updated 4/23/2004 9:11:34 AM ET 2004-04-23T13:11:34

The trafficking of African women and children for prostitution or cheap labor is aggravated by war, poverty and a failure to register births, UNICEF said in a study Friday.

Half the continent’s 53 governments say trafficking is a serious concern but there are no reliable figures, said Andrea Rossi, an Italian expert who wrote the report by the U.N. Children’s Fund.

“Every country represents a different problem,” Rossi told reporters at a meeting of African Union ministers in Benin. “But at the national level in Africa there is a lack of capacity to collect data.”

Some 80 percent of African nations reported “internal trafficking,” where individuals do not cross borders but are shifted around the country to meet demand for cheap household and farm labor and prostitution.

Nigeria and Gabon are the major destinations for individuals trafficked from neighboring countries in West Africa, including strife-hit Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Individuals from countries including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola are taken to South Africa — one of the few countries with an anti-trafficking program, Rossi noted.

Flawed or nonexistent birth registration makes it easier for traffickers to move youngsters between countries, because unregistered children never formally acquire a nationality, said Rossi.

“It becomes impossible to prove whether a young girl working as a housemaid in Gabon, for example, really comes from that country or has been trafficked from elsewhere,” he added.

Exacerbated by poverty
In sub-Saharan Africa, over 70 percent of births go unregistered, according to a separate U.N. study. That represents about 17 million children.

“Poverty is definitely linked to trafficking, but poverty is not the only reason,” Rossi said. It exacerbates an already desperate situation caused by war, repression and discrimination, he said.

The study found that the Africans most vulnerable to trafficking are the continent’s 3.3 million refugees and the estimated 12.7 million people displaced by conflict within their countries.

Once in the clutches of traffickers, people cannot easily escape, Rossi said.

“You find people who are pulled in to the prostitution network at home who are then moved elsewhere in Africa, before being taken to Europe after a couple of years,” he said.

The study found that at least 34 percent of African countries are major sources for trafficking to Europe. They included Morocco, Algeria, Congo, South Africa, Madagascar, Somalia and Nigeria.

In addition, 26 percent — mostly in East Africa — reported trafficking to Arab nations

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