Experts at a three-day conference - "Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, Especially Women and Children in West and Central Africa" - in Senegal are discussing how to protect and rehabilitate victims of human trafficking. They say hundreds of thousands of children in West and Central Africa are taken from their homes and driven into forced labor and sexual exploitation each year. Selah Hennessy reports from Dakar.
Child trafficking affects every country in West and Central Africa, according to analysts from the Geneva-based International Labor Organization. They say traffickers usually take children out of poor areas and bring them to richer ones, where the children or their parents believe they will have a better life.
But many end up begging on streets, working on plantations, or as maids in near slave-like conditions.
Chinedu Moghalu, an official of a U.S.-funded program to combat the trafficking of children in West Africa and Central Africa, says poverty is what makes them so vulnerable.
"If you have a family of six, you have four children, yourself and your husband and you cannot send these kids to school," Moghalu said. "You cannot just wake up and have them sitting around doing nothing, and then somebody comes and says 'I can help your kids to do some domestic work in this plantation or to have them sent to this family so they can help you generate some income to take of the other ones at home'. You will think it's a very good idea."
Moghalu says the governments in the area want to stop child trafficking, but the most effective step they could take is to provide economic stability.
"The main problem governments should be facing or concentrating on is creation of income generating activities and gainful employment for its people," he said.
Isabelle de Guillebon, from a Senegalese association that helps street children, says religion plays a big role in the exploitation of child street beggars, locally known as talibe. She says getting religious leaders involved is crucial.
"We try to work with big religion chiefs to [sensitize] them on this matter and to have them with us, to say that we have to fight altogether, because it is bad for religion and for Islam anyway," she said.
Specialists at the conference are also discussing the best way to care for child victims once they have escaped trafficking networks.
"The main problem is the rehabilitation of children, victims of trafficking, because people think the only solution is repatriation of children back to their country, which is not a solution and for me it is not a real way of handling this problem," said Elkane Mooh from the Save the Children, a non-governmental organization..
Mooh says there are many different reasons why children become victims of trafficking. He says they must be listened to when they are saved and that rehabilitation should be designed to suit each individual child.
The Economic Community of West African States adopted an action plan against trafficking in human beings, especially women and children, in 2001. Participants in the Dakar conference say this was an important step, but much remains to be done.
The United Nations says that exploiters of child trafficking make an estimated yearly profit of $32 billion worldwide.