Leading British newspaper Telegraph has uncovered a horrid tale of trafficking in children from Nigeria.
Kola Woniye and his wife Seyi Woniye, living in Oyo state, 125 miles west of Nigerian capital Lagos, are ready to sell their two children Sola and Somu for one million naira (5000 pounds), price of a modest second-hand car in Britain.
AdvertisementSeyi, 27, is perched on an armchair below a religious poster declaring "God will provide". She starts to cry. "It is hard for us to do this but we are desperate and this is our last hope," she says.
They do not ask where the children will be taken or what will become of them. They just assume, a local human rights campaigner says later, that a "rich" Englishman will give their sons an improved quality of life.
This is the assumption that forces innumerable poverty-stricken Nigerians sell their children. They are sold with the promise of a better life, but almost all trafficked children will suffer appalling physical and sexual abuse.
Trafficked children as young as seven are forced into domestic slavery in Britain, made to work long hours cooking, cleaning and looking after children, and are deprived of an education. Beatings and sexual abuse are rife. Teenage girls are frequently forced into prostitution. Once they reach 18, psychologically and often physically damaged, they are abandoned with no papers to prove who they are and left vulnerable to further abuse. With nowhere to turn, many fall into crime and the sex trade. Those who go to the authorities for help or are caught committing a crime are likely to be deported.
Dozens of babies are now being brought into Britain to be used by fraudsters to obtain benefits worth tens of thousands of pounds a year. Victoria Climbie, an eight-year old brought to the UK from west Africa for benefit fraud, died in February 2000 from abuse she suffered at the hands of her great-aunt, Marie-Thérèse Kouao.
Some babies and older children are passed around and used by up to 10 families to claim benefits, according to anti-trafficking campaigners in London.
Debbie Ariyo, the executive director of the London-based charity Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, said: "These babies are not loved. They are just used to defraud the state and provide unscrupulous people with houses and other income."
Yet how could the Woniyes, or any couple, sell their children? One human rights official said: "They are driven to this by desperate poverty and despair. They cannot take any more. They feel this is the only option they have left."
When Cynthia, 12 arrived in England, she was handed over to a middle-class Nigerian couple in south London who made her do chores and look after three young children. Her passport was confiscated and she was forced to work 16 hours a day for no money. She was brutally beaten for the tiniest perceived failing. She recalls the day the wife repeatedly smashed her over the head with a large, solid frozen fish after a minor misunderstanding.
"They used any excuse to hit me," she said after escaping from her ordeal. "I was treated as a slave and I had no papers to prove who I was. I cried so much that I had no tears left."
It is not only girls. Joseph and Victor were sold by their widowed mother to a relative in Nigeria, brought to England when they were nine and 10 and subjected to years of physical and mental abuse.
They were put to work in a restaurant in east London and forced to carry heavy bags of meat from Dalston market to the restaurant and work from 5am to midnight. They were regularly beaten with a large wooden spoon by the restaurant owner. The boys ran away a few years ago. They are living in London but both are damaged by the abuse.
British police say that more needs to be done to raise awareness of child trafficking. "The west African cases are especially difficult because we are mostly dealing with a closed community and it is largely a hidden crime," said a senior Scotland Yard officer.
Under the new president Umaru Yar'Adua, Nigerian police have also launched a crackdown, with some success, including the case of a 40-year-old child trafficker jailed for 20 years on Tuesday.
But Godwin Morka, the executive director of the Lagos anti-trafficking unit, Nathip, admits that child trafficking is "rampant" in many Nigerian states. "We know these children are not going to happy homes and we are doing what we can on limited resources," he said.