Photo story: Child Trafficking in West Africa

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Photo story: Child Trafficking in West Africa

Photographer Ana Palacios shows the work to rescue and support trafficked and abandoned children in Togo and Benin.

Child trafficking: someone goes to a poor family and says they can give their child a better life. They give them some money for the child, in West Africa often only $35. The trafficker takes the child far away to a life of slavery. They have to work long days for no pay and suffer abuse.

But governments, local and international NGOs and UNICEF are all trying to stop this. They have plans to stop trafficking and they are helping the children who work as slaves. They find safe places, help with emotional and medical problems, educate them and then take the children back to their community or help make them independent. These are not the children’s real names.


Le Ciel and L’Amour are now safe. Before they came to Foyer Jean Paul II, a recovery centre for girls after trafficking or forced marriage in Kara, Togo, they had to sleep in the streets, at risk of assault, robbery and sexual abuse.


L’Amour and Pagne say they are 13 years old, because their papers say that. Their birth certificates, from the Foyer Jean Paul II run by Salesian missionaries, say they are younger than they probably are, so they are young enough to go to primary school. L’Amour is the daughter of a sex worker. Her mother did not look after her. Pagne never went to school because she was sent away from her village – people said she was a witch.


Rouge was born in Nigeria, after his mother’s short relationship with a Chinese man. His father never accepted him as his child, and his mother died when he was one. He lived with his very poor grandmother for a few years, but she could not feed him so he ran away to live on the streets. A primary school head teacher found him, starving and with no clothes. She took him to the Foyer Inmmaculee in Kara, Togo, run by Missiones Salesianas. He is now going to school, but has no family to go back to.


It is 1 o’ clock, time for a rest, but these boys want to play at super heroes, not sleep. They are some of the 30 child residents of the Centro de la Alegría Infantil in Cotonú, Benin, run by the NGO Mensajeros de la Paz. They have all have escaped terrible situations – some were orphans, abandoned or exploited by human traffickers. Many have very bad dreams, or scream and cry in the day for no reason, because of the terrible experiences they have had.

Grenat’s return


Grenat arrives back in Gbeko, Benin. This is an important day – all the village children are interested. Grenat’s family sold him to work in Nigeria, but now he is a hero. He stayed at the Centro de la Alegría Infantil, then they found his family.


Grenat’s father signs (with a thumb print) the agreement to bring his son back to the family. The villagers, the village chief and the NGO social worker are witnesses. This will stop his father thinking about selling Grenat again.


Grenat’s first school day begins. The NGO Mensajeros de la Paz will check for two years with surprise visits to his family, and 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 – so children like Grenat can talk freely about their situation.


Model student: Dulce, from Ghana. Her father sold her when she was seven to a Togolese family to work as a maid. She often had to make soap and she still has burns on her hands from the caustic soda. The Salesian missionaries found her, asked the government if they could take her and offered her a place in their shelter. She is now a second year university student studying Philosophy and Arts. She works part-time at a pesticide factory to earn money to rent a room.


Lavande and Marron smile as they return to their town, 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 suffered exploitation and abuse. Marron ran away after they hit his head with a metal bar until he was almost dead. Both spent several months at the Centro de la Alegría Infantil. They had physical and psychological care there. Educators at the centre have had several conversations with their families who have promised not to sell them again.


Chantal loves fashion and she is training as a tailor. She comes from Ghana, where her family sold her to a cocoa plantation owner. She spent time and got training at a shelter run by Carmelite missionaries in Lome, Togo’s capital. She does not want to return to her family and wants to be independent.

These NGOs supported the children in our story – they have so far successfully reintegrated over 1,500 children:

Mensajeros de la Paz in Cotonou, Benin – Misiones Salesianas in Kara and Lome, Togo – Carmelitas Vedruna in Lome, Togo –

Ana Palacios is a photojournalist working on African issues.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).