Gabon struggles to stem tide of child trafficking

A young boy from Togo hauls a load of bananas at the Mont Bouet market in Libreville. Bought in West Africa, hundreds of child victims of trafficking arrive in Gabon, a relatively wealthy oil country in Central Africa struggling to fight against networks of traffickers. (AFP)
Updated 04 July 2018
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Gabon struggles to stem tide of child trafficking

LIBREVILLE: Senami, a 13-year-old girl, was purchased in Benin.
“My father didn’t want to sell me, but someone put a spell on my uncle and he persuaded my father,” she said.
Taken to oil-rich Gabon, Senami slaved as a domestic servant and later as a roadside peanut seller.
With a mixture of rage and sorrow, she recounts her tragic life — inhumanly long hours, a mat on the floor to serve as a bed and scraps for food.
She worked for a “wicked” Beninese woman in the Gabon capital Libreville who made her “do everything.”
“But when she found that 100 CFA francs (15 centimes) were missing she beat me with slippers and then with a stick,” she said.
Niakate Tene, 12, was bought by a man in her native Mali for 500,000 CFA francs (€760) in 2012 and was forced to marry him.
She was found by the police chained in her husband’s home and in tears. Her husband only did a month in prison before being temporarily released.
Senami and Niakate — their names have been changed — are among many, possibly hundreds, of foreign boys and girls who toil in Gabon as de-facto slaves.
Yet Gabon is only one of nine West African nations, alongside Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria and Togo, where the UN says centuries-old exploitation of child labor remains entrenched.
Recruitment for domestic work appears to be the most prevalent form but other types of labor include work in plantations, small trade, begging and soliciting.
The children survive on meagre portions of food and are generally made to sleep on the floor. If they are paid, the rewards are meagre, for the salary goes to the trafficker.
Many youngsters are brought to Gabon through perilous routes, sometimes on rickety boats on winding rivers.
“Six people died during our journey — we traveled on a dugout canoe for four days,” said Senami, who came to Gabon at the start of this year.
Today she lives in a state-run transit center housing about 80 other rescued foreign children. She only dreams of returning to Benin “to be back with my family and to work for myself.”
Child trafficking in West Africa involves a murky, complex web of cross-border greed, said Michel Ikamba, a Unicef official in Gabon.
It entails traffickers in the country where the child is picked up, middle men in a transit nation such as Nigeria, and finally “receivers” in the host country who take the children and put them to work, said Ikamba.
The gang cream off the money from the children’s work, said Melanie Mbadinga Matsanga, a member of the Gabonese national committee in charge of fighting child labor.
A child nanny is paid between 100,000 and 150,000 CFA francs (€150 to €230) a month but the money goes to traffickers, Ikamba said.
“The child is not paid... and nothing goes back to the home village,” he said.
“Trafficked children can work from 10 to 20 hours a day, carry heavy loads, operate dangerous tools and lack adequate food or drink,” a Unicef report said.
In Gabon, the phenomenon has reduced since a 2004 law criminalized child trafficking, Unicef said, but could not give figures.
“We have referred many people to the courts and it made an impact,” said Sylvianne Moussavou, a lieutenant-colonel in the police who is involved in the fight against child trafficking.
But, she cautioned, many of the children had their ages changed in fake papers produced by the traffickers in order to escape prosecution.
A judge, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some of his peers overlooked certain abuses on the grounds that child labor was an old social tradition and less of a criminal act than child marriage.
And, he said, traffickers or their colleagues often tried to bribe magistrates when they were caught.
“Some judges are turning this fight against child trafficking into a money-making machine,” he said.
In the meantime, the practice of child exploitation continues.
“I know many people who employ children at home. They know it’s illegal but a child costs less,” a Cameroonian living in Libreville said.


Thousands rally in support of Hong Kong police

Updated 38 min 39 sec ago
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Thousands rally in support of Hong Kong police

  • Hong Kong has been rocked by more than a month of huge and largely peaceful protests
  • Demonstrators and rights groups have accused riot police of using excessive force, including tear gas and rubber bullets, and public anger against the force is boiling over

HONG KONG: Tens of thousands of people rallied in support of Hong Kong’s police and pro-Beijing leadership on Saturday, a vivid illustration of the polarization coursing through the city after weeks of anti-government demonstrations.
Hong Kong has been rocked by more than a month of huge and largely peaceful protests — as well as a series of separate violent confrontations with police — sparked by a proposed law that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China and other countries.
The bill has since been suspended, but that has done little to quell public anger which has evolved into a wider movement calling for democratic reforms, universal suffrage and a halt to sliding freedoms in the semi-autonomous financial hub.
Saturday’s rally was a moment for the establishment to muster their own supporters.
A predominantly older crowd was joined by families and younger residents, waving Chinese flags and holding banners supporting the police.
“Friends who used violence say they love Hong Kong too, but we absolutely cannot approve of their way of expressing themselves,” said Sunny Wong, 42, who works in insurance.
A 60-year-old woman surnamed Leung said protesters who stormed and vandalized the legislature earlier this month must be held responsible for their acts.
“I really dislike people using violence on others... it was so extreme,” Leung said.
Police estimated a turnout of 103,000 people at the peak of the rally, while local media cited organizers as saying 316,000 attended.
Hong Kong’s police are in the midst of a major reputational crisis.
With no political solution on the table from the city’s pro-Beijing leaders, the police have become enmeshed in a seemingly intractable cycle of clashes with protesters who have continued to hit the streets in huge numbers for six weeks.
Demonstrators and rights groups have accused riot police of using excessive force, including tear gas and rubber bullets, and public anger against the force is boiling over.
Police insist their crowd control responses have been proportionate and point to injured officers as proof that a hardcore minority of protesters mean them harm.
Some of the most violent clashes occurred last Sunday when riot police battled protesters hurling projectiles inside a luxury mall. Some 28 people were injured, including 10 officers.
There is growing frustration among the police force’s exhausted rank and file that neither the city’s leaders, nor Beijing, seem to have any idea how to end the crisis.
Chinese state media and powerful pro-Beijing groups threw their weight behind the pro-police rally.
Saturday’s edition of Hong Kong’s staunchly pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao ran a front page encouraging readers to join with the headline: “Kick away the violence.”
It featured a drawing of a large foot kicking over a pro-democracy demonstrator.
Many of those at the rally held aloft large slogans printed on the spread of Wen Wei Po, another stridently pro-Beijing newspaper in the city.
A rally last month by police supporters saw ugly scenes, with many participants hurling insults and scuffling with younger democracy protesters as well as media covering the gathering.
While the pro-government protests have mustered decent crowds, they have paled in comparison with the huge pro-democracy marches that have regularly drawn hundreds of thousands of people.
Anti-government protesters are planning another large march Sunday afternoon and say they have no plan to back down until key demands are met.
Tensions were also raised after police on Saturday said they had discovered a homemade laboratory making high-powered explosives. A 27-year-old man was arrested and pro-independence materials were also discovered.
Under the 1997 handover deal with Britain, China promised to allow Hong Kong to keep key liberties such as its independent judiciary and freedom of speech.
But many say that 50-year deal is already being curtailed, citing the disappearance into mainland custody of dissident booksellers, the disqualification of prominent politicians and the jailing of pro-democracy protest leaders.
Authorities have also resisted calls for the city’s leader to be directly elected by the people.