Mysterious Return of Benin 'Slave Ship'

The MV Etireno was supposed to a rusting, decrepit hulk of a ship, as ravaged on the outside as its suspected human cargo was inside.

Up and down the west coast of Africa, authorities had been busy hunting it, suspecting that it was carrying hundreds of children from Benin into a life of slavery in countries far away from home.

But a boat called the Etireno arrived in Benin today, surprising authorities not only with its appearance, but its cargo.

It was no longer a 200-foot rust-bucket, but a ferry with a fresh coat of paint — under which its apparent former name, "Nordby," could still be seen, according to The Associated Press.

And instead of carrying hundreds of child slaves, the Etireno was carrying people of all ages, who seemed to be merely poor migrants looking for better lives.

The authorities found 43 children, at most, who might have been slaves. But now they face a bigger problem, after alarming the world over what they thought were human traffickers at work.

They have to explain what happened.

Multiple Possible Fates

Alfred Ironside of the United Nations Children's Fund told there are all sorts of possibilities that might for what happened to the Eterino, but they fall into three main scenarios.

"One possibility is that there was some kind of mistake at the outset, that the vessel which left Benin never carried any children," Ironside said.

Another is that there was a second boat that did in fact carry children, but it was confused with this vessel, he said.

The third was that this vessel was indeed carrying children, but then surreptitiously dropped them off somewhere.

"There are any other number of more complex scenarios," Ironside said. The children could have been transferred from one boat to another at sea; they could have been carried on to another destination, and then the Eterino returned with a different crew; the economic migrants on board could have been paid off.

"It's as wild as your imagination can be," he said. "It could be simple error, it could subterfuge."

In any case, Ironside said it's the nature of human trafficking to be full of twists and turns, and he wasn't surprised at how things turned out.

"It's a Byzantine business," he said. "The people who perpetrate it don't want us to see behind it."

A Curious Passage

The episode began early this month, or at the beginning of last month, when the Nigerian-registered vessel, was believed to have left Benin's commercial capital, Cotonou, with its human cargo.

It tried to make a stop in relatively prosperous Gabon, but was turned away when authorities suspected the crew was planning to sell the children.

Then, on Thursday, it tried to make port in Douala, Cameroon, but was also turned away.

Benin authorities expected the boat to return to Cotonou on Sunday, but it did not, and authorities suspected its captain was refusing to return to port because he had been identified as a slave trader.

Because the captain reportedly had a criminal record, authorities feared that he may have even dumped his suspected cargo into the sea.

However, the captain today told The Associated Press that he was innocent. "I have not committed any offense that will warrant my arrest," said Capt. Lawrence Onome.

"I am not into child slavery, they can't prove it. It is one thing to say and one thing to prove."

The Search for Closure

Local governments are investigating the history of the Eritreno, trying to understand how the situation developed, and to determine if a slave ship with hundreds of children is indeed still on the seas.

Aid workers in Benin are interviewing the unaccompanied children who came off the Eritreno, and their counterparts in Cameroon are investigating earlier reports from authorities who had boarded the ship.

UNICEF is also maintaining an alert for the possibility there is a second ship carrying the slaves that might try to dock somewhere along the western African coast.

In any case, the aid organization says it did the right thing in raising the alarm. It said Benin's government had asked for its help, and "don't think there's any reason up front to question this notion," Ironsides said.

He said UNICEF would be quick to respond to any kind of announcement that there were children about to become slaves. "There's no record of crying wolf on this subject," he said.

"There are 200,000 children trafficked every year [in the area]," he said. "This story made absolute sense."

At this point, he is pessimistic there will a definite conclusion. "The concern at this stage is to understand what happened here. This is a matter of lessons learned and to bring this event to closure and increasing global focus on this very widespread and troublesome issue."