Child trafficking in Ghana

By Raggie Johansen

Human trafficking is an international problem affecting millions of people and many countries around the world. In Ghana, West Africa, the internal trafficking of children is one of the biggest challenges.

Young boys pull in heavy fishing nets with the day's catch.Many Ghanaian children are trafficked from their home villages to work in the fishing industry. Living in tough conditions and working long hours every day, they are exploited by fishermen desperate to feed their families and eke out a living along the banks of Lake Volta.

Created by the construction of the Akosombo dam in the early 1960s, Lake Volta is one of the world's largest artificial lakes. A number of fishermen who have depended on the bounties of the lake for many years report that fish stocks are decreasing, making it difficult to survive on fishing alone. Other work is scarce in a country where unemployment is widespread and approximately 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.

UNODC Goodwill
Ambassador Julia Ormond
speaks to a Government
official about Ghana's
response to child trafficking.

The depletion of stocks is one of the key reasons why children are needed as workers in the fishing industry. Children represent cheap labour, and their small, nimble fingers are useful in releasing the fish from the ever smaller nets.

"The Government should ban the use of nets with tiny holes," says Jack Dawson, Executive Director of APPLE (Association of People for Practical Life Education), a local NGO that works in several fishing villages. "Doing so would allow fish stocks to improve and discourage the use of kids because there would be no need for such small hands."

Another task that trafficked children frequently perform is diving to disentangle the fish nets from the numerous tree stumps that are scattered throughout the lake. As nets are often dragged along the bottom of the lake, they tend to get stuck. Diving is a dangerous job that can have dire consequences for the children, from catching water-based diseases such as bilharzia and guinea worm to death from drowning.

On a recent mission to Ghana, UNODC Goodwill Ambassador on Human Trafficking Julia Ormond visited a number of villages. Accompanied by a local team, Ormond spoke to child traffickers, trafficking victims and their parents, and people working to combat this crime. In one fishing village, Ormond observed several boats and their crews. Spotting the young victims of trafficking was relatively easy-they were less playful and more reserved than children still living with their parents.

"There was this young boy who came off the lake," she says. "He simply froze when he saw us! Carrying his paddles, his jeans falling off him-he wanted the attention of the camera, and gave a little smile, but it was so diffident, so broken."

The driving forces behind child trafficking extend beyond fish scarcity. Deep-rooted traditions can also help explain the prevalence of this crime. For example, it is common in Ghana for children to participate in apprentice work with a relative or family friend. Many children, and their parents, believe that going away to work is a route to a better life.

Children represent cheap labour, and their samll nimble fingers are useful in releasing the fish from the ever smaller nets.

"Child trafficking is actually a distortion of the old cultural practice of placement with relatives or townspeople," says Joe Rispoli, Head of the Counter-Trafficking Department of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Ghana. "And many parents don't know the value of education; for them, it's more immediately valuable for their children to learn how to fish."

Child labour and even trafficking are deeply ingrained in the fishing industry in Ghana. Through conversations with child traffickers, it becomes clear that many of them simply do not realize that it is wrong for children to be away from their parents, missing school and performing hard physical work for long hours.

For example, Benjamin Tornye, a fisherman for 15 years, used to visit parents and ask if their children could help him with his work. As he said, "children are good fishers." He taught them how to handle a boat, swim and dive, and he believed he was doing the right thing.

However, a few years ago, an IOM intervention made Tornye and other traffickers realize that children should not be made to work like adults. "We have understood that it is wrong, and that kids should be with their parents and in school," Tornye says. Now, he is working as a community coordinator for APPLE, taking great pride in his work to stop child trafficking in Ghana.

Emmanuel Agyapong also works with APPLE, educating both traffickers and parents about the perils of child trafficking. He says that reducing trafficking is a process that requires patience.

"We need to build trust, to win the parents' hearts and souls," he says. "If they open up to us, we can make them understand. Therefore, we don't use legal arguments, as that frightens them."

