(Yemen Observer)- - Poverty and underdevelopment take their toll on children in many ways. Poor nutrition robs their health and slows their physical and mental development. Poor education closes off their chances of economic advancement. But what’s often overlooked is how the lack of economic options can lead children into lives of brutality, sexual exploitation, and unending menial labor.
Consider the story of Abdullah Ahmed As’ad. Unable to get along with his father, Abdullah left his home in Ibb at 15. He briefly lived with an uncle in Dhamar governorate, but left four months ago to find work in Saudi Arabia. “I had been in Saudi Arabia for four months selling fruit and vegetables from a cart,” he said, “but the Saudi security arrested me and brought me back to Yemen.” He has no plans to return. “I won’t go back,” he says flatly.
“I faced troubles both when I went there and when I returned to my homeland. Going and living there is very difficult,” he said. Abdullah is not alone. Every year, hundreds of Yemeni children enter Saudi Arabia illegally in search of work. Some go voluntarily. Some are forced by their families. They are driven by economic necessity. As one of the world’s least developed countries, Yemen has an economy highly dependent on overseas remittances. The first stop for most Yemeni children who leave the country in search of work is Saudi Arabia, because of its proximity and wealth. The children beg, or go into domestic service or agricultural work. There are no definitive statistics on the number of children who go into the sort of life described by Abdullah Ahmed As’ad.
But it is clear that hundreds, if not thousands, leave Yemen every year, voluntarily or not. In 2004, 9,815 Yemeni children were expelled from Saudi Arabia, according to official statistics. In 2005, 370 children entered Unicef’s reception center in the Haradh region alone, says Adel Dabwan al-Shara’abi, general director of social defense in Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. Unicef has also established a reception center in the Harath region for children recently deported from Saudi Arabia, providing victims with social services, medical care, and family reuinification services. This center receives 30 to 35 children every month. Children are kept for 10 days, until their parents are found.
An additional 113 children have entered the Social Guidance House in Sana’a since the beginning of 2005, says Mohammed Abdul-Wahed, a spokesman for the House. Many of those children went to Saudi Arabia against their will. Trafficking cases in the Hajah region alone in 2004 involved 41 kidnappers and 141 children, according to the Yemen Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Those who make it to Saudi Arabia are often beaten, sexually abused, or neglected. “Poverty, lack of education and lack of employment are the causes of sending these children,” says Naseem-Ur-Rehman, UNICEF’s Chief of Communication and Information Section.
“They act as the main means of support for their families. They are used as workers in restaurants and agriculture, selling water and newspapers, fishing, cleaning cars, and begging. They are trafficked either by foot, car, or in trucks carrying oil, qat and other goods to Saudi Arabia. Children between 5 and 16 years of age are going to a country where they have no rights or legal protection. They face many dangers, and are often exposed to violence, sexual exploitation and abuse.” Of course, Yemen is not the only country plagued by child trafficking. It is a global problem, with approximately 1.2 million children each year illegally trafficked, whether between countries or within their own.
But the harsh lives faced by many rural Yemenis mean that their children are especially at risk. Some Yemeni parents don’t understand what the fuss is about. “What is wrong with going to Samida or Jaisan to work?” asks Ghaleb, a 42-year-old father from the Haradh region. “It is better than staying home and not working. My children go to Sana’a to find a job, and if they can’t find anything, they go to Jaisan.” Ziad, another father from Haradh, also sees nothing wrong with putting his children to work in a foreign country. A 10-year-old child, he says, should be considered a man, and is therefore expected to work like one.
The threat of criminal prosecution may change their minds, though. Ghaia Saeed Hajori, 35, from the Haradh region was sentenced to two years in prison this year for smuggling her two young girls, to Saudi Arabia. They were among 27 taken into the Haradh court’s protection last year. The numbers are down so far this year, which Ebraheem al-Aslami, an assistant to a courtroom judge, takes as a good sign. “This year, 2006, we received only two kidnappers and two children,” he says. “That means the phenomenon is decreasing.”
It’s not just desperate parents who smuggle children. Judge Abdul-Adheem al-Radami from the West Court, who deals with many cases of children that have been deported from Saudi Arabia, believes child trafficking is definitely attracting criminal groups. The parents of some children, he says, collaborate with trafficking gangs to smuggle children into Saudi Arabia to work as beggars. “One father rented his son to a kidnapper in return for payments of YR 60,000 per month, which increased to YR 100,000 during Ramadan,” he says.
The government, meanwhile, says organized smuggling doesn’t exist. Jamal al-Aqel, assistant deputy of Hajjah governorate, and Ahmed Sari, former manager of the Reception House in Haradh, said that the trafficking of child labor from Yemen to Saudi Arabia is carried out only by individuals. Under Yemen’s international obligations, the flow of its children across the border is technically illegal. However, without a domestic framework, it can be difficult for law enforcement officials to do anything to protect the victims.
“Yemen has agreed to two protocols in the international agreement for childens’ rights,” says Juvenile Court Judge Afrah Badwailan. “The protocols forbid trading children under 18. Children are trafficked internally for sexual abuse, agriculture work and organ trading. Here in the court, we do not punish these children—we only try to find solutions to protect them.” Other organizations, however, are trying to curb the traffic in children. UNICEF has held a series of workshops on the prevention of child trafficking this year, said Ur-Rehman.
Two were held in Riyadh this year, and another is to be held in Sana’a the first week of November. Radio broadcasts in Hajjah have also been initiated in order to educate people about the dangers of sending their children to work abroad. The Yemeni Government has also stepped up its efforts, said al-Sharabi. In cooperation with UNICEF and the International Organization for Migration, it is training 40 government officials and security forces in shelter management and assisting trafficking victims. It is also working to raise awareness of trafficking among parents of small children in rural and border areas. Another reception center will be opened soon in Sana’a, said al-Sharabi. He favors prevention as the best way to reduce child trafficking.
There used to be no laws against child trafficking; but now, new legislation is moving through the government. “A whole chapter has been added to the penal code on the crimes of trafficking children, with punishments ranging between six to 15 years,” says al-Sharabi. “This chapter focuses on punishing the kidnappers, even if they are also the parents of the child.” Under the new laws, a smuggler is treated as a kidnapper and, if charged, faces a jail term of no less than three years. If the kidnapper has also physically abused the child, such as through beating or starvation, his sentence increases to up to ten years. In the case of rape and sexual abuse, the sentence is death, said Judge al-Radami.
An agreement has also been reached with some tribes to prevent the practice and implement punishments. Such measures play a great role in decreasing the phenomenon, said al-Aqel of the Hajah governorate. “The government has approved many children to receive social insurance in regions such as the Aflahasham and Bakil al-Meer provinces in Hajjah,” he said. “This social insurance is considered a long-term solution for this problem. UNICEF has chosen Aflahasham province as its model to be a starting point in the process of stopping this phenomenon.”
But the problem will persist as long as poverty does. Until then, says UNICEF’s Ur-Rehman, agencies like this can only work to reduce it. “One of the best ways to address this phenomenon is to work in cooperation with poor countries, because the best life for these children is with their families, even if they are poor,” he says. “The rights of children should be enshrined in the laws of any country. There should be national conventions on the rights of children. It is part of a government’s duty to build the capacity of both families and the community by giving them the skills, motivation and knowledge to avoid placing their children in this situation.”