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Trafficking in Children

May 4, 2001, New York Times editorial

Trafficking in Children

It is now clear that the mysterious ship that left Benin in late March was indeed carrying children sold into slavery — not the 250 initially reported by a newspaper in Benin, but at least a few, and possibly as many as 40. The ship, the MV Etireno, was denied port in Cameroon and Gabon after an international outcry about the possible presence of the children. It finally returned to Benin last month with 40 unaccompanied children and young adults aboard. They are being cared for by charitable groups..

Some of those children, who are from Benin and neighboring nations, have told interviewers that their families were paid before their departure. Doubtless others aboard were victims of trafficking but do not know it. The region around Benin was once known as the Slave Coast for its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the children's story is a grave reminder that slave ships still sail from West Africa.

Experts on slavery estimate that 17 million children worldwide are held in conditions amounting to slavery. Most are in India and Pakistan, where parents drowning in poverty and debt sell their children into labor. In other regions like West Africa, child-traffickers arrive in villages and buy the children — as young as 4 or 5 — from parents. Some of the families know what awaits their children. Others fall for promises that the children will be educated or get jobs that will allow them to send money home.

Children are held in forms of slavery all over the world, and there are examples of children smuggled into the United States to work as prostitutes. Unicef estimates that 200,000 children are enslaved by cross-border smuggling rings in West and Central Africa, and a larger number are held in bondage in their own countries. These children work mainly in agriculture, sweatshops, fishing and domestic service, or as prostitutes.

Last year 21 West and Central African countries met in Gabon to discuss the problem in a conference sponsored by Unicef and the International Labor Organization. Slavery is outlawed everywhere, but countries need specific laws that define and aim at offenders.

Public outreach is also important — vulnerable families in rural areas must be informed about the danger. Unicef, working with community groups in Benin, now has organizations in 215 villages that look out for trafficking rings. The conference may also bring about more cooperation, as governments take the issue more seriously and work better with each other.

Since the affected children normally come from the poorest families, their treatment has drawn little national concern until recently. Although the dimensions of the trafficking aboard the Etireno proved exaggerated, Benin acted responsibly in raising an alarm about the ship. The episode should shame Benin and its neighbors into combating child-trafficking more aggressively, and has provided a haunting illustration that forms of slavery survive in the modern world.

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