Empty-eyed children escape slavery in Ghana

Kwabena Mensah said his mother thought sending him into virtual slavery to work as a fisherman’s helper on Ghana’s Lake Volta was the only way to earn money to send him to school.

The 15-year-old spent seven years at the dangerous job, earning little beyond regular beatings. Hundreds of children like him are free thanks to an international aid group, but their future is uncertain, many have seen childhood slip by, and the fight against child trafficking in Ghana and elsewhere is far from over.

Kwabena was filled with regret and anger as he prepared to return to the mother who sent him to work.

“It burns me to know that I spent my life with my master, because whenever I walk with people my age and they’re talking about school, I can’t say much, because I spent the life I should have had in school with my master,” Kwabena said.

Kwabena was among more than 100 children rescued earlier this year in Yeji, a fishing centre about 500km from Accra, by a team from the International Organisation of Migration.

Since the IOM’s Yeji Trafficked Children Project began in December 2002, 537 children have been freed and reunited with their parents or other guardians.

Fishermen or go-betweens typically promised between 200 000 and 1,2-million cedis (approximately $20-$120) per child plus future wages to parents in exchange for the labour of children as young as four. The parents rarely see any more than the initial “fee,” and the children are often beaten and poorly fed.
Many drown.

Fishermen send the children onto the lake to dive to disentangle nets and to clean the nets—tasks suited to their agile bodies and small hands.

“These are coastal communities, and it’s an age-old practice,” says Cromwell Awadey, research officer with International Needs Ghana, who with the International Labour Organisation and the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour has launched a campaign to raise awareness in Ghana about the dangers of child trafficking.

Kwabena worked 13-hour days. IOM workers say nearly all the children they have freed have recounted stories of regular beatings, irregular meals and harsh living conditions.

Project director Joseph Rispoli said nearly all the freed children have or have had serious medical problems—their bodies wracked by malaria or amoeba invasions. The physical effects are only the beginning, he said.

“Most children need at least a couple of years of regular counselling in order to heal,” Rispoli said.

IOM workers offer small loans and job training to persuade fishermen to release children.

Gabriel Kudomor, son of a fisherman and a fisherman himself for 23 years, released 13 children in 2003 and set up a poultry farm with IOM assistance. He now helps the IOM by speaking out against child trafficking.

“Too many children were dying,” he said.

Once the children are freed, IOM rescuers use information provided by the fishermen to find parents.

“We give them back to the people that sold them, because there aren’t too many options,” says Rispoli.

The task can be difficult. Empty-eyed, five-year-old Abena was sold at four and recalls neither her mother nor her last name.

Rescued children are first taken to a rehabilitation centre, a house on the outskirts of Accra, the capital, where children crowd the wide porch, sit aimlessly on benches, play games on the floor or talk with ever-present counsellors. Doctors, nurses, social workers and psychologists are on hand round-the clock.

The house is filled with children, but strangely quiet. These children are exhausted, physically and emotionally, and spend hours catching up on the sleep they were not afforded as slaves.

For Kwabena, it’s heaven. “We play free, we eat free, and nobody beats us,” he said softly with a slight smile, hands shaking, during his last days at the centre.

Children stay at the centre for two months before being reunited with their parents or the closest family member IOM can find.

IOM tries to provide parents with ways to care for the children they were desperate enough to sell, offering funds and job training.

IOM has found Kwabena’s mother wasn’t alone in seeing a few years of labour as a way to raise money to send the trafficked children or their siblings to school.

School fees in Ghana cost around 50 000 cedis ($5), not including books and the required uniforms, out of reach of many in a country where half the population gets by on a dollar a day.

Rispoli says that some fishermen and parents have tried to dupe the organisation, using fraudulent trafficking claims to try to get money.

The International Labour Organisation estimates 1,29-million children are labourers in Ghana, working in cocoa fields, the fishing industry, as domestic servants, and other informal sectors.

The United States Department of Labour says the most common forms of internal trafficking in Ghana involve boys from rural areas who are taken to work in fishing communities in the Volta region.

While no official numbers are available on the scope of children trafficked onto the waters of Lake Volta, Emmanuel Agyapong of IOM says that the problem goes beyond just Yeji, and even Ghana.

“We realised that wherever there’s fishing, fishermen use children,” Agyapong said.

“When you go to the places of origin of these children, you can see there are schools without schoolchildren,” he added.

Widespread poverty makes regulating child labour difficult.

Common cultural practices, where families rely on the children to work and help the family, make stopping child labour even harder.

Ghana’s Parliament passed a Bill against child trafficking only this July. It has yet to be signed by the president, and no funds are available for enforcement.

If it does become law, it is unclear where Ghana will find the resources to arrest and prosecute violators or cope with large numbers of freed children.

“There will be the burden of reintegration of victims in society. This will be a problem for the social welfare of the country,” said Jack Dawson of IOM.

But Dawson said the effort must be made, for the children’s and the country’s future. One rescued child, he said, might even grow up to be president, or an advocate for children’s rights.

“They have talents buried in them,” Dawson said. “We need to free them so they can develop their talents.” ‒ Sapa-AP