Velingara, Guinea-Bissau — Human rights groups say many Koranic schools in Senegal are money-making schemes which exploit children from other West African nations.
There is no school in the thatched-hut village where Bubacar Cande raised his twin sons, so it was with resignation but hope that he sent them to neighbouring Senegal to study the Koran.
The 10-year-old boys were meant to live at an Islamic school, or daara, until they finished their education.
But a year later his boys were back, having been found on the streets and brought home to Guinea-Bissau by a charity that rescues child victims of human trafficking and forced begging.
In Senegalese cities, thousands of small boys in tattered clothes roam the streets asking for change. Some said they were hit if they failed to raise about $1 a day for their teachers.
They are the students, known as talibe, of Koranic schools that human rights groups say are often a money-making scheme disguised as religious education yet founded on the exploitation and trafficking of children from several West African nations.
But to parents like Cande, who went through the same ordeal as a child, beatings and begging in Senegal are a rite of passage, and having their children sent back home a frustration.
"I can't say if the children or the marabout (teacher) is to blame. I can only say I had no luck," he said, sitting under a tree next to a cow herd in his village of Velingara.
"I was a little angry because I wanted them to reach a higher level of learning," added Cande.
There has been a crackdown on the schools in Senegal, and years of advocacy campaigns, but government and charity sources in Guinea-Bissau said a rising number of children may be at risk of being sent across the border although hard data is lacking.
Lack of awareness, cultural beliefs and parents' desperation to educate their children all fuel the practice, they said.
"The families don't think it's trafficking. It's a way of educating your child," said Benjamin Monteiro Barbosa, regional director for the charity Amigos de Crianca ("Friends of Children"), or AMIC, based in the Gabu region of Guinea-Bissau.
In Velingara, a village of about 400 people in Gabu, parents identified at least 16 boys who had been brought back from Senegal after escaping their daaras, some of them by AMIC.
Several of the children, ranging in age from 10 to 15, said they were sent to beg daily and beaten by their teachers.
"Here in the village, there are still families who are thinking of sending their children," village chief Califo Baldo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"If there were a school here, they wouldn't go."
A third of primary school-aged children in Guinea-Bissau are missing out on education - often because there is not a school nearby - said the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF).
Velingara used to have a teacher who held lessons in a hut. He left last year because they could not pay him, parents said.
The closest public school is 5 kilometres (3 miles) away but is also shut because teachers' salaries went unpaid - a common issue in a poor country stuck in a entrenched political crisis.
Parents said unanimously that if they had a local school, religious or state-run, they would not send their children away.
"We want our sons to be in the military, or work in an office," said Bacari Embalo, a father in the village. Others wanted their sons to become religious leaders or doctors.
Several parents said beating was a normal form of discipline, and begging necessary to pay the students' room and board. Activists say this is part of the traffickers' deception.
The United Nations estimates that child begging generates $8 million a year for Koranic teachers in Dakar, Senegal's capital, while the children remain sick, poorly clothed, and underfed.
They gather outside shops holding plastic buckets and beg, often just as happy for a piece of fruit as for a coin.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the children live in conditions "akin to slavery" and that it has documented numerous cases of sexual abuse and child deaths in 2017 and 2018
"Marabouts come here and trick the parents," said Almeda Da Silva Quibumba, a coordinator for AMIC, which started raising awareness on the issue in 2005.
While there is no evidence that the trend is slowing, Quibumba said conversations with parents are getting easier.
"In the beginning it was like a war. They said we were fighting against their religion," he said.
"Now they're starting to understand."
Guinea-Bissau has no data on its trafficked children.
HRW estimates there are at least 100,000 talibes in Senegal, and in recent years between 20 and 40 percent of children rescued from the streets were from Guinea-Bissau, UNICEF says.
The lack of data has hampered the country's response, as has low funding and poor coordination, said Ussumane Embalo, a government official in charge of tackling child trafficking.
"It (child trafficking) continues to rise because we're having difficulty with prevention measures. There are not enough resources," he said.
Police sometimes stop groups of 20 to 50 children as marabouts try to take them across the border but many slip through undetected, Embalo added.
Cande, the father of the twins, said he knew the daaras were questionable, and that he was relieved to have his sons home safe, even if he wished they had received more education.
But he knows that more children are likely to be sent away.
"We are farmers and herders, but we don't want our sons to be the same," he said.
"That's what drives us to send them away." ($1 = 572.7500 CFA francs)
- Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Jason Fields and Kieran Guilbert