SANAA (Reuters) - Ali Abdu, a slim boy of 14, just wants to go home to his family in the Yemeni mountains. His dream of making money in Saudi Arabia ended in a hospital bed.
"First I worked as a goatherd, then in a car-wash for three months. Then I was hit by a car and spent 29 days in hospital," he mutters. "After that I gave myself up so I could come back."
Abdu is one of thousands of children, mostly boys, who U.N. officials say are trafficked from impoverished Yemeni villages to Saudi Arabia and other rich Gulf countries to work illegally as beggars, camel jockeys, domestic servants or laborers.
The murky cross-border business is run by gangs who recruit boys directly from their families or from the army of child workers already seeking survival on Yemeni city streets.
"It's just underground," Aboudou Adjibade, the Yemen representative of the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, told Reuters. "It's difficult to control because there's a lot of complicity from the community level and the authority level."
Driven by poverty and greed, the trade exposes children to the risks of violence, sexual abuse and exploitation. Worldwide, UNICEF says about 1.2 million children are trafficked annually.
"I went to Saudi Arabia with a friend. We walked all the way," said Abdu, from Mahwit, a rugged region northwest of the Yemeni capital and about 100 km (60 miles) from the border.
Feet tapping nervously, he told his confused story in the courtyard of the Centre for Protection and Rehabilitation of Children in Sanaa. The government-run institution had received its first batch of a dozen boys only a few days earlier.
All seemed bewildered. Staffers said some were traumatized. The atmosphere was awkward and formal, with few signs of purposeful activity for the boys, who had been transferred from a bigger reception centre at Harad, near the Saudi border.
"We will care for them while we try to trace their families," said Abdulillah Thabet, the centre's director.
UNICEF, which supports the Sanaa and Harad centers, says traffickers move several thousand children a year, perhaps many more, from Yemen. It plans a survey for accurate figures.
"It's a heavy phenomenon in deprived, remote governorates, where there is not much opportunity for work and even agriculture is deteriorating for lack of water," said Adjibade.
He said desperate families with too many mouths to feed might hand a son over to traffickers on the promise of future earnings. In Yemen's patriarchal society, boys are anyway expected to shoulder responsibility early in life.
"The dramatic consequence on children is that when they go to Saudi Arabia, it's a horrible form of exploitation," Adjibade said. "They beg or work on farms in painful conditions."
Abdu's voice shook as he recalled his tiring days washing cars with a few older Yemeni youths. He said he had slept alone in a nearby room and had been paid 500 rials ($133) a month.
Asked if he had been lonely, the black-haired boy said: "I don't know. I used to finish work, sleep, then go back to work."
Abdu had saved 1,500 rials to bring home to his family before he was run over by a Saudi driver, who paid for him to stay in hospital until his leg had mended.
"I would love to go back to school, learn something," he said. "I would like to have a shop near my house. I'll do anything, any work, but it must be halal (permissible)."
When UNICEF tried to alert the Yemeni, Saudi and other governments to the trafficking problem 10 years ago, Adjibade said the common response was denial, on the grounds that such a practice contradicted Islamic injunctions to protect children.
"The reality is completely different," he said. "It took some time, in Yemen and the region, to recognize the facts."
The International Organization of Migration (IOM), which trained Yemeni staff at the two centers for trafficked children, also says government attitudes are slowly changing.
"Two years ago, we couldn't even talk about this problem officially," said IOM representative Stefano Tamagnini. "Now they start accepting the word trafficking."
Acknowledged or not, the flow of youngsters to Saudi Arabia goes on, spiking each year around the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca, when child beggars can expect the faithful to show more generosity than usual.
The Saudi authorities dump the children back over the border whenever they catch them, although UNICEF is promoting a Yemeni-Saudi dialogue aimed at a more coordinated response.
Some boys at the centre in Sanaa had made several trips to the kingdom. Others had been intercepted at the border.
"I've been to Jeddah three times with my cousin and his group," said Khaled Ali, 18. "I used to herd goats in the morning until 11 a.m. and then work on the farm until the night. It wasn't easy ... I don't want to go back there again."
UNICEF spokesman Naseem-ur-Rehman said children were victims of the poverty eroding Yemen's social fabric as population growth outstrips resources. Parents often did not realize what awaited their sons in Saudi Arabia or on city streets.
"These kids have amazing potential and an ability to survive despite woeful tales," he said. "We are working with families to persuade them not to push their children into darkness."
Editing by Charles Dick