- A group of 34 Ivorian adolescents who had been promised international football careers in Europe had to be assisted by humanitarian groups to return to their homes to Abidjan. The parents of the boys were tricked into paying up to franc CFA 300,000 (euro 460) to a rogue agent.
The agent had promised the parents he would place their boys in European football clubs. But they did not even make it to Europe. The adolescents were kept for the past three months against their will in a villa in the southern Malian town of Sikasso.
Their living conditions were rough with the boys sleeping on the floor in one room and being given very little food. The boys, aged between 16 and 18 were apparently smuggled into Mali in late December and were recently rescued by the Malian police.
The agent and the president of the football club they belonged to in Yopougon, an impoverished, sprawling district west of Abidjan, were apprehended and currently face criminal charges.
Even to get home to Côte d'Ivoire, the boys needed help from humanitarian agencies. In Mali, after being freed, the boys were then taken care of by the UN's children agency UNICEF and "Mali Enjeu", a local organisation. Their return to Côte d'Ivoire was organised by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) and UNICEF.
Some of the boys said they were mesmerised by European football games they watched on television and were desperate to play with professional players so as to earn money and help their families back home.
"Their dreams have been shattered," commented IOM's Vivianne Van Hoeck, who accompanied the group from Sikasso to Abidjan. "The boys are acutely aware that they were tricked into a situation which would have led to various forms of exploitation. We hope this will dissuade families of talented young football players from accepting bogus offers from rogue agents," she added.
IOM in a statement said it was now working with the Ivorian government, UNICEF and local organisations "to ensure the boys get the reintegration and psychological support they need and to increase awareness among the general public of the dangers of entrusting talented young footballers to unscrupulous agents."
An increasing number of young Africans are reportedly lured to Europe with promises of wealth and fame, only to find themselves without papers, money or contracts in exploitative situations, according to information gathered by Ms Van Hoeck.
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