(New York, April 1, 2003) -- West African governments are failing to address a rampant traffic in child labor that could worsen with the region’s growing AIDS crisis, Human Rights Watch charged in a new report released today.
A scandal over the issue of child labor in West Africa blew up in 2002, when nearly half the chocolate produced in the United States was linked to cocoa beans harvested by child laborers in Côte d’Ivoire. Many of these children had been trafficked from neighboring countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso.
“The cocoa farms are the tip of the iceberg,” said Jonathan Cohen, researcher with Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Trafficking in child labor occurs along numerous routes in West Africa, and governments aren’t doing enough to stop it.”
Girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch were told to board ships for Gabon, where they worked as housemaids or in markets. In a September, 2001 case documented in the report, a boat ferrying hundreds of trafficked girls sank off the coast of Cameroon, killing nine. Other cases document girls being treated as virtual slaves, forced to work day and night peddling goods in the market, fetching water, and caring for young children. Most endured beatings and psychological abuse, including death threats and warnings they would never see their parents again.
“Orphans face many grave human rights abuses, and trafficking is surely one of the worst,” said Cohen. “Without government action, today’s orphans may be traded tomorrow into servitude.”
The report links child trafficking to years of desperate poverty and freezes on development assistance to Togo, exacerbated by President Gnassingbé Eyadema’s refusal to hold free and fair elections. The European Union suspended bilateral aid to Togo in 1993 after the country’s first elections were marred by intimidation and disqualification of opposition parties.
Young Togolese boys told Human Rights Watch they could not afford to pay school fees and so agreed to do agricultural work in Nigeria. They said they cleared brush, planted seeds and plowed fields for up to thirteen hours a day, getting beaten if they complained of fatigue. Some were forced to use machetes to cut the branches of trees and wounded themselves seriously. After eight months to two years, they were given a bicycle and told to pedal it home to Togo.
“Boys were robbed by bandits, forced to bribe soldiers and deprived of food on their way home,” Cohen said. “Some died and were buried on the side of the road.”
A draft Togolese law prohibits child trafficking and imposes a U.S.$1,500-$15,000 penalty on anyone who “recruits, transports, transfers, harbors or receives” a child for the purpose of sexual or labor exploitation, forced labor or slavery. In 2001, Togo arrested or detained ten traffickers for related offenses such as kidnapping or procuring. Few cases were prosecuted to completion.
The Togolese government also fails to provide basic protections to children who flee their traffickers. Girls who escaped described spending nights on the street, knocking on the doors of churches and accepting invitations to sleep at the homes of strangers. Some were driven into prostitution in a district of Lomé, Togo’s capital, dubbed the “marché du petit vagin” (“market of the small vagina”). There they faced a high risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
“Some children are double victims of AIDS: first when their parents die from the disease, and then when they are trafficked and subjected to likely HIV infection,” said Cohen. “It is up to the government to break this vicious circle.”
Human Rights Watch called on the Togolese government to ratify international treaties prohibiting child trafficking, and made detailed recommendations to the governments of Togo, Gabon, Nigeria, Benin, Niger, Ivory Coast and Ghana regarding the prevention and punishment of trafficking, as well as the protection of trafficked children. Human Rights Watch also called on the United Nations and donors supporting these governments to summon their financial, technical and diplomatic resources to see these efforts through.
“Child traffickers have outwitted West African governments at every turn,” Cohen said. “Togo adopted a national plan of action on child trafficking six years ago, and the problem continues unabated.”