A case of modern-day slavery?

NBC News

In a desperately poor nation, were children being sold into slavery?

Dec. 28, 2001 — During this holiday season when we devote so much time and energy and money to our children it’s important to remember those less fortunate. This is a harrowing story of children lost and found and a centuries-old criminal practice that is still, surprisingly, very much alive. 
Correspondent Dennis Murphy reports.

       THEY ARE DELIRIOUSLY happy kids at playtime. Their smiles may be worth a million bucks, but you can get them for a lot less.
       We’re talking about a price per head? “Oh, yes,” says Esther Guluma of UNICEF. “We’re talking about a trade in human beings.”
       For example, the boy Noumon and the little girl, Pelagie. Both are 10 years old.
       They, like all the children in this shelter, are from West Africa. And for a brief moment earlier this year, Noumon and Pelagie — though no one knew their names then — made international headlines as the subjects of a frantic search.
       What had happened to all the children? Where was the missing ferryboat? Desperate questions were asked by aid workers like Esther Guluma of UNICEF.
       “I imagined the worst because we were told that the boat was small and we were told that they did not have sufficient food and water,” she says.
       The story of these two children’s harrowing journey begins and ends in the African nation of Benin — a one-time colony of the French, a Cold-War ally of the Soviets.
       From Coutonou, the country’s main port, Benin ships the world palm oil, a little bit of cotton and yams, and that’s about it. So even though there are fewer than five million people here, it’s a desperately poor nation.
       Up the coast, in the villages where Noumon and Pelagie are from, it’s subsistence living — with food coming from local roots and vegetables, chickens and the sea where every able-bodied man and boy hauls in the net for the day’s catch of sardines.
       But for 300 years, the bigger catch along this coastline was human beings. European slavers bought abducted Africans and sailed them from the beach to the Americas. Slavery was outlawed at the end of the 19th Century, but the trading in humans hasn’t ended. Just this spring, the going rate for a West African child was $14.
       That’s about what Pelagie’s mother received for her the day the girl was turned over to an acquaintance, a woman who came to her village and promised her mother that she would find Pelagie a job and a better life in comparatively prosperous Gabon, a nearby country.
       The delicate 10-year-old told “Dateline” she was being sent away for her own good.
       “My parents said the teaching wasn’t good in school and I would be better off going to Gabon,” says Pelagie.
       The person who came to take her to the boat, did they pay anyone in her family money for her to go with them? “My parents were given some money and they bought me some clothes before I left,” she says.
       Noumon tells a similar story. He is one of four children and says his father is ill a lot and staggered by debt.
       “Every time my father gets sick, he sells everything — chickens, goats — to pay for his treatment,” says Nouman. “That’s why he decided I should go.”
       As with Pelagie, the man who came to Noumon’s village promised to take him to Gabon, the emigrant’s fantasy land. His father ordered Noumon to go with the man named JB.
       “JB came to the village and got us and took us to Cotonou,” says Nouman.
       Pelagie and Noumon, little kids, were loaded separately onto creaky buses that bounced their way down the coast to the port city. Neither had ever left their villages before and here they were in bustling downtown Cotonou with strangers taking them to a ferryboat tied up in the harbor. These two 10 year olds were about to enter the stream of modern-day slavery.
       “Slaves are cheaper today than they’ve ever been in human history,” says Kevin Bales, a professor and expert on the subject of contemporary slavery.
“Slaves are cheaper today than they’ve ever been in human history.”
       He estimates there are 27 million people around the world living today as slaves — disposable people, he calls them.
       “When they’re that cheap, they’re like little plastic pens,” he says. “You use them, you throw them away when they run out.”
       In West Africa, Bales says, traffickers in children play cynically on a long standing cultural tradition of sending the child who’s one-mouth-too-many to an aunt or a brother, to be raised by them. The appeal to the parents is often hard to resist.
       “Why don’t you let me have little Johnny or little Mary?” he says. “We can sort out a job for them working as a cleaner or a domestic helper in the city. And they’ll be able to send you money from the city. And what’s more, I’m going to give you some money right now, just as a kind of advance on their wages.”

