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Child Trafficking Problematic for Ivory Coast - 2002-01-09

Experts on children's rights are meeting for a second day in Ivory Coast's political capital, Yamoussoukro, to discuss strategies in the battle against child trafficking in West and Central Africa.

The meeting brought together children's rights experts from across Africa, Europe, and the United States.

The gathering was organized by Ivory Coast's minister for family and the promotion of women and children, Henriette Lagou.

Ivory Coast's government has been trying to stave off criticism prompted by highly publicized reports last year that claimed thousands of child slaves were working on Ivorian cocoa plantations. Ivory Coast is the world's leading producer of cocoa.

Ivorian officials, fearing a boycott of the country's main export, denied the allegations. Foreign journalists and experts who later traveled into Ivory Coast's interior found no evidence that thousands of children were being forced to work on Ivorian cocoa plantations - as had been reported by some advocate groups.

UNICEF estimates there are about 200,000 child laborers in Africa. The agency has no specific numbers of how many children are actually trafficked and enslaved. But child advocates say thousands of children in West and Central Africa are being forced to work rather than go to school. Most often - experts say - the children are put to work by their parents or other close relatives in keeping with norms set by tradition.

The publicity surrounding the issue of child trafficking in the region has prompted the government of Ivory Coast and other countries to enact measures against child trafficking.

In remarks at the opening of the gathering Tuesday in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, President Laurent Gbagbo said his country last year sent home 550 child laborers who had been brought here from neighboring nations like Mali and Burkina Faso.

In some of the cases the children had traveled to Ivory Coast with relatives or friends me cases, who promised them they would earn money to send home to their families.

Mr. Gbagbo told participants at the gathering the phenomenon of child trafficking is, at its root, a problem of poverty. He said any battle against child trafficking should go hand-in-hand with the battle against poverty.