LIBREVILLE, 4 February (IRIN) - For years young boys and girls have
been trafficked into Gabon from all over West Africa for use as child
labour in this relatively affluent oil-producing country. But
finally, there are signs that the government is starting to crack
down on the practice.
Gabon passed a law against trafficking and child exploitation in
2002, but the first police roundup of child traffickers and their
victims only took place on the 24 January - nearly three years later.
The authorities arrested 60 young people from Benin, Togo, Nigeria,
Ghana and Niger, along with 20 of their suspected adult employers,
who were all immigrants from West Africa themselves.
The youths, ranging in age from eight to 26, were taken into care
prior to being reunited with their families.
But to the disappointment of childrens' rights activists,
the "uncles" and "guardians" to whom they were forced to surrender
their earnings, were released from custody three days later.
Those fighting for children's rights in Gabon complain that the
police and border officials are only too happy to turn a blind eye to
child labourers being brought into the country, whether by canoe
along the coast from Equatorial Guinea, or by air into the
international airport of the capital Libreville.
"As long as the traffickers are not punished, the children who are
sent back home will continue to fall back into the trade," said
Kristian Laubejerg, the resident representative of the United Nations
Children's Fund (UNICEF).
He demanded a meeting with Labour Minister Jean Boniface Assele, as
soon as he heard about the suspected child traffickers being released
"Better coordination is needed for a nation wide operation that can
take the traffickers by surprise," he said. "The police involved in
the January round-up just didn't have the training required."
Although the employment of children under the age of 16 was forbidden
by law three years ago, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Child
Protection estimates that 25,000 children have been smuggled into
Gabon from other Western African countries to work as maids, street
hawkers and sex workers. Of these, it reckons, 7,000 are living in
conditions of virtual slavery. UNICEF officials say privately that
they reckon the number of trafficked children in Gabon is even
They are to be found everywhere on the streets of Libreville, hawking
goods as petty traders and selling their bodies for sex. Leila Ablavi
told IRIN she was 10 years old and came from Togo. She said she
worked from morning till night selling biscuits and yoghurt, taking
the equivalent of between six and 10 US dollars per day.
But Ablavi said she did not keep any of the money for herself. It all
went to her "guardian." And she added that she had to be careful to
about the police. "Often when we are around the administrative
buildings, the municipal police chase after us and emty our pots into
the street. It is difficult then to go back home and explain how I
lost all the things I was suppose to be selling," she explained.
Another girl, who said she was 14 but looked much younger, said she
was better treated. "I sell well and my guardians don't treat me too
badly -' but they get worried whenever I become ill!" she laughed
Several of these young street sellers told IRIN that they were beaten
frequently. "There are still almost as many child labourers who are
deprived of their rights as there were previously," complained
Gregoire Houndayi, a UNICEF consultant in this oil-rich country of
1.2 million people which has attracted hordes of immigrants. "They
continue to work in the streets of Libreville or in households
despite the prevention measures adopted to eradicate this practice in
the country," he added.
Children's rights activists say the youngsters are typically taken
from poor families. Their parents are told that they are going to a
better life, to live with a family that will give them opportunities
and education. Sometimes money changes hands before they leave home.
The family is often promised a proportion of the child's monthly
wages, but this is seldom paid. And the children, although they
receive rudimentary board and lodging, seldom receive any money
Most of the 60 youngsters picked up in the January police raid in
Libreville have been reunited with their families. But 21 had no
identification papers and were sent to live in hostels while their
families were traced.
Justin Nguema who runs one such hostel, the Agondje Centre, said
child protection laws are not taken seriously in Gabon.
"The maltreatment of children is a crime against humanity in Europe,
but here in Africa it has been treated as little more than an
administrative matter," he told IRIN.
Flora, who is 13 comes from Benin. She told IRIN had been working as
a maid for a Gabonese family in Libreville for about a year before
she was brought to the Agondje child rescue centre.
"I was brought to the Agondje Centre by the brother of a friend who
could not bare to see me being beaten. He helped me run away from the
house one Sunday when they had all gone to a family party," she said.
The Agondje centre is helping Flora to trace her family through the
Beninese embassy. She wants to go home.
The Minister for Social Affairs and Child Protection, Angelique
Ngoma, admits that more vigourous action is needed to clamp down on
"It is time to establish firm strategies to put a definitive stop to
this social ill which hits hard at the conscience of our country.
From now on the state will no longer tolerate such practices," she
Children's rights activists said girls were in higher demand than
boys, since they were considered more docile and showed greater
Furthermore, as they get older, girls can be exploited more
profitably as prostitutes or sold off into polygamous marriages.
Health Minister Paulette Missambo said she knew child trafficking was
a deeply entrenched problem in Gabon, but she blamed the big gap in
income between the haves and have-nots in West Africa for its
"Children from various countries in West Africa arrive in Gabon in
inhuman conditions and are exploited by adults whose own children go
to school," she admitted. "This is a hideous practice which is
totally at odds with our traditions and our legislation. It is a
scandal that nothing, neither extreme poverty, nor the uncontrolled
thirst for easy money can justify."
But pychologist Gatien Mba said that importing child labour to do the
menial jobs that local people could no longer be bothered with had
become "anchored in the traditions of Gabon" since the country's rise
as an oil producer in the 1960s.
Christian Kouadjo, a mechanic from Benin, told IRIN that child
trafficking was widely accepted amongst the poor in his own country.
"We come from a country with a commercial tradition of trading in
children it's part of our way of life. Children have to work to
assure their survival," he said.