- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

BANGUI, Central African Republic When Carolle Sissokpi, 13, left Togo to live with the family of an Air Afrique engineer in the Central African Republic, she thought life was going to be better.

She dreamed of going to school, eating good food and living in a comfortable house.

But from within the high walls of a children's refuge center here in the capital, she recalls the hours of housework, the beatings and how she became the center of an international child-smuggling scandal.

"If something went wrong in the house, I was beaten. When the neighbors asked about the noise, I was accused of gossiping," she said.

"Sometimes, I wasn't given food. I survived by thinking about home in Togo."

Justin Akakpovi from Togo is accused of smuggling other Togolese girls to Bangui to help his wife with housework. After hearing the children scream, neighbors reported him to the Social Affairs Ministry, which is arranging Carolle's repatriation.

"The case of Carolle has shown the government that children are trafficked into this country. Until now, the problem didn't officially exist," said Yves Tanaisse, the country's director of social services.

According to aid workers, widespread poverty amid pockets of economic growth in the center of Africa is leading to an increase in the smuggling of children across national borders. Taken from poorer countries like Togo, Benin, Ghana and Mali, minors are sold to work as servants, farm help and laborers and sometimes as prostitutes in economically stronger Gabon, Nigeria and Ivory Coast.

In Gabon, the trade in children is fueled by an oil boom as immigrant workers from neighboring countries bring minors with them to work as servants. Children from Chad have been sold to families of rich gem dealers in Central Africa's diamond-mining towns, while in Ivory Coast, youngsters from Mali have been discovered working on farms.

There are also cases of girls smuggled north across the Sahara Desert to Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands to work in the sex industry.

The U.N. agency for children, UNICEF, estimates that 60 percent of the girls smuggled into Italy are from Nigeria.

"Ignorance is partly to blame. Families think [that] by allowing their children to be brought up by someone else, they are offering them a better life," said Chantal Amokomayen, a UNICEF representative in Bangui.

In Cameroon, parents have been told their sons will be taken abroad to train as soccer players. Street children in Benin and Togo have been kidnapped, then sold into slavery.

In war-torn countries like Sierra Leone, children have been taken by traffickers posing as philanthropists, who promise to provide them temporary homes away from the fighting, but then disappear without a trace.

"Nigerian children have been smuggled abroad so their body parts can be used," said Miss Amokomayen.

Child traffickers prey on the cultural acceptability of raising children in substitute families, where domestic work usually is expected. Typically, women act as intermediaries.

But there are also cases of parents parting with their offspring in return for money. In Nigeria, children have been sold for as little as $100.

"Poverty is a factor. Trafficking is increasing in the region because parents are looking for money," said Brigitte Balipou, president of the children's court in Bangui.

Few African countries have specific laws or institutions to combat child trafficking. In Ghana, for example, traffickers of children are charged under anti-slavery laws.

"We need to train customs officials, so they know what to look out for. Often, they are only interested in the goods coming across the border, not the children," said Mr. Tanaisse, the social-services director in Bangui.

The Central African Republic's parliament passed legislation in May to establish a juvenile court to hear cases of child mistreatment and also to try minors charged with crimes. Officials say they hope the court also will offer protection to other children illegally brought into the country.

"If an adult beats a child or makes them do housework instead of allowing them to go to school, or forces them to beg on the street, then that child can be offered protection," said Oxfam child-protection adviser Gaetan Duhamel.

Agreements signed between Nigeria and Italy are leading to the repatriation of children who were smuggled into Italy. But although countries in Central Africa have signed international conventions drawn up by the United Nations upholding the rights of children, these laws are only partly applied, say aid workers.

Many parents regard their children as chattels and expect them to contribute to the family by bringing in money or performing chores.

"The situation for children is devastating. The mentality of people is not to concentrate on children's rights. Children are expected to serve their families' needs, not the other way around," said Mr. Duhamel of Oxfam.

At the Marsupial, a child care center in Bangui, Carolle plays cards under a mango tree with the other children while waiting to be reunited with her family.

"When I return to Togo, I want to enter sewing school," she said. That may be possible, using compensation paid to her by Mr. Akakpovi, who faces charges.

"We need to educate parents about the rights of children. The fact that children have rights is a new concept for many people," said the center's director, Gerard Rekouame.

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