For more information
Visit the Web sites of these organizations to learn about this problem
•  Unicef
•  Terre des Hommes
       And many parents understand perfectly well that they’re selling away the child, according to a man who should know. He used to buy children. Call him Amin.
       “I travel from village to village. I bought six children,” says Amin.
       “Dateline” agreed to conceal the identity of this onetime child trafficker. For three years, Amin told us, he bought and sold children as a cash commodity.
       “It’s risky work,” he says.
       Business partners in Gabon, he said, would front him the equivalent of about $150 as a cash advance — money he would dole out to parents in back-country villages in Togo and Benin, $10 or $15 per child.
       “They know the children are coming to work, not to go to school or something like that,” says Amin.
       Once Amin starts moving his goods — the children — the price goes up. There are expenses, he says, like bribes for border guards, and ten bucks a head for the captain and crew who’ll sail them to Gabon.
“I imagined the worst because we were told that the boat was small and we were told that they did not have sufficient food and water.”
       That’s where the kids are off-loaded onto canoes for an end-run around passport authorities, delivered finally in the marsh behind Gabon’s International Airport.
       And then it’s payday for Amin. He turns the kids over to another trafficker who, Amin says, gives him $70 per head for every child he’s brought in.
       Now, according to aid workers, the smuggled kids will be sold again as cheap labor — boys to backbreaking work in the fields or a rock quarry, girls to sweep houses or peddle goods in the market.
       That’s what happened to this girl, Fatou, from Togo. She says she was enslaved to a woman in Gabon who made her sell fruit in the marketplace.
       “She always said I shouldn’t lose anything — not one apple,” says Fatou. “Not even one orange. If I did, she beat me with an electrical cord.”
       Fatou said her parents had sold her to a stranger making promises and it took her eight years to muster up the nerve to run away from the woman who bought her, then beat her, she says, almost daily.
       “I hadn’t seen my mother and father and had no news from them,” says Fatou. “I thought, it is time for me to do something. I can’t stay here anymore.”
       The stream of children like Fatou came for money and a chance but all they got was the bright lights of Gabon.
       Was Pelagie about to become another lost slave child like Fatou? She, too, had been told she’d work in the market.
       Pelagie and Noumon, who thought he might learn to be a fisherman, were put aboard a Nigerian registered ferryboat called the Etireno, a boat that was about to make headlines around the world. They remember being excited by it all. They had dreams of sending money home, and buying small luxuries for themselves like sneakers or a radio.
       But on the crowded ferry, more than 150 passengers were jammed into a small boat. There was nowhere to sleep and only a couple of toilets. The thrill of the big adventure evaporated quickly.
       “The boat was rocking all the time and we got seasick,” says Noumon. “We only ate a little fish and grain. That’s all we had until we reached Gabon.”
       They spent seven days at sea before the coastline loomed up.
       “The lights were on in the boat for the whole voyage and then they were suddenly turned off when we could see Gabon,” says Pelagie.
       What happened after the lights went off on the boat? “The captain said to keep quiet because he didn’t want the policemen to see us,” says Pelagiel. “He told us to stay on the boat until the canoes came.”
       The kids had no passports or papers, but they say the traffickers had no intention of taking the children in the front door.
       Pelagie says men she calls bandits pulled up alongside the idling ferryboat in dugout canoes, the very scheme that Amin had described.
       “They came on the boat with dogs and started taking everyone’s money,” says Pelagie. “But we told them we didn’t have any money. The dogs were scary and two people got bitten. Then we left the boat in groups by canoe.”
       It was dark but Noumon remembers a lagoon. He says the grown-up who’d acted as their escort told them to be quiet, to get out and hide in the marsh.
       “When we got to the marsh the leader ran away and we didn’t see him again until later, when we were caught by the police,” says Nouman.
       Maybe they had a tip, but the illegal immigrants were busted. Gabon police were all over the frightened children cowering in the reeds. The children and a few of the adult smugglers were arrested and brought to a police barracks.
       “After a few days the police told us we were going back to our countries,” says Nouman.
       The children wouldn’t become slaves, for now at least. But their ordeal was far from over. Pelagie, Noumon and the others were deported — ordered to reboard the same ferryboat that had brought them in. Now they were headed back to Benin. Noumon describes a squalid return voyage of the damned — half-starving, tattered children, the unwanted passengers of a glowering captain and crew.
       “There were toilets but they were all locked-up,” he says. “So when we had to go we’d ask, but they kept telling us there was no water. It was the same for washing up.”

