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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 May, 2005, 12:55 GMT 13:55 UK
In the grip of Benin's child traffickers
By Mike Thomson
BBC News, Cotonou

Rafine was just five years old when her father hired her out to child traffickers. He had done the same with all of her brothers and sisters since finding himself a new wife.

Due to poverty, children in Benin's villages are vulnerable to trafficking

Besides, money was on the table. He had been promised a share of the proceeds from her work as an unpaid domestic servant.

Soon afterwards, a woman took her away and she was placed with a family a few miles away where she was told to cook, clean and look after the children.

In return she was given just enough food to survive and told to eat off the cat's plates and sleep on the kitchen floor.

Horrified at the treatment she received, little Rafine told her father, who visited her occasionally, that she hated it there and was desperate to come home.

Threatened

He angrily replied this was out of the question and warned her of what would happen if she disobeyed him:

"My father threatened me that if he heard that I went back to the village he would butcher me with a machete. He said that. He would butcher me with a machete."

A child should stay with her mother no matter how poor that woman is
Rafine

Rafine, who ran away after four years of forced labour, is just one of 50,000 children who are trafficked each year in Benin. The country is one of the poorest in the world and many parents cannot resist the trafficker's promises.

They are told that their children will earn enough to send home large sums of money and will also be given a good education. In reality many of the children are smuggled into neighbouring Nigeria and used for backbreaking work in quarries.

Others are even shipped off to Europe as domestic slaves. Sadly, little if any money is ever paid and some parents often do not see their child for years, if ever again.

Philomene Tinhouintin
Philomene Tinhouintin hopes she will see her children again before she dies

Philomene Tinhouintin lost four of her children to traffickers five years ago and has not heard a word from them since:

"I cry and cry and cry out of despair. My mind is confused. Are they alive or dead? Are they involved in bad things in Nigeria?

"I have no answers. I ask myself, will I see my children again before I die?"

Sadly, the answer is very possibly not, according to Odette Assaba Godova of Benin's ministry of justice:

"Most of these children who are sent to other places to work come back severely maltreated or even die there. Some come back and then die shortly afterwards. The results are very serious."

In an effort to clamp down on this trade Benin and Nigeria have agreed to work more closely together.

Fear of traffickers

Both are due to sign a new code of practice which will involve more thorough checks on children's identities at borders and clamping down on those employed in dangerous or unsuitable occupations.

Benin has also increased the maximum sentence for child trafficking to 20 years imprisonment. But ministers there admit that it is often hard persuading people to testify against the traffickers.

Some are either afraid of the possible consequences of doing so or still believe they risk losing out on money they have been promised from their child's labour.

Trafficked children at a children's home in Benin
The Silesian Sisters help look after some of the rescued children

United Nation's children's agency Unicef, which estimates that this pernicious trade affects more than one million children worldwide, says great pressure is also put on boys and girls to stop them running away or testifying against their captors.

The organisation's representative in Benin, Phillipe Duamelle, says many are forced to take part in voodoo ceremonies at which they are forced to take a special vow. He remembers one particular case that his researchers discovered:

"The kids were told to take a vow and were then warned that if they broke them they would die. They did this at a voodoo shrine and it involved them using a piece of their hair and a drop of their blood.

These were kept in a little packet there. This was to make sure that the child would keep secret the fact that they were being trafficked."

Rafine, who is now 12, is one of many previously trafficked young girls who are being looked after in a Catholic children's home run by Silesian Sisters in the country's biggest city, Cotonou.

The experience has left her with one overriding conviction. Bowing her head she says in a quiet but determined voice:

"A child should stay with her mother no matter how poor that woman is. If, for instance, the mother has nothing to eat but sand, the child should eat sand and remain by her side."


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
An African child trafficker explains why he does it



SEE ALSO:
Benin readies for Voodoo Day
06 Jan 04 |  Africa
Nigeria re-opens Benin border
15 Aug 03 |  Africa
'Slave ship' timeline
17 Apr 01 |  Africa
Country profile: Benin
03 May 05 |  Country profiles


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