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The BBC's Mark Doyle
"It is quite common for desperate parents to sell their children to unscrupulous brokers"
 real 28k

Estelle Guluman of Unicef
"The boat's captain will be arrested on arrival in Benin"
 real 28k

Friday, 13 April, 2001, 16:30 GMT 17:30 UK
Sea ordeal of 'child slaves'

A ship carrying up to 250 suspected child slaves is heading back to Benin after being refused entry to two nearby West African states.

The borders are very porous and the sea is not the only exit for these children

Estelle Guluman of Unicef
The children, from Benin and neighbouring Togo, left port three weeks ago, but their boat was turned away by officials in Gabon and Cameroon.

They are expected to dock in the Benin capital, Cotonou, by Saturday after a round trip of more than 2,000km (1,250 miles).

A spokeswoman for the United Nations in Benin said that, where possible, the children would be reunited with their families.

"There are centres which have been established in Benin to receive such children where they can be housed temporarily while we establish their identity," said Unicef's Estelle Guluman.

She said that, as in the past, the children were likely to have been taken in by false promises that they would be able to send money home.

Two in five African children are estimated to be working
Two in five African children are estimated to be working
But such schemes, she said, were clearly slavery; the children made little or no money, they had no choice where they went, and many never saw their families again.

The BBC West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle says it remains unclear whether the slave ship, which is not being escorted by any naval enforcement vessels, will actually dock in Cotonou.

He says the ship's crew may fear being arrested, so the safety of the children is still far from ensured.

'Common' trade

Human rights activists say the selling of children into slavery is still quite common in impoverished Benin, although it is officially banned.

Cocoa beans
Cocoa plantations need a lot of labour
They say parents are often tempted to sell their children for as little as $15 in the hope that they may find work in richer West African states, usually on cocoa and coffee plantations.

Thousands of children between the ages of nine and 12 are thought to work on plantations in Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer.

Anti-child labour campaigners say they are forced to work long hours, and are frequently subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

West and Central Africa have a long history of slavery.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, European slave traders shipped millions of the region's inhabitants to forced labour in the Americas.

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See also:

06 Aug 99 | Africa
West Africa's child slave trade
28 Sep 00 | Africa
The bitter taste of slavery
29 Sep 00 | Africa
Mali's children in slavery
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