Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-SIERRA LEONE: Police Dismantle Child Trafficking Syndicate

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Aug 31 2004 (IPS) - The Sierra Leonean police have busted what they refer to as the biggest child trafficking syndicate in the West African nation since the end of the civil conflict three years ago.

‘’We have arrested and charged three persons thought to be the brains behind the syndicate. And we are doing all in our power to have the Sierra Leonean kids trafficked to be brought back home,’’ says police commissioner for crime services Richard Moigbeh.

Some 29 children were recently trafficked to the United States allegedly under the auspices of ‘Help A Needy Child International (HANCI), which operates an orphanage and a home for destitute children in Sierra Leone’s northern town of Makeni.

The scheme went like this: two of the prime suspects currently in police custody Henry Abu and John Gbla would allegedly identify and approach destitute parents and propose to them the adoption of their children by foster parents.

The unsuspecting parents who could barely afford food for the family let alone send their children to school fall in for the bait and gladly give away their children.

Moigbeh says the children are first placed in an orphanage and then ‘’taken to a neighbouring country like Guinea or Ghana, in batches before finally being flown to the United States.’’

Their parents, he adds, are hardly informed about the true picture of what then happens to their children. A U.S.-based agency, the Maine Adoption Placement Service (MAPS) had allegedly been colluding with HANCI to facilitate the trafficking, he claims.

But HANCI operations manager Kelfa Mallay has denied the child trafficking allegations. His charity activities, he says, do not even include adoption of children. ‘’We did have a working relationship with the U.S. agency MAPS but we’d separated a couple of years ago,’’ Mallay told journalists.

He said Abu, one of the suspects on trial was initially a staff of HANCI but broke off later and together with his co-accused Gbla, set up their own charity and acted as desk officer for MAPS.

There has been no reaction from MAPS about the allegations.

But the police say, while prosecution of the three suspects is underway, efforts are being made to have the children in the United States repatriated home and reunited with their families.

Moigbeh told IPS: ‘’We have been in constant touch with MAPS in the U.S. and they’ve acknowledged receiving the 29 children. Our job now is to see how we could secure the children and have them returned to their families here (in Sierra Leone).’’

He describes the child trafficking scam as a criminal offence and has dispatched police officers to trace the biological parents of the other children at the Cherith orphanage in Makeni to reunite them with their parents.

‘’In the meantime, we are going to place those children at the orphanage (in Makeni) under the protection of the ministry of gender and children’s affairs,’’ Moigbeh adds. The exact number of children at the Cherith orphanage has not been disclosed but police describe its operations as suspect.

Reactions to the child trafficking scam have been mixed. While many acknowledge the criminality of the syndicate, the difficult economic circumstances are equally advanced for such a social vice.

Margaret Kabia, a mother of six who lost her husband during Sierra Leone’s war, says: ‘’If they are legitimately adopting my kid, I would offer even two. I am an unemployed single parent struggling to bring up six children. This is simply too much for me’’.

Osman Jalloh, a businessman in the capital Freetown, considers child trafficking as an offence. ‘’It (child trafficking) is unjustifiable in all its forms. I can understand the economic problems in the country but that should not warrant anyone to prey on poor parents and criminally traffic their children without their consent,’’ he says.

Bassie Conteh, a push-cart driver in Freetowm, says: ‘’For me, there’s nothing wrong with it. At the end of the day, I know my kid would be in America and help me back home.’’

Sierra Leone is a signatory to the convention on the right of the child. Having experienced first hand the abuse of children during the country’s civil war such as forceful conscription, rape and enslavement, the authorities are apparently acting tough on child right abuses.

Poverty, deprivation and the break-up of traditional family ties have made children even more vulnerable to various forms of abuses. An official at the ministry of social welfare told IPS last week that more stringent measures would be adopted to protect the rights of children.

‘’We would closely monitor orphanages and other child-care NGOs in order to ascertain their activities. Such a scam is unacceptable and must be put to halt once and for all,’’ the official said.

Human and child trafficking is fast becoming a problem in the West African sub-region. Two weeks ago, a derelict vessel was seized by Spanish police with the help of Guinean and Sierra Leonean security forces on high seas attempting to traffic some 500 would-be illegal immigrants. Many were thought to be young people.

The police say their investigations into the latest scam in Sierra Leone are continuing.

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