The government, UNICEF and an aid group stopped short of alleging in a joint statement that any of the 40 children and young adults aboard the Nigerian-registered MV Etireno when it docked in Benin on April 17 were destined for slavery.
Claims that the Etireno carried up to 250 child slaves sparked a frantic international search off the West African coast last month. But the hunt appeared to end in fiasco when Benin authorities said they had found mostly economic migrants aboard, some of them accompanied by children.
However, in a joint statement issued Monday, the government, UNICEF and aid Group Terre des Hommes said questioning of 23 out of the 40 children found on the ship had revealed that at least a dozen of them were destined for labor.
"It is confirmed that the adventure of the ship Etireno enters effectively in the category of a regional traffic in minors and a clandestine workers' network," said the statement.
The three signatories "vigorously denounce this practice."
The statement said five of the children questioned reported that a financial transaction had taken place before their departure, while eight told officials that they had traveled with adults they did not know.
The statement gave no more details, but Alfonso Gonzalez of Terre des Hommes, a local non-governmental organization, told Reuters some families had received between 10,000 ($13.50) and 20,000 francs CFA for each child.
The children old enough to understand what was happening to them said they were headed to Gabon to work in commerce, agriculture or domestic service, said Terre des Hommes.
Gonzalez added that most of the children were heading for work in oil-rich Gabon.
The children and youths came from Benin, Togo, Mali, Senegal and
Guinea, ranging in age from infancy to 24, said the statement.
Only one child has been claimed by any of the accompanying
adults, Terre des Hommes said in a separate statement issued in
Lausanne, Switzerland, where it is based.
Monday, German soccer team VfL Wolfsburg suspended its top scorer Jonathan Akpoborie, a Nigerian national who owns the Etireno with his family, and asked him to answer questions about the case. Akpoborie has denied allegations of any
wrongdoing raised in the German media.
The hunt for the Etireno, which roamed the West African coast for days after being turned back by Gabon and Cameroon, grabbed world attention and highlighted a trade UNICEF says involves 200,000 children a year in West and Central Africa.
However, when the boat eventually docked after a two-week-long, 1,250-mile round-trip in Benin's main port of Cotonou, claims about its human cargo of up to 250 child slaves appeared to be grossly exaggeraed.
Lawrence Onome, the ship's Nigerian captain, denied he was ferrying child slaves and said he had nothing to hide. Some officials said the Etireno had been confused with a second ship, whose name and whereabouts remain a mystery. No second ship
has been found.
Police nonetheless launched an investigation. A final report is expected next week.
Poor African families sometimes sell or are tricked out of their children, who end up working for no pay in plantations or as domestic servants.
UNICEF, which believes some 200,000 children are trafficked across West and Central African borders every year, says child slaves are often accompanied by adults pretending to be their relatives. Many of the children never see their parents again.
Smugglers persuade desperately poor families in countries such as Benin, Mali and Burkina Faso to give up their children for as little as $14 in the belief they will be educated and found jobs.
Instead, many are sold to coffee, cocoa and cotton plantation owners in better-off countries such as Gabon and Ivory Coast. Others end up as domestic workers, market vendors and even prostitutes.
Benin, a country of 6 million people, is no stranger to slavery.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it became known as the Slave Coast for its role as a center of a vast trade that ferried slaves from Africa to the Americas.
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