       Did they run out of food? Did they have enough food? “No, we ran out of food the day before we got back,” he says.
       The captain of the Etireno steered toward Cameroon to put on food and fuel and that’s where some international relief workers became aware that a boat was drifting around the coast of Africa. Fragmentary accounts became a major news story: a missing ship with perhaps two or three hundred child slaves on board.
       When the news reached Benin, Esther Guluma of UNICEF was distraught. No one could locate the Etireno.
       “I was actually frantic on the phone contacting our UNICEF office in Nigeria, for example, because there were seven ports along the Nigerian coast, and the boat could have stopped in any of them,” says Guluma.
       For five days the boat of reported slave children was unaccounted for. Fears grew that the children were without food or water — even being disposed of.
       “The longer the trip took, one day, two days, three days, finally five days — obviously, I was very worried about the children, even the adults, the condition of anybody who was on that boat,” says Guluma.
       Then before dawn last April 17, the ferryboat and its complement of unwilling passengers pulled back into the port at Cotonou, Benin.
       “It was quite a sense of relief when the boat finally arrived,” says Guluma.
       It turned out there weren’t hundreds of children aboard. There were 138 passengers, with 43 unaccompanied children among them. They were ragged and dazed, but they’d survived. Authorities impounded the boat and her crew and launched an investigation. Who was responsible for this miserable journey? The Etireno’s Nigerian captain told “Dateline” he has nothing to do with smuggling.
       We asked him, “Are you a slave trader?”
       “No,” he replied.
       Is his boat a slave trader? “No,” he replied.
       He is not trafficking in humans? “No,” says the captain. “We do normal business.”
       But when we showed our pictures to some of the rescued children, they identified the captain right away.
       “He’s the one who turned off the lights and told us to lay down and be quiet,” says Noumon.
       The captain was eventually arrested, and the unaccompanied children were taken in by Terres des Hommes, a Swiss relief organization. At a shelter in Cotonou, Noumon and Pelagie waited in limbo, a long way from home.
       But where was home? Some of the children barely knew. Would they ever return to their families? And if they did, for how long? After all, their parents had sold them or given them away to virtual strangers once already. What was to keep them from doing it again? These were worrisome questions for the social workers trying to locate the children’s families.
       After weeks of searching, they found Noumon’s father in a tiny fishing village. He’d heard about his boy weeks before on the radio and was beside himself with worry.
       “If I had been killed, that would have been better for me because I didn’t know what to do,” he says.
       Across the lagoon the social workers found Pelagie’s parents.
       “When I think of her I cry,” says her mother.
       Pelagie’s father says, “Can you have a child and not think about her? I think about her a lot.”
       The parents were summoned to the city, to the shelter, where stern social workers lectured them on the risks of giving away their children to strangers.
       They responded with the expected contrite words: they wouldn’t do it again.
       Noumon’s father promises his boy will learn a trade.
       “I will never allow him to go away again unless I’m dead,” he says. “He’ll never go abroad again.”
       And Pelagie? Her father says, “Every child learns a lesson from something, now she will go back to school.”
       But despite the social workers’ harangue, it sounded as though Pelagie’s father might indeed sell her again.
       “What I’ve learned from this is that sending kids away is a good thing, but we need to be careful,” he says.
       Pelagie’s father has been bitten by the long odds of hope, that his child will be one of the lucky few.
       Do they ever achieve even the minimal dream of getting the bicycle, getting the radio, the sneakers? “Some of them do,” says Kevin Bales. “One out of 100 or one out of 200, in fact, will end up in a situation with a kind master or mistress and the opportunity to go back to their village with a bicycle or a radio or something like that.”
       That may be the ultimate irony. Life here is so miserable for so many that if even one child leaves and comes back with new clothes, or a toy, or memories of a fancy home in a big city, there will be no end to the hoping.
       “For every one of those, there are hundreds who end up lost, brutalized, abused,” says Bales.
       The two children we met were ultimately returned to their parents five months after leaving home. Aid workers tell us that both kids are still at home in their villages with their parents and are going to school.
       The aid workers say they will visit them every few months for the next year to make sure the children aren’t sent away again.