for National Geographic News
A flurry of news stories about a missing ship suspected of carrying child slaves stirred the world's moral outrage last week. When the ship finally came to port in Benin, West Africa, only a few unaccompanied children were found on board.
The incident nonetheless highlights the very real problem of trafficking in children. As part of efforts to halt the practice, the Red Cross had organized a meeting on the issue this week in Dakar, Senegal. Representatives of Red Cross agencies from 16 countries in West Africa are attending.
"The slave ship incident has raised public awareness of the issue," said Denis McClean of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "The only good thing about it is that it might help mobilize volunteers and donor support."
McClean said the Red Cross has an important role to play in efforts to halt child slavery because of its strong networks of volunteers and grassroots communication. In Benin alone, the Red Cross has helped set up watchdog committees in nearly 100 villages to educate parents about what could happen to their children if they are sold.
"Volunteers help educate local people so that parents and relatives aren't trapped by their own ignorance into believing their children will be going to a safe environment that combines work and schooling," McClean said.
Clearly Defined Routes
The United Nations agency for children, UNICEF, estimates that 200,000 children a year are victims of child trafficking in West Africa.
At the First Pan-African Conference on Human Trafficking, held last February, Rima Salah, UNICEF regional director for West and Central Africa, said studies have shown clearly established child trafficking routes involving Benin, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Togo, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger.
Some of the countries provide children for trade, others engage children in labor and crime, and some are mainly used as transit points.
The issue of child trafficking has been the focus of increased attention by countries in West and Central Africa since UNICEF and the International Labour Organization (ILO) organized a workshop on the problem in July 1998.
A follow-up meeting in 2000 drew delegates from 21 countries in the region and led to a number of measures, such as monitoring of borders, establishing mutual agreements to halt child trafficking and establishing internal agencies to handle the problem.
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