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Togo's Missing Children May Number Up to 300,000

Wednesday (5/25) is the International Day of Missing Children, a time to focus attention on the widespread problem of child trafficking. The children’s organization PLAN has released a new report on the problem in Togo, where some estimates say as many as 300,000 children – between the ages of 5 and 15 - have been sent to work in foreign cities or countries.

In its new report, PLAN says, “The trafficking of children is one of the most severe violations of human rights in the world today – involving over a million children worldwide and hundreds of thousands of children in West Africa alone.”

PLAN’s program director in Togo, Bell’Aube Houinato says the organization realized the scope of the problem after it surveyed hundreds of families.

"PLAN conducted a study, which covered a sample of some 600 or more families. And among these we could find as high as 400 of them that were affected by child trafficking. So I think it is a very big problem. It is a problem that covers the whole country," he says.

But how do so many children go missing? The answer is actually quite simple. Many go missing because their parents or relatives give them away.

"(In) many cases, parents are involved. And they voluntarily give the children away simply because somebody comes in and tells them, yes, your children are going to have a better education somewhere else. Or, your children are going to have a better job, which will support the family in turn," says Mr. Houinato. "And they believe these people, because most of these people are to some extent related to their families. They are family relatives living in big towns either in the capital city Lome’ or in other towns or even abroad, like in Gabon or Cote d’Ivoire or Burkina Faso. And they make the family believe that they will have a better life when they send their children off."

In reality, many of those children are made into virtual slaves.

"Imagine, for example, a girl, of nine or eight years old, selling stuff for the whole day in the town," says Mr. Houinato. "Some of them are sent to work in the fields. In Cote d’Ivoire, for example, or in Ghana most of them are involved in agricultural work, during which time they manipulate chemical products that we believe affect their lives. And there is no precaution around that."

Mr. Houinato says the result is both physical and psychological problems. The PLAN official in Togo says traditionally it was a good thing to send children to live with relatives. But he says poverty has changed all that.

The PLAN report says some of those working for organized child trafficking rings are former victims of trafficking themselves. They recruit children, if you will, with or without the parents’ consent.

The report says girls are often physically, emotionally and sexually abused. Some who become pregnant after being raped are simply “turned out onto the street” by their so-called employers. One of the ways in which they survive is to become commercial sex workers.

As part of this report, the author was able to speak with a 14-year-old Togolese girl named Bella. She was given away at the age of five to live with her elder sister at her aunt’s house in Nigeria. Her parents were told she would be sent to school with her cousins. Instead, she became a domestic slave and was beaten by her aunt.

She decided to run away. But her sister refused to join her out of fear of being caught and beaten again. The author's interview with Bella is a truncated version because she spoke hesitantly and sparingly about her experiences. Here is that conversation:

De Capua: You went to the border?

Bella: Yes.

De Capua: And did you know where your home was?

Bella: No.

De Capua: How did you find help?

Bella: They asked me what happened when I run away from my auntie’s place. I tell them that my auntie beat me and that’s why I run away. They said that they would help me. They asked me where I was going. I tell them that I’m going to Lome’ and they say that they would help me. They asked me what happened. I tell them. They drop me in Togo. They give me, they give me money.

De Capua: And have you been able to find your family?

Bella: No.

De Capua: Do you have a sister?

Bella: Yes.

De Capua: Is she still in Nigeria?

Bella: Yes, my senior sister.

De Capua: Does she know where your home is, being that she is older?

Bella: No.

To help children like Bella and the many others who do manage to return, PLAN works with other organizations and the Togolese Ministry of Social Affairs to meet their psychological and social needs. They help children reintegrate into communities, providing educational and vocational assistance.

Also, PLAN supports shelters for rescued children, helps parents and children understand the dangers of child slavery and stresses the importance of having birth certificates, which can help children get an education, health care and much more.

Efforts are being made to help families out of poverty with skills training and micro-credit loans to start businesses. The idea being that if they can overcome poverty, they will be less likely to send their children away.PLAN is also calling on the Togolese government to begin tougher enforcement of laws prohibiting child trafficking. But it’s making that plea to many other West African nations as well.