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.
Many Ghanaian children are trafficked from their home villages to work in the fishing industry. Living in meagre conditions and working long hours every day, these kids 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 off 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.
The depletion of stocks is one of the key reasons why children are needed as workers in the fishing industry. In addition to being cheap labour, 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, 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 mission to Ghana, UNODC Goodwill Ambassador Julia Ormond, who focuses on human trafficking, 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.
When visiting the fishing villages, Ormond observed several boats and their crews. She recalls that spotting victims of trafficking was relatively easy as their demeanour differed from that of children still living with their parents. Whereas kids tend to be playful and seek the attention of visitors, particularly those who have cameras, trafficked children are generally more reserved.
"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 kids, and their parents, believe that going away to work is a route to a better life.
"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 is 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, not attending school and performing hard physical work for long hours.
For example, Benjamin Tornye, a fisherman for 15 years, used to visit parents and ask them if their children could help him with his work. As he said, "children are good fishers." He would teach them how to use the 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 its incidence 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."
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 be ratified in the near future.
"We are definitely going to ratify the UN Convention," says Marilyn Amponsah, Director of the International Children's Desk for 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 external assistance to be able to effectively implement the Convention. The international community could, for example, help build local capacity on human trafficking-related topics, finance micro-credit schemes to prevent and combat human trafficking, and provide the equipment necessary to perform day-to-day administrative tasks.
In fact, IOM has provided micro-credit assistance to some of the traffickers who have released children as well as to the parents and guardians of the children under its programme. However, there have been certain conditions attached to the provision of these loans, such as the development of a viable business plan and timely attendance at meetings.
"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."
Currently, IOM and APPLE both rescue children from trafficking situations and bring them back to their families. Rescued children 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 checks and treatment, psychological counselling and basic education, preparing them to attend school back home. However, insufficient resources limit what this institution can do.
"Our biggest challenge is lack of transportation," says Sharon Abbey, the shelter's Principal. "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."
Having learned about the complexity of the child trafficking situation in Ghana, 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 has witnessed during her stay.
"I am touched by the work done by people on the ground here," she says. "It's effective! The villagers are responding (to the sensitization), as are the traffickers and children - it's fabulous to see!"