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06.09.2003 General News

Slave Children Reunited With Their Parents...

By UN Integrated Regional Information
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More than 1,200 children who were sold by poor families on the coast of Ghana to fishermen on Lake Volta will be returned to their parents next week in an operation organised by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM).

The programme is voluntary and involves measures to boost the incomes of parents who sold children into virtual slave labour for as little as US $180 to dissuade them from continuing the practise.

They will receive business advice and will be offered small loans to start new businesses such as food stalls and small kiosks that sell basic goods.

Similar help will also be offered to the Lake Volta fishermen in central and northern Ghana, who acquired the children - including some who were only three years old. They will be taught more effective fishing techniques or encouraged to earn money in new ways, such as by raising livestock.

This pilot project will cost about $560,000, of which IOM has so far only been able to raise about 62 percent in the form of a grant from the US government.

Ernest Taylor, the project coordinator, said the 1,203 children being reunited with their families represented a small fraction of the Ghanaian children sold by their parents into virtual slavery.

"There are a lot more children out there who are still bonded in forced labour, especially in fishing communities in the Northern Region," he told IRIN. The ones we are freeing come from only 12 communities that we identified and visited before we started the project."

Eric Okrah, at the Ghana office of the International Labour Organization (ILO), said no detailed research had been done into the total number of children in forced labour in the country. He noted that the inaccessible nature of many of the small fishing communities along the Volta river made it difficult to estimate the numbers present there.

But he stressed: "The Yeji area, where IOM is currently operating, is just one centre out of many. However, the numbers that organization is working with give an indication of how big this problem is."

Raising enough money to complete the IOM's present pilot project is still a headache. "What we are doing now might come to a definite end if we do not get additional funding," Taylor warned.

Okrah stressed that in order to be socially useful, the IOM project to reunite children with their families must be sustained.

The ILO official warned that short-term projects of less than two years to stop child trafficking create more problems than they solve. He said in the past there had been cases of children who had been freed and reunited with their parents only to be sold into bondage again.

The children currently in the care of the IOM were indentified earlier this year and are currently staying at a special transit camp at the lakeside town of Yeji, 500 km north of the capital Accra.

Next week they will be taken back to rejoin their families, most of whom belong to poor sea fishing communities on the Atlantic coast.

The scheme works by offering all those involved economic incentives for their cooperation rather than by threatening them with punishment for breaking the law.

IOM says it secured the freedom of the children from their former employers voluntarily in exchange for training, modern fishing equipment and micro credits aimed at improving fishing techniques or helping the fishermen engage in other income generating activities such as animal husbandry.

"We insist on the voluntary nature of the project where these fishermen pledge to release the children. This is more effective than using coercion since there are currently no specific laws in Ghana against human trafficking," Taylor said.

The parents are also assisted financially to start or expand on small-scale businesses, with which they can look after their families instead of selling their children off for paltry sums.

"We will continue to monitor the placements of these children with their families and their schools. Though we have activated a mechanism to ensure that these children do not revert to their previous situation, everything depends on funding," Taylor added.

Traditionally, it has been common practice in Ghana for impoverished parents to hand over their children to be cared for by relatives and friends.

However, in recent years this age-old custom has been exploited by child traffickers for financial gain, especially by fishermen from communities bordering Lake Volta, a vast expanse of inland water created by the Akosombo hydro-electric dam.

Parents from very poor families often let their children go "to assist" these fishermen for as little as 1.5 million cedis ($180).

Most are boys aged between 3 and 14 who are forced to work long hours casting and drawing nets. They are poorly fed and never paid. Sometimes, they drown in their attempts to retrieve nets caught on tree stumps at the bottom of the lake.

"We found most of the children to be suffering from bilharzia and intestinal ailments," Taylor said. "They are being treated at the Catholic Hospital at Yeji, but these are some of the costs which we had not budgeted for."

Ghana's Children's Act of 1998 and other legislation is supposed to protect children from being subjected to exploitative labour. Those found guilty can be jailed for up to two years and fined up to $1,150.

However, in practice there have been few prosecutions and the selling of children into forced labour continues largely unchecked - a bi-product of dire poverty.

A senior government official told IRIN that new Trafficking In Persons Prevention Bill was currently at the drafting stage to fill a gap in the law.

"We are inviting inputs from non-governmental agencies and other organizations that are working in this sector in order to make it a very comprehensive law," he said.

"However, we must ensure that a thin line is drawn between children who of their own volition help their parents in small-scale businesses and.....the activities of those who exploit and traffic children for labour," the official added.

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