The Swiss charity, Terre des Hommes, is caring for 23 children who were apparently destined to become slave labourers. They were taken off the cargo ship, Etireno, in the Beninese port of Cotonou last week, amid international speculation that the ship was carrying slave labourers.
Terre des Hommes (TdH) officials told swissinfo that it was still too early to state categorically that the 40 children on board the Etireno were the victims of illegal trafficking. But circumstantial evidence suggests that they were.
"Many of the children have clearly stated that they were going to Gabon to work. But they had no papers for entering Gabon. So we can clearly talk about illegal migration," says Bernard Boeten, head of the children's rights department at the Terre des Hommes Foundation headquarters in Lausanne.
"As for trafficking and slavery, we can see the symptoms - according to the criteria on our checklist - but this remains information that still has to be checked," Boeten told swissinfo.
He said he expected TdH to make an official statement giving a clearer picture within a few days.
TdH took immediate charge of 24 children when the Etireno docked in Cotonou on April 17. So far, only one child has been claimed by relatives, strengthening the belief that they were indeed the victims of illegal trafficking.
"As you can imagine, they are very confused," says Alfonso Gonzalez-Jaggli, TdH's delegate for Benin and Togo.
He told swissinfo that TdH was looking after all the children under the age of 14. There are 16 girls and seven boys. Two come from Mali, eight from Togo and 13 from Benin. The youngest is just three years old.
In addition, TdH identified 17 boys aged between 14 and 18 who are being protected at an SOS Children's Village at Calavi, 17km from Cotonou.
Gonzalez-Jaggi said that when they arrived in Cotonou, the children were very hungry, thirsty and tired, although their general state of health was "acceptable". A few had respiratory problems, such as flu and bronchitis, which were associated with their time at sea.
Boeten told swissinfo that none of the children seemed to be profoundly traumatised by the events of the past three weeks. Nevertheless, the task of piecing together those events for the purpose of the official investigation launched by the Beninese authorities, has been far from easy.
"It's very difficult to get an accurate information from the children themselves," Boeten says.
"They are afraid and confused. They often don't know the name of their village. It takes a long to time to win their trust," he adds. "Our first duty is to care for them."
Given the official inquiry, the children will have to remain with TdH in Cotonou. Boeten says this could be for "one or two weeks, maybe even a month".
"Our role is to guarantee the protection and welfare of the children while the inquiry is being carried out," Gonzalez-Jaggli says. TdH will help to trace their families once it is decided that they can return to their villages.
Unicef says that some 200,000 children, often from poorest countries, are trafficked every year in West and Central Africa. Many end up working on the coffee and cocoa plantations of Ivory Coast and Gabon. Others work in sweatshops, or as domestic servants and prostitutes.
Their families are often duped into believing they are being taken away to receive an education or to get a well-paid job.
The Terre des Hommes Foundation, which has its headquarters in Lausanne is the largest Swiss children's aid organisation operating outside Switzerland.
by Roy Probert
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