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More than 7,000 child slaves in Gabon

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  • bobutne
    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
    Message 1 of 6 , Feb 4, 2005
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      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
      en masse.

      "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
      child trafficking.

      "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
      continued existence.

      "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.
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