Rude awakening [Archives:2004/738/Culture]

May 17 2004
Children in Saada, which is one of the closest main Yemeni cities to Saudi Arabia. Saada is one of the hubs of the child trafficking route.
Children in Saada, which is one of the closest main Yemeni cities to Saudi Arabia. Saada is one of the hubs of the child trafficking route.
By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has shown growing concern and is working to help develop action taken against child trafficking in Yemen.
“Trafficking is the worst form of child labor in Yemen,” Thaira Shalan, Child Protection Officer at UNICEF based in Yemen, told Yemen Times. “It is horrendous.”
Children handed over by their families to traffic agents are being smuggled into Saudi Arabia and are used for begging, theft or prostitution. UNICEF has gathered information that shows many of the children who are victims of trafficking have been abused.
Until now, the number of children that have been caught up in trafficking has not been determined. But according to Sana'a International Airport, the Yemeni Embassy in Riyadh and the Yemeni consulate in Jeddah, a large number of Yemeni children are deported regularly from Saudi Arabia and sent back to Yemen. Commercial airlines that fly twice a week from Saudi Arabia to Yemen, for example, carry between 15 to 20 children being deported from Saudi Arabia on each flight. Yemenia Airlines' daily flights from Jeddah to Sana'a carry between two to 35 children every day. It is also reported that Saudi Arabia has chartered planes that have returned children to Yemen.
According to the governor of Hajja province, 2277 Yemeni children were deported across the border on land from Saudi Arabia last February alone.
“We believe that these figures are just a small percentage of children that are arrested and sent back to Yemen,” said Shalan.
UNICEF discovered child trafficking in Yemen a little over a year ago. While working with children spending time in prison and child labor, it came across children who had the experience of being shipped off to Saudi Arabia.
“When we were working with street children, we discovered that there was a problem of child trafficking in the country that we were not aware of,” said Shalan. “These children started talking about their experiences. They had already been in Saudi Arabia, they were abused, and they talked to us about the horrendous conditions they went through.”
UNICEF, in coordination with the Yemeni government, is conducting an assessment of child trafficking and is expecting the report to be completed in mid-June. It also has plans to hold a workshop in Sana'a to discuss the results of the assessment in July, followed by the development of a national plan of action to curb the trafficking of Yemeni children.
“Soon after we discovered child trafficking, we started looking into it, talked to different ministries and started taking it seriously to the government,” said Shalan. “As for the national plan of action on child trafficking, we have an agreement with the government and hope to develop it this year.”
UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor are also planning to establish a center for deported children close to the Yemeni-Saudi border in Haradh.
“The reception center is important because sometimes the children come back and don't have families in the area,” said Shalan. “They are either kept in prison or left on the streets begging, trying to find something to do for survival or looking for another trafficker to send them back to Saudi Arabia.”
Many agree that the main cause of child trafficking is widespread poverty in Yemen. During a conference to observe the International Press Freedom Day last week in Sana'a, Minister of Human Rights, Amat Al-Aleem Alsoswa, said that the “most important reason for this social problem is poverty”.
According to recent reports, 42% of the Yemenis live below the poverty line, and although there are different figures on unemployment, some have calculated that between 25% and 30% of the Yemeni population is out of work. According to the latest Arab League survey, Yemen remains the poorest country in the Middle East as the average annual income per capita stands at $508. And the Yemeni economy has yet to get a boost to keep up with the rise in population: While the population growth rate is estimated to be as high as 3.6% annually, the GDP growth rate fell below 3.6% in 2003 and may not exceed 3.3% this year.
According to Shalan, some poor families hand over one of their children to a traffic agent and the families expect to see money coming back with their children after a specified period of time working in Saudi Arabia.
Along with UNICEF's research and development of a plan to reduce child trafficking, it is also focusing on educating the public in poor areas of what happens to children after they are smuggled out of Yemen.
“Sometimes the families don't know what their children are doing while they are thinking the children are working. They don't know what the children will go through,” said Shalan. “A lot of what we are doing is raising awareness and teaching them about the hazards and dangers of children who are victims of trafficking.”
And UNICEF believes that raising awareness should also include bringing out the subject of child trafficking and discussing it openly.
“Child trafficking in Africa and Afghanistan is frequently talked about, but trafficking in Yemen is never mentioned,” said Shalan. “It is a problem, a very big problem, in Yemen.”