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YEMEN: Child trafficking to increase in Ramadan
Cloaked under the darkness of night, 10-year-old Ahmed sits quietly on top of the truck that is taking him from Yemen to Saudi Arabia while he dreams of the money he will make in the oil-rich state.
Ramadan is the best time for the lucrative business of child trafficking and smuggling to flourish. Muslims from all over the world trickle into the kingdom with a pious heart and a charitable mood as they perform their pilgrimage rights. That's what the smugglers are counting on.
Little does Ahmed or his parents know of the hardship, exploitation and dangers that could possible be waiting for the boy. There are thousands of children like him across Yemen that go into Saudi Arabia in search of a better life for themselves and their families.
With the advent of Ramadan in just a few days, child trafficking, a trade that sometimes goes unpunished in Yemen, is expected to increase as food prices rise and parents struggle to provide for their children.
"I think during Ramadan prices rise and there is a lapse of security along the borders," Coordinator of the Child Parliament Om Khalthoum said.
Almost 1,500 Yemeni children were saved by child protection centers from exploitation, abuse and deprivation that come at the hands of their traffickers or smugglers, according to Naseem Ur-Rahman of UNICEF. Yemeni children, primarily boys, are trafficked into Saudi Arabia for exploitation as beggars, street vendors and unskilled laborers.
While there are no statistics that determine how many children are trafficked on an annual basis, authorities do know that during the month of Ramadan the numbers rise. "One of the main problems is that there is a lack of reliable data," Ur-Rahman said.
"The government performs through inspections at the checkpoints but the smugglers use illegal routes that crisscross the long porous borders," said Ur-Rahman explaining that smugglers usually travel under the cover of darkness. "It's an organised crime."
Despite authorities stepping up measures to address the issue, smugglers have perfected their trade. A 12-year-old boy known as "the boss" is in the child trafficking trade himself. He makes up to YR 50,000 a month from smuggling children across the borders.
Most of the child victims are from Mahweet, Hajja and Hodeidah. They are trafficked through Sa'ada and Harath.
Lack of legislation
Although Yemen is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, its laws are not fully compliant with the treaty.
In 2008, cooperation was increased with Saudi Arabia in order to end child trafficking. A bilateral committee to combat child trafficking was established and the border between the two countries was monitored more frequently. But civil society organisations are calling for amendments to the laws governing child trafficking.
"The government has acknowledged the issue and realised that it affects childhood," is all that Fathiyya Abd Al-Wasie Ahmed, assistant deputy minister of the Legal Affairs of Women and Child Ministry, could say.
There are no clear statements that criminalise child trafficking or spell out specific penalties against traffickers and those who exploit children. However, any action resulting from trafficking that harms the child is subject to seven to ten years in children according to Yemeni law.
Nevertheless, there is still a need for Yemeni legislation to accommodate all crimes against children. There is also a need for a legal description of child trafficking specifically for sex, begging or any other action that assists or encourages children to escape from their houses to practice prostitution or any other harmful activities. Occasionally children are even maimed or crippled in order to ensure success in begging.
"The laws do not prevent child trafficking. They are not enough. A trafficker could be set free without paying a fine or spend a maximum of one year in prison," Om Khalthoum said.
Despite making great strides in recent years, the government of Yemen did not show evidence of progress in prosecuting and punishing trafficking offenders or in preventing sex trafficking over the last year, according to the US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report for 2009. The government reported no trafficking investigations, prosecutions, or convictions during the reporting period, and took no steps to address trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation. It continued, however, to provide protection and reunification services to child victims repatriated from Saudi Arabia and made notable strides in raising awareness about child labor trafficking, says the report.
Abd Al-Latif Al-Hamdani, coordinator of the technical committee for combating child smuggling, said, "It's not enough to have laws and legislation. Society also needs to be aware."
"Yemen has to adopt a zero tolerance to the issue," Ur Rahman said.
Parents "don't know any better"
"Although poverty is one of the reasons [for child trafficking], it’s just one," said Al-Hamdani, explaining that often it is greed and parents’ lack of awareness about the risks their children could face during the journey and afterwards. "One child died of thirst," he said.
In hopes of a better life, families pay smugglers to traffic their children to Saudi Arabia, and sometimes they are not held accountable.
"Whether by smuggling or pushing their children to do it, it all boils down to a lack of awareness," Fathiyya Ahmed said, stressing that more needs to be done to raise awareness about the issue.
"The real breakthrough will come when the parents understand," said Ur-Rahman.
- ECPAT: Their Protection is in Our Hands – The State of Global Child Trafficking for Sexual Purposes
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