Togo Gabon can 2013

At the sprawling Mont-Bouet market in Libreville, dozens of children heave bags of cement on their shoulders. Others wander around for hours, desperately trying to sell dried fish or cakes.

Their parents are nowhere to be seen: these children are virtual slaves illegally lured from west African states to oil-rich, equatorial Gabon.

Lari, now 22, was only 11 when she was taken from her native Togo by a stranger who claimed to be her uncle.

She was told that she would be reunited with her mother, who had abandoned her at birth, and was taken by boat to Gabon.

But Lari had been tricked, and she was sent to work for a rich Togolese family living in Gabon, placed there by her "uncle".

So began her gruelling new life as a house maid: up every day at dawn, preparing the meals, acting as a nanny for the family's baby, and when all that was done, shopping every evening for food.

During her time working for the family, Lari said she never received any money. Instead it was taken by her so-called guardian.

"I never earned a cent, " Lari told AFP. Her guardian would visit "to take money at the end of each month, he never told me how much", she said. "Wherever I worked, it was the same."

Illegal and informal

In 10 years, more than 700 children have been rescued from exploitation as virtual slaves and repatriated, according to the UN Children's Fund.

However, "nobody knows how many are exploited because they have no travel papers, they don't have formal jobs... Everything is informal, " said UNICEF representative in Gabon, Michel Ikamba.

To bring children to Gabon, a country of 1.6 million people seen as an El Dorado in other parts of Africa, child traffickers use the "channels of clandestine immigration", Ikamba explained.

Overloaded boats full of west Africans fleeing poverty and unemployment in Benin, Togo, Nigeria or Mali land on beaches near the coastal capital Libreville after nightfall.

The Gabonese navy intercepted one such vessel in 2009 which was carrying 300 illegal immigrants, including 34 children destined for exploitation who were handed over to UNICEF.

Parents given false promises

The children arriving in Gabon have no idea what awaits them.

Young girls often end up as domestic servants or prostitutes and the boys are given manual labour, toiling from morning to night in sweltering heat.

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