A mother with her malnourished children in Dalaad, Ethiopia (File photo)
It is estimated that each year, tens of thousands of poor, rural children in Ethiopia become victims of child traffickers, who promise them a better life and then sell them to face even greater poverty and suffering. In many cases, the children's horrific journeys begin, and end, at the main bus terminal in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu begins her report.

An impatient bus driver honks the horn, trying to thread his vehicle through a crowd of people milling around in front of the entrance to the Addis Ababa bus terminal.

Inside the bus, several young boys peer through the windows, staring wide-eyed at the chaos around them.

Leaning against a tiny corrugated metal shack in a corner of the parking lot, 12-year-old Zemath Fanta watches the bus lurch into the terminal. He is filthy, clothed in little more than rags. He wonders aloud if the boys on the bus are in the same situation he was in more than a week ago.

"My grandmother put me on a bus with a man and sent me here, even though I did not want to go," Zemath said. He said he was brought to the capital to work as a weaver, but when he could not do the job properly, his employer abandoned him in the street.

There is no official statistic for how many children are trafficked each year in Ethiopia, but according to estimates from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) the number could be in the tens of thousands.

IOM's country program coordinator, Yitna Getachew, says unlike in some countries where organized crime or criminal gangs are behind child trafficking activities, traffickers in Ethiopia are mostly small-time middlemen who prey on poor, desperate families in rural areas.

About 85 percent of Ethiopia's 71 million people survive on subsistence farming, and more than 45 percent of those live in abject poverty.

The spread of HIV-AIDS has taken its toll on families, leaving many children without proper caretakers and vulnerable to traffickers.

"Brokers go into the rural areas and then deceive children; tell them that they will take them to big cities where they will have education, better life, and then sort of kidnap them and take them to the next big city where there are bus stations, and then bring them to Addis here," said Mr. Getachew at IOM. "But sometimes, arrangements are made with parents. They tell the parents that they could take the child to a city and place them with a good family where they would be cared for."

As in most countries, traffickers in Ethiopia make the most money sending victims overseas. Thousands of girls are shipped out each year to such countries as Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, where they are in demand. For each victim, traffickers can earn as much as $800, an enormous sum in a country where many people earn just $100 a year.

To circumvent an Ethiopian law which regulates issuing passports for children under the age of 18, brokers regularly falsify birth certificates, identity cards, and other documents.

The brokers tell the girls that once they arrive at their destinations, they will be working as maids and nannies. But "buyers" often force many of the girls into prostitution or sexually abuse them at home.

The International Organization for Migration says the majority of child trafficking in Ethiopia occurs within its own borders.

Like Zemath Fanta, many young boys from rural villages end up in Addis Ababa where they are put to work, weaving popular white Ethiopian dresses called "shembas."

The boys are forced to work more than 10 hours a day and are barely given enough to eat. Those who cannot perform their jobs properly are simply abandoned in the streets.

For young girls, Mr. Yitna at IOM says work for them usually means toiling as domestic servants. "Most of them work more than 11 hours a day," he said. "The average pay is about 18 birr a month, which is just a little less than $2. Very few attend school. Even if they attend school, they do not have enough time to do their studying. They are beaten, sexually abused, not by the employers, but by the employer's children. So, it is really bad."

In recent months, the Ethiopian government has established a national task force with a mandate to protect children and to arrest and prosecute traffickers.

In Addis Ababa, non-governmental organizations have teamed up with the local police to find young victims of trafficking and to help reunite them with their families. There are now at least 10 police stations in different parts of the capital, where a police officer and a social worker cooperate on child trafficking cases.

One station is located at the bus terminal to intercept potential victims and to serve as a way-station for children waiting to return home. Since March of last year, dozens of children have returned safely to their villages.

But Addis Ababa Police Captain Atsede Wordofa says there is little money or manpower to expand the program.  Captain Wordofa says the problem of trafficking has become so widespread, 10 police officers in one station would have a difficult time keeping up with the case load. More resources are urgently needed, she says.

Back at the bus terminal, 12-year-old Zemath Fanta receives good news from the social worker, who has been looking after him at the station since he was found abandoned in the streets two days earlier. Fanta's older brother has been located and has agreed to come to Addis Ababa to take Fanta home.

The social worker acknowledges that countless other trafficked children in Ethiopia may not be so fortunate.