Forty people are facing prosecution after police raids in west and central Africa rescued nearly 500 victims of human trafficking, including a 16-year-old Nigerian girl, Interpol said on Thursday.
Raids were carried out in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal as part of a German foreign ministry funded initiative targeting organised crime in the region.
Of the nearly 500 people rescued, 236 were children, Interpol said in an emailed statement. The operation happened between November 6 and 10, it added later.
Those arrested are accused of forcing their victims into begging and prostitution and face charges including human trafficking, forced labour and child exploitation.
In one case, a 16-year-old Nigerian girl was duped into thinking she would be working in Mali but was instead made to go into sex work to pay back her travel costs to a “sponsor”.
Police inspector Yoro Traore, from Interpol in Mali’s capital, Bamako, said the operation — codenamed Epervier or Sparrowhawk — had been effective.
“This operation has opened a number of ongoing investigations to further disrupt the crime networks involved in trafficking human beings,” he said.
Focus in recent years has largely been on the west Africans trying to reach Europe via the treacherous route on the Mediterranean Sea.
Most are undocumented migrants seeking to flee poverty. But the same factors see migration between countries in west and central Africa.
Organised crime groups also take advantage of desperation to earn, as well as porous borders and ease of travel between members states of the regional bloc ECOWAS.