A total of 216 victims of human trafficking have been rescued by police in Benin and Nigeria in an operation coordinated by global police organisation, Interpol.
The victims, mainly children, are believed to have been trafficked across West Africa for the purposes of forced labour and prostitution, Interpol said.
Dubbed Operation Epervier II, the raids targeted markets in the capitals of both Benin and Nigeria, as well as, airports, seaports and border areas. The operation involved 100 police officers across both countries who rescued 157 child slaves in early April.
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According to Interpol, many of the 157 rescued minors were moved around as ‘merchandise’ themselves across the border, and made to work in markets all day, peddling goods, fetching water, cooking, carrying heavy loads, or working as housemaids.
Of the minors rescued, 36 were boys and 121 were girls. All the victims originated from Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Togo. The children rescued were between the ages of 11 and 16, with the youngest rescued at the land border between Benin and Nigeria.
The boy was forced to smuggle heavy goods such as bags of rice weighing up to 40 kg across the Benin-Nigeria border, according to Interpol.
Most of the children faced beatings and psychological abuse, including death threats and warnings they would never see their parents again. Scores of them have since returned to their parents while others are being taken care of by national agencies or NGOs.
Meanwhile, during the operation, the police also arrested 47 suspected traffickers and seized vehicles, cash, phones and computers.
Nigeria remains a source, transit and destination point for sex trafficking, forced labour, trafficking in human organs, and related crimes, Head, European Union Delegation to Nigeria and ECOWAS, Ambassador Ketil Karlsen, said earlier this month.
He indicated that the EU wants to stop all forms of migration because it is dangerous, unprotected, and exploitative, the News Agency of Nigeria reported.
In Benin, despite attempts by authorities to eliminate the practice of child labour, children in the country engage in the worst forms of child labour, including in the production of cotton and crushed granite, according to findings by the United States Department of Labour.
“Children also perform dangerous tasks in domestic work and street vending. Limited resources for the systematic enforcement of child labour laws impede government efforts to protect children from the worst forms of child labour,” the findings, published in 2017, said.
Interpol said it is conducting investigations to dismantle the crime networks active in Benin and Nigeria. Paul Stanfield, Interpol’s director of organised and emerging crime told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that this might, however, be difficult, considering most organized crime groups are motivated by money.
“It is challenging (to stop them) in the region because of lack of resources,” he said.
Despite all the tough laws put in place, human trafficking in Africa has remained one of the most lucrative businesses on the continent, with statistics showing that millions of children are trafficked within and outside Africa every year.
But even with all the statistics, the actual scope of this illegal business remains a mystery, partly due to the lack of a clear definition of what human trafficking encompasses. This has led to flawed estimates and inconclusive legislation.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse, of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.
UNODC interprets exploitation to mean, at a minimum, the exploitation of prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.
At a national level, Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa and Ethiopia lead in human trafficking.
A recent report by the US State Department also ranks Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Kenya as some of the major sources and destinations of humans trafficked for forced labour and sex in Africa.
According to UNODC, human trafficking in Africa has been facilitated by unending conflicts, humanitarian disasters and vulnerability of people in crisis situations. The organizations also cite corruption among law enforcers and at seaports and airports as another major reason for increased human trafficking in Africa.
Poverty, lack of education and unemployment in Africa are the other main factors causing human trafficking to flourish in the continent. Desperation has left many Africans vulnerable to human trafficking as they look for opportunities abroad.
Lack of awareness about the whole subject of human trafficking has also contributed largely to its progression. Many victims of sex and forced labour trafficking do not know they are victims of the crime.