Trafficking of women from west Africa to Europe for sexual exploitation is thriving amid inaction from African governments, experts at a regional conference on the issue in Senegal said on Thursday.
"The trafficking of women is difficult to identify, but it is a phenomenon that is not on the decline. It is growing in volume," said Babacar Ndiaye, a specialist consultant with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
"The trafficking of women is less visible, more difficult to identify," he said on the sidelines of the three-day Dakar forum looking at ways at tackling human trafficking.
Specialists at the conference, gathering representatives from 12 west and central African countries and from international and national non-governmental bodies, estimated that thousands of African women were forced into prostitution rings abroad every year.
But African governments have not yet faced up to the multi-million dollar phenomenon.
In January Italian police smashed several human trafficking rings involving African and eastern European females and netted some 800 suspects.
Nigeria is the worst culprit in human trafficking where "peddlers work quietly and in the open" unfazed by law enforcing agents, said Ndiaye.
The treatment of women "has not been seriously taken into account by (African) authorities," he said.
Outside Nigeria, other main sources of females for prostitution were the west Africa states of Cameroon, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Togo.
A French police expert, Philippe Barbancon, said the trafficking of women and African prostitution networks have become complex in recent years because "the roles are superimposed and some prostitutes are also pimps".
"Once they pay back the traffickers the money they owe them (for fares and relocating expenses) the victims are transformed into pimps," said Barbancon.
"It becomes very difficult to identify the traffickers, when everyone is prostituting," he said.
Before they graduate into "mamas" - a moniker for pimps - each victim has to reimburse around
$50 000 (around R347 000) to the peddlers, he said. After that, they can start buying their own women at between $7 000 and $10 000
(around R48 000 - R70 000) each.
Philippe Thelen, coordinator of a French non-governmental organisation, ALC, a support group for victims of trafficking in the south of France, estimated that about 25 percent of prostitutes in France were Africans.
Trafficking for the regional market in Africa was also not uncommon.
Bernadette Ouedraogo, who heads a Burkinabe non-governmental organisation, said the majority of prostitutes in Burkina Faso come from the sub-region.
She said young girls were lured with fraudulent offers of jobs in Europe, only to end up being violently forced into prostitution.
Senegalese Justice Minister Sheik Tidiane Sy, pledged at the opening of the forum on Wednesday, his country had a "firm will" to fight the "dangerous crime which the human conscience should not accept."
The French ambassador to Senegal, Andre Parant, said human trafficking "is too often a silent crime affecting the most vulnerable among us, women and children. It is nothing else but a form of modern slavery".
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) says some four million people are affected by all forms of transfrontier trafficking. Around half of them are children, often pressed into hard manual labour. - Sapa-AFP