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Trafficked children reach a place of safety


It’s a trick that is played upon the most desperate in some of the poorest regions of the world. Families struggling to make ends meet are approached by an intermediary to give up a child. There is a vague promise of a better life for the child than the parents could themselves provide, and some cash is offered. In West Africa the sums can be as little as $35.

The child is then relocated far away from their home region and enters a life of slavery, forced into long days of exploitative unpaid work and abuse.

But governments, local and international NGOs and UNICEF are all involved in the push to try and bust this racket – both by developing strategies to stop trafficking and by coming to the rescue of these vulnerable children. The latter involves finding them a place of safety, providing counselling and medical assistance, addressing their lack of education, and then thinking of ways either to reintegrate the children in their communities or build the skills required for future independence.

All names are pseudonyms chosen by the children themselves.

Togo and Benin children in a place of safety
Le Ciel and L’Amour can rest easy at last. Before they came to Foyer Jean Paul II, a recovery centre for girls who have undergone trafficking or forced marriage in Kara, Togo, they had to sleep rough, at risk of assault, robbery and sexual abuse.
Togo and Benin children in a place of safety

L’Amour and Pagne claim to be 13 years old, because that’s what their papers say. Their birth certificates, processed at the Foyer Jean Paul II run by Salesian missionaries, assign them a younger age than their likely real one, as that would have made them too old to be able to access primary education. L’Amour, a sex worker’s daughter, was neglected, and Pagne was accused of witchcraft and banished from her village. She had never been to school.
Togo and Benin children in a place of safety

Rouge was born in Nigeria, the result of his mother’s on-off relationship with a Chinese man. His father never acknowledged him and his mother died when he was one. After a spell with his grandmother, who was destitute and could not feed him, he ran away to live on the streets. Half-starved and naked, he was rescued by a primary school head teacher who took him to the Foyer Inmmaculee in Kara, Togo, run by Missiones Salesianas. He is now being educated, but nobody has come forward to claim him, so it is unlikely he will go back to his family. 
Togo and Benin children in a place of safety

It is 1 o’ clock, time for a nap, but these boys would rather play at super heroes than sleep. They are among 30 child residents of the Centro de la Alegría Infantil in Cotonú, Benin, run by the NGO Mensajeros de la Paz. All have escaped situations of vulnerability – whether orphaned, abandoned or exploited by human traffickers. Many suffer from night terrors, or scream and cry during the day for no apparent reason, because of the dreadful experiences they have had. 

Grenat’s return

Togo and Benin children in a place of safety
Grenat’s arrival in Gbeko, Benin, is a major event as evident from the curiosity of the village’s children. He was sold to work in Nigeria and is returning a hero. After a spell at the Centro de la Alegría Infantil, his family was located and today is the big reunion. 
Togo and Benin children in a place of safety
With a thumb impression Grenat’s father signs the agreement which sets out conditions for the reintegration of his son back to the family. It’s witnessed by the villagers, the village chief and the NGO social worker. This will act as a social check should his father consider selling Grenat again.
Togo and Benin children in a place of safety
Grenat’s first school day begins. The NGO Mensajeros de la Paz will monitor his progress for the next two years to make sure he is unharmed, by paying surprise visits to his family, talking with him, his parents, the teacher and the village chief. The NGO also organizes summer camps for children who have returned home and others who still live at the shelter – this way children like Grenat can talk freely about their situation. 
Togo and Benin children in a place of safety
Model student: Dulce, from Ghana, was sold aged seven by her father to a Togolese family to work as a maid. One of her regular chores was to make soap and she has scarred hands from caustic soda burns. The Salesian missionaries learned of her plight, asked the government for custody and offered her a place in their shelter. Now a second year university student majoring in Philosophy and Arts, she works part-time at a pesticide factory, which gives her enough money to rent a room. 
Togo and Benin children in a place of safety
Expectant smiles as Lavande and Marron return to their township, Sedje Denou in Benin, for the first time since they were sold into slavery in Nigeria. She worked as a housemaid and he in a biscuit shop. Both were exploited and abused. Marron ran away after he was beaten about the head with a metal bar until he was almost dead. Both spent several months at the Centro de la Alegría Infantil where they received physical and psychological care. Educators at the centre have had several conversations with their families who have promised not to sell them again. 
Togo and Benin children in a place of safety
The call of fashion beckons Chantal who is training as a tailor. Originally from Ghana, she was sold by her family to a cocoa plantation owner. She spent some time receiving vocational training at a shelter run by Carmelite missionaries in Lome, Togo’s capital, and has no desire to return to her family. Independence is her goal.

The individuals in our story were supported by the following NGOs who have so far successfully reintegrated over 1,500 children:

Mensajeros de la Paz in Cotonou, Benin – www.mensajerosdelapaz.com

Misiones Salesianas in Kara and Lome, Togo – www.misionessalesianas.org         

Carmelitas Vedruna in Lome, Togo – www.vedruna.org

Ana Palacios is a photojournalist who focuses on African issues. Her work has been published in SternDer SpiegelThe Guardian, Al JazeeraEl País and Tiempo among others.

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