Atsu* should have been in third grade when his aunt sent him and his little brother, Divine, to work for a fisherman on Ghana's Lake Volta. Like many residents of Ghanaian villages, Divine's aunt couldn't afford her nephews' school fees and was struggling to make ends meet. So when the fisherman offered to send the boys to school in exchange for their labor, Divine's aunt agreed.
Atsu and Divine became victims of child trafficking, a fate that is all too common for impoverished children in Ghana's coastal regions. As COVID-19 decimates Ghana's economy and diverts anti-trafficking resources, at-risk children will become even more vulnerable.
Ghanaian children are trafficked into myriad industries, though nearly 80 percent of trafficked children work in agriculture and fishing. The International Labor Organization estimates that 18,000 children, some as young as four years old, are trafficked to work on Lake Volta. For up to 14 hours per day, children on Lake Volta paddle canoes, dive in the gelid water to untangle fishing nets, and bail water from the boats. Lake Volta is the world's largest man-made lake, and trafficked children often refer to it as "the sea" for its sheer size, or perhaps more aptly, because it's wont to swallow childhoods.
Atsu's story is a textbook case of child trafficking. He was living in Sokpoe, a village in southern Ghana, with Divine, his mother, and his older sister, Emefa, when his mother became ill and died. The young boys moved in with their aunt while Emefa trekked north in search of work to support her brothers. Without Emefa, Atsu's aunt couldn't feed the boys or pay for their school supplies, so she bequeathed them to the fisherman who promised to send the boys to school in exchange for help with his fishing business.
Atsu and Divine traveled 350 miles to the shores of Lake Volta. The fisherman, whom the boys were forced to call Master, was physically and psychologically abusive. Under his cruel duress, the brothers worked 14 hour days in the scorching equatorial sun. They never attended school.
Under Ghana's Human Trafficking Act, perpetrators of trafficking face over five years in prison, but due to its lack of resources and Ghana's informal economy, the government struggles to enforce anti-trafficking legislation. Often the government relies on NGOs to identify and rescue trafficked children.
Right To Be Free is one such NGO. Led by executive director Eric Peasah, Right To Be Free has rescued numerous children from Lake Volta, including Atsu and Divine in 2019. But most trafficked children aren't so lucky.
"Parents give away their children because of three main reasons: poverty, lack of education, and ignorance about trafficking," explains Peasah. These factors are more prevalent in rural areas—of the thousands of children Peasah has rescued, the majority lived in villages.
"Traffickers will deceive parents by offering to put children into schools in exchange for help with their fishing business. They promise to return them in two or three years but they never honor such promise," says Peasah. Parents in rural areas are susceptible to these guiles because they're often uninformed about the tactics of traffickers.
Rural children are less likely to be enrolled in school, which compounds the risk of being trafficked. Hot meals are provided at school, but when children are at home this burden falls to parents. School keeps children engaged and occupied, but idle children require attention that struggling parents can't give. As a solution, parents will send their children to work for a relative or trafficker, as Atsu's aunt did.
According to Peasah, "the correlation between poverty and trafficking is very high" because it fuels ignorance, bars children from school, and sows desperation. Impoverished parents may send their children away to earn money for the family even if they know the working conditions will be harrowing. One rescued child, Bright, worked 15 hour days for an abusive fisherman so he could help support his family. Another child, Elijah, moved in with his uncle who promised to send him to school. Elijah would wake up at 3 am to help his uncle fish on Lake Volta before class and would return to work in the afternoon. He quickly became exhausted and dropped out of school.
COVID-19 and Trafficking
The coronavirus pandemic has heightened these risk factors—poverty, lack of education, and ignorance—in more ways than one. Since Ghana reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 12, the country's economy has floundered. Gold, oil, and cocoa make up 80 percent of Ghana's export earnings, but the global economic recession resulting from the pandemic has slashed the prices of these commodities. China, one of Ghana's main importers of oil, had little need for the commodity as people sheltered at home. Consumers who are strapped for cash are less likely to splurge on chocolate and gold products.
Ghana's poor have become even poorer as a result. Rural denizens involved in agriculture, mining, and fishing have seen their livelihoods shrivel up, and though it's common for urbanites to support their relatives in the villages, even this source of income has dissipated as city dwellers become furloughed or unemployed.
