Many poverty-stricken families give away their children for years of work, seeing this as the only way to survive. An article in The Guardian focuses on Benin, where an estimated 50,000 children are trafficked for work each year.
Speaking to the Guardian’s reporter, the chief child protection specialist in Benin for the UN’s Child Agency (UNICEF) says that many parents have to send their children away because they’re destitute. “The working child, it is hoped, will bring in money and be one less mouth to feed,” the chief specialist explains. Parents in Benin often suffered as young labourers themselves. But despite their own past experiences, they are forced to do the same with their offspring. “It’s a last recourse, a survival strategy,” says the UNICEF child protection specialist.
The government of Benin has tried to crack down on child traffickers. In 2006, trafficking became a crime which can lead to a 20-year jail sentence and some arrests have been made. But with nearly half the country’s population living below the poverty line, the practice of using children for labour is endemic.
Some children are sent to work in neighbouring Nigeria or Gabon. Typically they go for two years and a family might receive around 200 dollars in cash for each child. This money is often spent on agricultural supplies such as sacks of rice and fertiliser, or to pay off a family’s debts. Sometimes a member of the local community, known as a ‘patron’, will act as a go-between, arranging placements for the children. Youngsters are then smuggled into the other countries where they undertake a range of work.
Speaking to the Guardian’s reporter, one father spoke of being forced to send away his sons, since the family had nothing to eat. Two of his children were earning income as motorbike mechanics, but two had been sent to Nigeria. Though the boys started as house helps, they were soon forced out by younger and cheaper children and turned to dredging sand for cement. Diving in the oil-polluted waters of Lagos lagoon, the youngsters collect sand and return to the surface with buckets attached to their ankles.
Interviewing one thirteen year-old engaged in this work, the boy explained that returning to Benin wasn’t an option. “If I go back, I can only be a thief.” The teenager has open sores on his legs from the heavy buckets and finds it difficult to sleep at night, but nevertheless feels lucky to be earning 1 dollar for each canoe of sand which is loaded. For this boy, as for many others from Benin, it will be some while before he is able to go home.