threats and warnings they would never see their parents again.
“Orphans face many grave human rights abuses, and trafficking is surely one of the worst,” said Cohen. “Without government action, today’s orphans may be traded tomorrow into servitude.”
The report links child trafficking to years of desperate poverty and freezes on development assistance to Togo, exacerbated by President Gnassingbé Eyadema’s refusal to hold free and fair elections. The European Union suspended bilateral aid to Togo in 1993 after the country’s first elections were marred by intimidation and disqualification of opposition parties.
Young Togolese boys told Human Rights Watch they could not afford to pay school fees and so agreed to do agricultural work in Nigeria. They said they cleared brush, planted seeds and plowed fields for up to thirteen hours a day, getting beaten if they complained of fatigue. Some were forced to use machetes to cut the branches of trees and wounded themselves seriously. After eight months to two years, they were given a bicycle and told to pedal it home to Togo.
“Boys were robbed by bandits, forced to bribe soldiers and deprived of food on their way home,” Cohen said. “Some died and were buried on the side of the road.”
A draft Togolese law prohibits child trafficking and imposes a U.S.$1,500-$15,000 penalty on anyone who “recruits, transports, transfers, harbors or receives” a child for the purpose of sexual or labor exploitation, forced labor or slavery. In 2001, Togo arrested or detained ten traffickers for related offenses such as kidnapping or procuring. Few cases were prosecuted to completion.
The Togolese government also fails to provide basic protections to children who flee their traffickers. Girls who escaped described spending nights on the street, knocking on the doors of churches and accepting invitations to sleep at the homes of strangers. Some were driven into prostitution in a district of Lomé, Togo’s capital, dubbed the “marché du petit vagin” (“market of the small vagina”). There they faced a high risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
“Some children are double victims of AIDS: first when their parents die from the disease, and then when they are trafficked and subjected to likely HIV infection,” said Cohen. “It is up to the government to break this vicious circle.”
Human Rights Watch called on the Togolese government to ratify international treaties prohibiting child trafficking, and made detailed recommendations to the governments of Togo, Gabon, Nigeria, Benin, Niger, Ivory Coast and Ghana regarding the prevention and punishment of trafficking, as well as the protection of trafficked children. Human Rights Watch also called on the United Nations and donors supporting these governments to summon their financial, technical and diplomatic resources to see these efforts through.
“Child traffickers have outwitted West African governments at every turn,” Cohen said. “Togo adopted a national plan of action on child trafficking six years ago, and the problem continues unabated.”
Children's testimonies of child trafficking in Togo
All names have been changed to protect the identity of the witnesses.
On their recruitment by child traffickers:
My friend had an aunt in Gabon, and she came and saw the conditions we were living in. She said she had a good job in Gabon, so I should accompany her there and work with her. My mother was very seriously ill, and my friend’s aunt said that when we got to Gabon, she would find me a job as a trader so that I could send money to my mother for medicine…I was willing to go because of how she spoke about it. She never said how much money I would be making.
—Dado K., age twenty-nine, trafficked to Gabon when she was sixteen
I was going to school here, but things weren’t going well. We were poor and had no money, so I decided it would be a good idea to go to Nigeria. Life was hard, and a friend told me I should go, so I decided to because I wasn’t doing anything here. I thought if I could go to Nigeria and get rich, I could come back and learn a trade. I knew people who had been and come back, and they brought back a lot of things: bicycles, radios, sewing machines, some even brought second-hand motorcycles. They told me they worked in the fields and made a lot of money, but none of them wanted to go back. They said the traffickers deceived them—they said, when you go you won’t do any difficult work, you will only do small work and make lots of money. I thought I could do it.
—Etse N., age eighteen, trafficked to Nigeria when he was seventeen
On their transport to a country of destination:
After I waited five months in Nigeria, a man came and took me to a boat. On the boat, there were over 100 other children, Togolese, Nigerian, and there were some adults, but more children than adults. I talked to some of them, and all the girls were going to Gabon to work. It took three days on the boat to get to Gabon. They gave us gari [a dough made of manioc] and sometimes bread to eat.
—Dansi D., age sixteen, trafficked to Gabon when she was thirteen
The boat was very full . . . . There were no toilets. There were girls defacating on each other and vomiting in the boat. It was impossible to vomit into the sea without falling off the boat.
—Atsoupé S., fourteen, trafficked to Gabon when she was thirteen
We left very early in the morning in a car. We went to Kambolé for three days and then to Tchamba. In Kambolé, there were seven boys in the house where we stayed. The man looked for a vehicle to take us. When we left, there were nine of us; the others were older than I was. It was a truck with room for baggage. We had to get out of the truck at the border. The crossing was difficult; we were practically in the bush. It took one week to get to Iseyin because we broke down on the way.
—Mawuena W., age nineteen, trafficked to Nigeria when he was eleven
On their receipt and exploitation:
The woman took us to her daughter and daughter’s husband. Our job was to sell bread. There were two other girls living in the house doing domestic work. We sold bread in the market, circulating from 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning until night. At the end of each day we gave all the money to our patronne. We were given 75 CFA francs (about U.S.10¢) per day for lunch. At night we baked the bread for the next day. When we got home, our boss gave us the flour for the next day’s bread. She showed us how to make the bread, and we did it with her and the two other girls. The boss was not nice to us. If we didn’t sell all the bread in one day, she would beat us with a stick…The oven would burn our feet. Once I thought the fire was out so I walked on it and got burned.
—Afi A. and Ama D., ages eleven and twelve, trafficked to Anié, Togo when they were ten and eleven
If anyone didn’t work well, they would yell. If you said you were sick, they never believed it, and you had to keep working. It was only when someone had a cut on the leg from a machete or something else that they could see bleeding that they would let you stop working. We were there for eleven months. At the end of that time, we got bikes. We had to find the path to get home; the guy who showed us had to be paid. It took nine days to get home, and we only could eat some days because of people of good will in Benin.
—Yawo S., age seventeen, trafficked to Nigeria when he was nine
On their return to their country of origin:
I decided to talk to the customers who came to [the market] to see if they could help me. Finally a boy told me that he would take me back to Togo if I would marry him. I was desperate, so I said yes just to get out. Now my brothers are working hard in the fields to pay off that boy so I don’t have to marry him. I’m back living with them, and I’m in an apprenticeship again for hairdressing. The boss there lets me make some money sometime pounding and selling fufu [a dough made of yams or cassava].
—Sogbossi K., age sixteen, trafficked to Nigeria when she was fifteen
After nine months, they gave us a bike and a radio. Someone showed us the road for going home, and we had to pay him, too. He left us in Benin. We came back on our bikes—it took nine days. We had to pay 500 CFA [about U.S.75¢] to cross each of the two rivers. After five days, we ran out of the gari we had in the beginning.
—Koudjo N., age nineteen, trafficked to Nigeria when he was fifteen