According to Bloomberg, food prices have surged nearly 15 percent, making it impossible for poor parents to feed their children. "Kids in the villages are really starving and some parents have lost their income, so they are trying to push their children to do something, to help," says Peasah.
The Ghanaian government extended some relief efforts including subsidized utilities and food, but they failed to assuage the needs of impoverished rural families who don't pay for water and live off the land.
Ghana's early April transition to online learning has alienated rural schoolchildren who lack computers and internet connection. Only 45 percent of Ghanaians can access the internet via mobile device and data costs are prohibitive. The Ministry of Education has launched TV learning, but most rural families don't have running water, much less a TV. For rural children, school closures mean no school. Children in their final year of senior high and university have returned to school, and final year junior high students will return soon, but in-person classes for the remainder of students are postponed indefinitely.
"My concern is that if children stay at home for a long time and they don't go to school, parents in high risk areas will send them away to work" says Peasah. A recent Al Jazeera article about online learning in Ghana reported that children are roaming about villages, their parents too busy to provide homeschooling.
A Looming Threat
Ghana has reported 14,007 cases of COVID-19, most of which were detected in Accra, the capital city. Should the virus spread to Ghana's villages, a host of new problems will arise.
Dr. Catherine Z. Worsnop researches the correlation between infectious disease and human trafficking. Her findings, which draw upon data from past pandemics, suggest that countries plagued by disease outbreaks are 31 percent more likely to be a source of trafficking. This is because outbreaks can cause or aggravate many trafficking risks including the diversion of government resources away from anti-trafficking efforts, hampered economic opportunity, and weakened community and family ties.
Though Worsnop was unable to utilize data on the Ebola outbreak, she cites the way it hindered family structures and fueled stigma and isolation. Ebola, which fomented economic hardship and closed schools, orphaned 16,000 children between 2014 and 2017. An investigation by Save the Children, Plan International, and World Vision states that 91 percent of children in affected areas reported more teenage pregnancies, and that most young women attributed this shift to school closures. In a 2016 report, the U.S. Department of State revealed that safe houses for trafficked children in Guinea-Bissau were closed due to Ebola, and that the pandemic overwhelmed the Liberian government's resources and capacity to combat trafficking. COVID-19 threatens similar breakdown.
"I am particularly concerned that COVID-19 will amplify existing vulnerabilities, raising the risk of trafficking for communities that already have fewer resources and higher rates of poverty, and in areas where the state already has limited capacity," says Worsnop.
The Ghanaian government has diverted huge monetary resources to combatting COVID-19. The IMF reports that, as of June 11, 2020, it has designated $310 million in USD toward its coronavirus response, and compensated by diverting funds from goods and services, transfers, and capital investment. "The already limited funds for combating trafficking were all diverted to feed and supply cooked and dry food for the vulnerable during lockdown" says Peasah.
And though Ghana's villages have mostly evaded COVID-19, an outbreak in rural Ghana would be devastating. Most villages lack adequate medical facilities, and social distancing is not conducive to villagers' communal way of life. It's common for rural denizens to pool their assets—one family provides cassava, another provides fish, and so on—so if a portion of a village falls ill, the entire population will suffer. And orphaned children or children of single parents will face a high risk of being trafficked.
An Uncertain Future
Atsu and Divine currently live with Emefa. With support from a micro grant from Right To Be Free, Emefa provides for the family by farming and selling eggs. Last December, they spent their first Christmas together as a family in six years.
COVID-19 threatens the possibility of more success stories. Villagers do not welcome city dwellers for fear of contracting COVID-19, which poses problems for rescuers like Peasah. Under lockdown, humanitarian organizations and the Ghanaian government struggle to gather crucial intel and statistics, obfuscating the true impact of COVID-19 on child trafficking.
In lieu of his normal rescue missions, Peasah hopes to initiate a weekly reading program for children in one village who cannot access e-learning. However, the government's approval is contingent on Peasah's ability to provide masks and maintain social distancing. "All the parents want their child to participate, but we can't take everybody. Not in this pandemic," he says. "But [I] hope, in a small way, [I] can help the children in the village."
*Editor's Note: The names of the children have been changed to protect their identity.