By Nellie Peyton
DAKAR, Feb 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Police in Niger have rescued 232 victims of sex trafficking and forced labor, including girls as young as 10, in a major operation in the capital Niamey, Interpol said on Wednesday.
"Operation Sarraounia" involved more than 100 police officers who conducted a series of raids over 10 days in late January, said the global police organization, which provided assistance.
The victims included 46 children, mostly locals forced into sex work in hostels and slums, and 180 Ghanaian men who were promised jobs online and then enslaved for forced labor.
Police also arrested 18 suspected traffickers.
Niger is a source, destination, and transit country for human trafficking, with thousands of migrants passing through each year en route to North Africa and Western Europe.
The country cracked down on migration in 2016 under pressure from the European Union, but experts say this increased the risk of exploitation for migrants by forcing them to move in secret.
"It's bad enough when you have transportation of illicit goods, but these are real people with real ambitions," said Stephen Kavanagh, Interpol's executive director of police services.
"We have to remember the families that they thought they were going to support by finding employment — and then suddenly they were enslaved," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The men from Ghana had been recruited online with the promise of "decent work," said Interpol, but when they arrived in Niger, they were locked up and their documents confiscated.
The children were mostly from Niger. In addition to those used for sex work, others were taken from their families and forced to beg at markets and bus stations.
In 2019, Niger increased trafficking convictions and trained more law enforcement officers than in previous years, earning it an upgrade on the Unites States' closely watched Trafficking in Persons (TIP) annual report.
But it still does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, said the US government, calling on the state to increase victim services and access to justice.
"Operation Sarraounia has shed much light on several criminal groups and trafficking routes," said Niger's police chief Barka Dankassoua in a statement from Interpol.
"The skills our officers have learned will be put to good use as we follow up on a number of leads."
(Reporting by Nellie Peyton, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)