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Thursday, 18 January, 2001, 06:57 GMT
Africa's trade in children
Children in Somlia
Some parents want their children to have an education
By Ticky Monekosso in Geneva

In Africa, biting poverty has taken its toll on already weak health and education systems.

It has eroded the traditional and social values that once curbed the exploitation of children.

A class of middlemen growing fat on the profits

Child weddings and sexual exploitation of domestic help have long been common in sub-Sahara Africa, and middle-aged 'sugar daddies' have frequently provided girls with money for school fees, books or clothes.

But exploitation of children appeared to have a less commercial dimension than in Latin America or Asia.

The use of domestic labour in private homes has always been one of the most grave and common forms of child exploitation.

But the historical solidarity networks through which rural families sent their children to urban relatives and friends to improve their chances of education and employment have degenerated into money transactions - with a class of middlemen growing fat on the profits.

Parents may be paid as little as 10 to lease their offspring to the Arab Gulf states, Lebanon and Europe.

Turning a blind eye

When war disrupts rural economies, children are forced onto the streets: in Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where 10-year-olds are sexually exploited at military bases.

In Luanda, 'catorzinhas' - 14-year-olds - are now fashionable playthings.

Ethiopian child
Poverty is the biggest problem for many families
Even in peaceful regions, children are shipped to work as prostitutes in cities such as Douala, Lagos, Accra, Dakar, Libreville and Abidjan.

Young Zairois are sold across the River Congo.

The trade is growing in Cape Town and Durban, and there are though to be more than 70,000 child prostitutes in Zambia.

In Sierra Leone, child trafficking is largely in the hands of Lebanese.

The traffic is now growing from Africa to Europe and is treated almost like any other business transaction.

Often traffickers who ferry children cannot be successfully prosecuted

But, until now, investigators have been hindered by the lack of statistical evidence with which to confront communities still denying the breadth of the problem.

One national from the Democratic Republic of Congo, with residency in Belgium, was arrested for allegedly smuggling several children into Belgium.

The suspect was married to a Belgian and has four children. He travelled regularly to DR Congo and is thought to have used his children's documents to smuggle other children into Belgium.

Legal loophole

Under the guidance of traffickers, Somali children have been travelling without the necessary documents, or with false documents, and taking advantage of their stop-over in Switzerland to apply for asylum.

This has happened several times at Zurich airport, involving sometimes more than 30 Somali children travelling in groups.

To halt this trend, the Swiss Federal Government has finally adopted a measure requiring Somali nationals to have an entry or transit visa or valid residence permit in order to land at a Swiss airport.

Groups of children have been taken to Europe, under the pretext of participation in sports tournaments or, in one case, a public audience with the Pope.

One official from a Western embassy in Nigeria was arrested over his alleged involvement with the trade.

But often, traffickers who ferry children cannot be successfully prosecuted. Definitions of trafficking are inadequate and parents merely say the children were entrusted to the middlemen for safe passage to relatives or friends.

In many countries, legislation against the worst forms of child labour does not exist.

Most countries in Africa will be falling over themselves to ratify the new International Labour Organisation convention, which aims to eliminate the worst forms, but the problem will be implementation.

In the absence of adequate national laws and the political will, little can be done. They will continue unwittingly to exploit their own kin - and the rights of the child will remain a mere tradition.

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