The United Nations estimates that 200,000 men, women and children are forcibly taken or lured from their homes in West Africa every year. Many are promised well-paying jobs and education only to face years of indebted servitude as laborers in homes, farms, or brothels. But the United States and many African governments are working to curb the practice.
Forced labor is misery for workers, but it is an easy and lucrative trade for traffickers.
According to the State Department web site, people can be moved across borders and past immigration officials more easily than narcotics or weapons, which are seized when found. Victims of trafficking, even if they are freed by police, can be re-captured by traffickers and re-sold. Traffickers can make additional money off victims by re-selling them to another employer after their often-inflated debt is paid.
The State Department says traffickers may earn a few hundred to thousands of dollars for a child laborer, and brothel owners may make a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars for each woman forced into prostitution.
In West Africa, children go from countries with large populations and high unemployment, like Benin, Togo and Burkina Faso, to countries with high demand for farm labor; such as Nigeria, Ghana and Mali. Sometimes, they find work in large agri-businesses; at other times, they work on small farms. "There has been quite a bit of global attention on cocoa manufacturing industry in Cote d'Ivoire," said Jonathon Cohen, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in New York City. "That is an example of the involvement of trafficked labor into big agri-businesses. But one thing that Human Rights Watch realized in its research is that trafficking is not limited to such high profile cases, and that children are also trafficked onto farms that are considered to practice subsistence agriculture."
Mr. Cohen says boys are often sent to work on farms. Sometimes they are lured by recruiters with the promise of money or gifts like a new bicycle.
Sometimes, they are told to ride back home to recruit new labor. The trip can take weeks. Mr. Cohen explains how some boys were transported from Togo to Western Nigeria.
"In those cases, they travel overland by truck," he said. "There are as many as 300 boys on one truck. One said he saw kids falling off, the branches of trees would hit them in the head and they could be knocked off the truck and break an arm or leg, and there's no medical assistance for broken bones … Some boys have been found dead on the side of road because they could not make the journey."
Girls are often shipped to do domestic work for their owners, including selling food and merchandise in the markets. Many suffer physical and sexual abuse in their new homes.
"We documented a number of cases of young girls congregating in port areas in southern Nigeria near the Niger Delta and then boarding these makeshift boats, dozens if not hundreds at a time, and traveling on the high seas for weeks to destination countries," said Mr. Cohen. "Girls told us that there were no bathroom facilities and one girl said she had to vomit, but if she leaned out of boat she would have fallen into the sea.
"They were malnourished, with no clean water," he added. "A lot of them did not survive the journey."
In West Africa, the trafficking networks are small, with recruiters and other local intermediaries attracted by the high pay. But as organized crime becomes more involved, West Africans are being shipped not just within the region, but also to Europe and, less often, to the United States.
Leaders in the fight against trafficking, like former Congresswoman Linda Smith, say the demand for trafficked people often comes from the affluent in the developed world. She says, for example, that wealthy Africans or Asians often want servants from their own countries.
Mrs. Smith is the founder of two organizations, Shared Hope International and the War Against Trafficking Alliance. She says they believe there is a link between trafficking, organized crime, and terrorism.
"Since organized crime is growing in Africa, it is our belief that it is funding terrorism, because the selling of drugs, guns, and people go together," she explained. "It would be logical that as fast as trafficking in people is progressing, it is funding all kinds of bad things. The traffickers are the Russian Mafia, and the Chinese Triad.
"They have found this is lucrative to organize country to country, so we are trying to work country to country with international law enforcement, the U.S. Justice Department and [African governments'] own law enforcement systems," continued Mrs. Smith. "The Chinese triad is so established in South Africa and as a transit place, with affluence of Africans in America, there will be marketing of women into America unless we continue to fight trafficking."
Last year, the State Department allocated $90 million to fight trafficking around the world. It has also passed measures to withdraw aid from countries that have not signed international protocols against forced labor or are not working to end it within their countries.
But the U.S. president can decide to suspend sanctions against it, or any other country that has failed to take action, if the sanctions would harm U.S. interests or humanitarian efforts in the countries involved.
The State Department is calling on Liberia's government and rebels to stop forced conscription and the use of child soldiers. It is also asking the government to punish those, including government officials, responsible for trafficking, and provide protection programs for trafficking victims.
Linda Smith says the U.S. government is providing protection to trafficking victims within the United States. One way to do so is through the so-called T-Visa, which allows non-immigrant status holders to gain permanent resident status.
"It is a temporary visa for those who will cooperate against the trafficker, and they can stay here like any victim," explained Mrs. Smith. "If you can not return within three years to your home country due to harm, they can apply for citizenship. It is an application, but not a guarantee."
The United States is working with African countries to help draft laws to prohibit trafficking and punish those responsible. It is also helping countries develop programs to re-settle trafficked children.
The West African country of Benin, for example, is cooperating with non-governmental organizations to train its local leaders, truck drivers, and dockworkers to screen for trafficked people.
In Burkina Faso, a national task force has established rural vigilance and surveillance committees. Its National Assembly is now considering an anti-child-trafficking bill that was developed in coordination with international organizations. It has also negotiated cross-border agreements with neighboring countries to combat trafficking.
This year, the Nigerian Senate passed an anti-trafficking law. The government also created special police units in 11 states afflicted by trafficking. And the Federal Police Anti-Trafficking Unit in Nigeria's Edo State, the primary source state for women trafficked to Italy, has prosecuted 30 out of 100 cases being investigated.