WASHINGTON – Friends call him “Macho,” because the 9-year-old whose name is Gabriel has survived near drownings from being trapped under water by fishing nets nine times.
Although this does not sound like everyday life for a child,it is reality for hundreds of Ghanaian children who are sold into fishing labor on Lake Volta.
The International Organization for Migration's counter-trafficking field manager,Eric Peasah,led a discussion Wednesday about the trafficking problem of the “fishing children.”
Peasah passed around photos of “Macho” and other children working. The skinny boy wears only a T-shirt decorated with dinosaur drawings. His face,however,betrays the innocence of his clothing.
Children are sold into labor when they are 3 years old,Peasah said. Children over 12 are not wanted because they are more likely to rebel against their masters.
Peasah,who lives in Ghana,came to the U.S. to brief human rights activists and others.
Many struggling Ghanaian parents sell their children to the fishermen without knowing about the dangers and brutality the children will face. Others send their children to work with a relative,who then sells them to fishermen.
“Parents just think their kids are off fishing with relatives,” Peasah said.
Fishing children are subjected to harsh weather and long hours. A normal day for a fishing child begins at 4 a.m. and ends about 9 p.m. Sometimes they must cast nets at midnight.
The fishing children are not allowed to eat the fish they catch,which are sold or fed to livestock. Instead,they are served a thick paste made from corn and water called “banku.” The fisherman also routinely beat the children with fishing paddles to make them work faster.
Peasah said the process of releasing children from labor is not a smooth one.
First,he goes to the village's chief,bearing gifts. If the chief does not allow him into the community,the quest to free the fishing children will be lost.
If the chief allows him into the community,he can find out from families and fishermen if they have sold or received any children.
Once it is proven that child trafficking has taken place,Peasah must go to the fishermen to try to talk him into releasing at least a couple of children.
Few fisherman are arrested unless they are caught a second time. The country doesn't have room to hold them all,and Peasah said it would make it less likely to negotiate releases.
Peasah tries to teach the fishermen skills to maintain the same production without buying child slaves so they will release the children.
Funded by the U.S. State Department and nonprofit groups,the migration organization has obtained the release of 612 children since 2002.
After the children are released,they are placed in a temporary rehabilitation shelter where they receive counseling,medical screenings and schooling. Armed only with pictures,Peasah tries to help the children find their parents or other relatives – though families sometimes can't afford to take them back.
The migration organization then gives the children school supplies for a year and perhaps a goat or sheep to rear.
Child trafficking in Ghana has received international attention from a French television documentary,a New York Times article,a study done by Korean journalists and a full episode on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Peasah is trying to get “Macho” on the rescue list for next year.