Children as young as 10 were among more than 230 people rescued last month during a series of raids combating sex trafficking and forced labour in Niger.
Operation Sarraounia uncovered 46 children in forced begging and sex work and hundreds of Ghanaian men who had been recruited online and then enslaved in the capital, Niamey, said Interpol, which provided assistance.
The vast majority of the children rescued were aged between 10 and 17. Most had been forced into sexually exploitative work in hostels and slums, while others had been kidnapped from their families and forced to beg at markets and bus stations.
Many of the minors required immediate medical attention, with some of them displaying advanced human papillomavirus infections, according to Interpol.
Police arrested 18 suspected traffickers during the 10-day operation in late January, said Interpol’s secretary general, Jürgen Stock.
“Whether it’s children, men or women, traffickers show little regard for the health and wellbeing of victims, they are simply a commodity to make money,” said Stock.
“As vital as it is to track and arrest those behind these crimes, we also need to ensure that those rescued are protected and respected throughout the police process.”
The underage victims were all returned to their families, Interpol said, with follow-up provided by social services and NGOs.
It is unclear what will happen to the 180 men who had been promised “decent work” after being recruited online in Ghana, transported by bus to Niger and then held captive in a house in the centre of Niamey. Traffickers had confiscated their travel documents and told the men their travel fees and all costs related to their recruitment, including employment commissions, would be deducted from future wages, victims told Interpol.
Niger’s police chief, Barka Dankassoua, said the operation is likely to uncover more information on trafficking in the nation, through which thousands of men, women and children transit each year en route to north Africa and western Europe.
“Operation Sarraounia has shed much light on several criminal groups and trafficking routes,” said Dankassoua.
“The skills our officers have learned will be put to good use as we follow up on a number of leads.”
Trafficking is big business in Niger, where victims are compelled to work in mines, agricultural and manufacturing industries, or forced into domestic servitude or marriage, according to the 2019 US State Department’s trafficking in persons country report.
Descent- and caste-based slavery practices also continue to be perpetuated by politically influential tribal leaders across the nation, the report claims.
“We are shocked to hear of the news of people being mercilessly exploited, including the horrific abuse of children,” said Jakub Sobik from Anti-Slavery International, which helped Niger attain its first slavery prosecution in 2014.
“The main challenge for authorities now is to ensure that the affected children and adults are safe from retrafficking and can rebuild their lives in freedom.
“There is still much to do for Niger to tackle slavery, including a traditional exploitative practice of teachers in Qur’anic schools forcing children to beg. Our research also indicates that traffickers often pose as Qur’anic teachers to recruit their victims.”