Children repair nets damaged by tree stumps in the lake.The legal framework on trafficking in Ghana was strengthened in December 2005, when the Government passed a comprehensive anti-trafficking bill, with assistance from a variety of international organizations. And while Ghana has not ratified the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, there is optimism that it will do so in the near future.

"We are definitely going to ratify the UN Convention," says Marilyn Amponsah, Director of the International Children's Desk in the Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs. "We have participated in ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) regional cooperation for many years, and we are now ready for the UN."

However, Amponsah stresses that the Ghanaian Government will need help to effectively implement the Convention. The international community could, for example, help build local capacity on human trafficking, finance micro-credit schemes to prevent trafficking, and provide equipment for day-to-day administrative tasks.

IOM has provided micro-credit assistance to some traffickers who have released children and returned them to parents and guardians. Conditions are attached to the loans, such as the development of a viable business plan.

"While there is a need for a certain grace period to establish their business," Rispoli says, "we don't want to be seen as Father Christmas. This way, we're not encouraging dependency."

Children rescued by IOM and APPLE are first taken to a government-run shelter for up to three months before they are reunited with their parents. At the shelter, they receive medical care, psychological counselling and basic education, preparing them to attend school back home. However, lack of resources is a major impediment.

"Our biggest challenge is lack of transportation," says Sharon Abbey, who runs the shelter. "And we can't offer the children as much counselling as we would like. Their experiences can make them a bit difficult to deal with, but we would like to teach them responsible behaviour." 

Julia Ormond says that in spite of the problems and the horrendous conditions facing many children, she is encouraged by the efforts and the commitment to fight child trafficking she witnessed during her stay in Ghana.

"I am touched by the work done by people on the ground here," she says. "It's effective. The villagers are responding as are the traffickers and children-it's fabulous to see!" 









Constitutional democracy


Official language:



Adult literacy rate:



Life expectancy:

56.8 years


GDP per capita:

US$ 2,238


Source: UNDP Human Development Report (2005)


Esi's story

After her parents died, Esi went to live with her grandmother. But instead of caring for her, Esi's grandmother and aunts, all 75 or older, decided to "rent" her into bonded labour for a small advance.

Esi was 12 years old when she was sent to a fishing village at Yeji. There, she worked long hours for the fisherman's wife. Her chores included washing the family's clothes and fetching water from the lake, which is far from the house. She also prepared food and sold the fish caught by the fisherman and his other trafficked children.

Seven years into her ordeal, the International Organization for Migration rescued Esi.

In accordance with her wishes, IOM helped the young girl into an apprenticeship. Although she was illiterate, Esi preferred vocational training over school. "Please try to put me in hairdressing so that I can earn a living in the future," she said. Once she completes her three-year apprenticeship at a hairdressing salon at Mankessim, a town in Ghana's Central Region, she hopes to open a salon in her community.



Yaovi's story

When Yaovi's father got ill and died, his stepmother, who never liked him, decided to send him away. One of the villagers invited the 10-year-old to stay with him and attend school in a big city, an exciting opportunity he decided to accept.

However, his dreams were soon shattered. Instead of attending school, Yaovi reared cattle for his master, a man he had to call "father." After two years of hard work he was sent to a new "father" in the fishing industry. He had to do heavy physical labour, like pulling large fishing nets and carrying fish and equipment.

Yaovi lived under difficult conditions, as is common among trafficked children. He usually got only one or two small dishes of corn with fish per day. He also suffered from heart problems due to overwork. But his master would beat him if he was struggling to perform his work.

Those years of forced labour are behind him now. Yaovi, who was rescued by the Ghanaian NGO APPLE (Association of People for Practical Life Education), will soon be sent back to his village. At 17, he will start attending school again. His plan is to get an education and learn a trade "to become a respectable man in the future."



"Many parents don't know the value of education; for them, it's more immediately valuable for their children to learn how to fish".

Joe Rispoli, Head of IOM Counter-Trafficking Department in Ghana