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Child Trafficking on Rise in West and Central Africa - 2002-01-11

Children's advocates say child trafficking remains on the rise in West and Central Africa, despite crackdowns by governments in the region. Delegates in Ivory Coast's political capital, Yamoussoukro, Thursday concluded a three-day meeting in that focused on the battle against child trafficking.

The meeting brought together experts and government officials from across West and Central Africa, as well as the United States and Europe.

Discussions focused on the need for African nations to cooperate with each other in enforcing already existing laws against the trafficking and exploitation of children.

Among those attending the three-day meeting was Jan Austad, a special officer with Interpol's Trafficking in Human Beings Branch. He said no nation can tackle the problem by itself. Trafficking, Mr. Austad said, involves a cycle of interdependence between poor and relatively rich nations in the region. "Trafficking feeds on unequal situations. That is, one country is a place that people wish to leave. Other places are attractive," he said. "Combined with the lack of good borders, the possibility of flying from one place to another, to driving from one place to another. All this adds up to a very, very difficult situation."

UNICEF classifies countries in three categories: poorer nations such as Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, that serve as suppliers of child laborers; relatively rich nations like Gabon and Ivory Coast where the children go to work; and transit nations like Cameroon, which serves as a way station between the supplier and receiver nations.

Melone Mbe, Senior Superintendent of Cameroon's national police, said the challenge facing his country is particularly difficult. "Our borders are so porous," he said. "They are so permeable that you see children who are being moved from the West African zone, passing through our country to other central African countries [like] Gabon. We don't have the means to be able to [take care of] the whole of our border. It is very, very difficult for us to follow systematically what is happening. So we need the financial means to be able to handle the case."

Nations in the region have begun to crack down on traffickers following a series of highly publicized news reports on the issue last year. Delegates at the meeting in Yamoussoukro said the number of suspected traffickers arrested was up to 99 in 2001, compared to only five the year before. UNICEF estimates there were about 200,000 children being forced to work in West and Central Africa last year. U.N. officials fear the number will rise as living conditions continue to slip in the poorer nations of the region.