Malian authorities have rescued more than 100 children and teenagers from suspected traffickers believed to be taking them into forced labor in rice fields, officials in the West African nation said Tuesday.
Police stopped 112 minors aged between 10 and 18 as they traveled in buses over the weekend in the Segou region, northeast of the capital Bamako. They arrested two suspected traffickers.
Mohamed Attayer Maiga, national director for children at Mali’s ministry for women and children, told Reuters most of the children were from impoverished neighbor Burkina Faso, and had been sent back to their homes after police checked their papers.
“As far as we are concerned, they are victims of trafficking because they are forced to come, forced to work and someone else takes the money,” he said. “Because what is trafficking? It’s making money off the back of children, of minors.”
He said such children were normally taken to work in rice fields, often by traffickers working in complicity with tribal elders.
The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that around 200,000 West African children are trafficked each year, either being exported to Europe or sold into slavery as domestic workers.
Maiga said the two suspects held by police could face five years in prison if found guilty of child trafficking.