New report addresses Yemen’s suffering kids [Archives:2005/806/Front Page]

January 10 2005

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

Millions of people, mostly women and children, are trafficked around the world each year, and local officials are now trying to get a pulse on how many are from Yemen.

Forced labor, begging and sexual exploitation are the experiences of some 1.2 million children trafficked annually, according to The International Labor Organization's 2003 report.

“There is absolutely a child traffic problem in Yemen. What we are doing now is trying to survey those districts and see whatever we can do there,” said Abdulkarim Al-Arhabi, Minister of Social Affairs and Labor and Managing Director of the Social Fund for Development during a two-day conference on the issue that began Jan. 8.

Last spring, UNICEF released a study that showed half the African countries see trafficking of people as a serious problem. The United Nations estimates that the growth of worldwide child trafficking now rivals other illegal businesses, such as the sale of drugs and weapons.

Although a lot of work needs to be done to deal with child trafficking in Yemen, some see the conference, the first ever here, and the study it released, as important steps of tackling the problem.

“We are looking into the causes, recommendations on solutions, what children are used for after being sent and what are the effects on the children,” said Al-Arhabi, adding that “this is the beginning of the process and we will be able to coordinate and cooperate with authorities to alleviate this problem.”

“For example, we can build more schools, try to create some activities, see if we can get the areas some additional cash transfers through the welfare fund and try and build awareness. It is important to mobilize people in those districts to undertake a campaign of awareness within those districts and families. It's also important to study more what the problems are in those districts and see what we can do to help and improve the basic services to improve the living conditions.”

The conference was based on the Rapid Assessment of Child Trafficking in Yemen, a study carried out by the Yemeni Center for Studies and Labor Research and under the guidance of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and brought together different ministers and representatives of UNICEF.

Awareness in Yemen on child trafficking has been growing in the last year, and the study was the first conducted to create a clearer picture of the problem.

Some claims of children being victims of trafficking have ranged from 1,000 to 50,000. The research team, which carried out its study in Hajja and Al-Mahweet governorates – the two areas believed to have the highest concentration of where child trafficking originates – found that gathering exact figures are out of reach.

The problems of coming up with accurate numbers include the lack of facilities at borders required to determine children being sent abroad to work, the vast border region with Saudi Arabia which makes smuggling difficult to control, and few reports coming from families. Another difficulty is trying to distinguish between children traveling with their families or relatives and those being trafficked.

“It is not clear how many children are trafficked at this time, so the study is based on samples in order to know more about the phenomenon itself,” said Al-Arhabi. “We cannot know the numbers because there is no information system on the border that we can rely on to acquire the number of children trafficked.”

“The most important feature of the report was to raise the issue of child trafficking, to show people that there is a problem,” said Ramesh Shrestha, Representative of UNICEF based in Yemen.

“It was to bring knowledge to the public and to policy makers to highlight the existence of the problem and how action can be taken. Children that are trafficked lose their early and adolescent lives, such as being educated, which is supposed to pave the way for having a fulfilling adult life.”

With the issue of child trafficking brought out in the open recently, there have been controversial estimates on how many children are sent to neighboring countries, predominantly Saudi Arabia.

Some hold that the number of children being trafficked is not the issue, but that the existence of the business in Yemen needs to be dealt with since trafficking is a violation of children's rights, such as being physically separated from the family, being exploited – possibly sexually – facing abuse, and not having a chance to be educated.

“The study is the first step towards addressing the sensitive and critical issue which is a concern to all levels of the government,” said Amat Al-Aleem Al-Soswa, Minister of Human Rights, in her speech at the opening of the workshop. “Although we don't agree on the numbers of children being trafficked – we should distinguish between illegal immigrants and trafficked children – child trafficking is an important issue. Even if only one child is trafficked, it is an issue that needs our attention.”

Most believe the primary cause of child trafficking comes from many families living in harsh economic conditions.

“Child trafficking is one of the bad symptoms of people suffering from poverty,” said Al-Soswa. “If the families happened to be well off, the parents would not have let their children go to another place and be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. It is poverty, and we should fight it if we want a radical solution for this problem.”

The study shows that over 60% of the children sent abroad come from families with eight or more members. The majority of families live on less than $108 a month, and some that were interviewed or were involved in group discussions during the study said that there are very few opportunities for work in their hometowns. The study also pointed out that in some cases, children working abroad can increase the family income significantly, even as high as doubling what a family can live on.

“Lack of labor or potential for work, unemployment and low pay push the parents to send their children to work,” said an official in Haradh, located in the Hajja governorate, while the study was being carried out.

Although the government is in the process of implementing reform, economic growth has been faltering. According to The World Bank's most recent report, the country's gross domestic product has slowed from 4.1% in 2001 to an estimated 2.5% last year. It is estimated that around 42% of Yemenis live below the poverty line, while 25% live just above being poor. The Population Reference Bureau, a private organization based in the United States, calculates that Yemen's population grows around 4% annually.

“We need more than economic growth that matches population growth to reduce poverty,” said Al-Arhabi. “We need much stronger economic growth to be able to reduce poverty, such as six, seven or eight percent of economic growth, or else economic growth will just maintain poverty.”

A large number of families that allow their children to be taken to work elsewhere, which includes begging or becoming street vendors, are unaware of the risks the children have to face and that they become vulnerable to abuse while not living under the protection of their parents. The report suggested that raising awareness in communities where child trafficking mostly takes place is important because “lack of information and awareness of what the threats are that children are facing during the process of trafficking enhances more trafficking to take place.”

Over 25% of deported children that were interviewed said that they faced threats, such as hunger and getting lost, and it is reported that a large number of children were beaten and robbed while being trafficked. It was also found that nearly 65% of children trafficked had no place to stay and ended up living on the streets. The study was unable to carry out a complete assessment on sexual exploitation.

The report also recommends that child trafficking needs to be a part of the Yemeni Child Law and the Penal Code so that traffickers can be apprehended and charged appropriately.

“There is a need to review the criminal code to include trafficking, which will make trafficking a criminal action and deter traffickers from carrying out these activities,” said Shrestha.