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Rescue or raid?


WORLD Radio - Rescue or raid?

Anti-trafficking mission IJM responds to allegations of kidnapping children during an operation in Ghana

A woman holds a new-born baby, 11 April 2006, aboard a pirogue during a crossing of the Lake Volta. KAMBOU SIA/AFP via Getty Images

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: identifying human trafficking.

The BBC reported a few weeks ago that a U.S. based charity that investigates human trafficking went too far.

In 2022, in an operation in Ghana, the BBC reported that the International Justice Mission led law enforcement to remove four children from their homes after mistakenly identifying them as victims of trafficking.

NICK EICHER, HOST: But IJM says that the media have misrepresented its work in Ghana and is downplaying serious child labor law violations.

What’s happening below the headlines, and what does it mean for those working to rescue children from modern-day slavery?

Joining us now are WORLD’s Compassion beat reporter Addie Offereins and our Global Desk deputy chief, Onize Ohikere.

REICHARD: Addie, what is International Justice Mission and what does it do?

ADDIE OFFEREINS: International Justice Mission or IJM is a Christian anti-trafficking organization that works in 17 countries. So its founder believed that the best way to fight human trafficking is to strengthen justice systems in countries where law enforcement is often just standing by and letting trafficking happen. So they work with local authorities to investigate, take perpetrators to court, and rescue victims. And I think it's important to point out here that while IJM provides information, does investigations, it doesn't make the final call to conduct a raid like the one in the article. That's ultimately up to law enforcement. So they're the one that needs to actually decide we need boots on the ground here.

REICHARD: The BBC article talks about IJM’s investigation in Ghana. What was going on there?

OFFEREINS: The organization began investigating the Lake Volta Region in 2013, because of reports that many children were being forced to work in horrific conditions on the lake. And just a little bit of context about the area, so this is the largest manmade lake in the world. And when it was created, it flooded a forest and has since become the center of Ghana's fishing industry. And it's estimated that about 20,000 children work in the industry on the lake. And so since 2013, IJM has released several reports and there's been some other independent research done that has revealed that children under 10 are forced to perform dangerous tasks on the lake, they're often diving overboard to untangle fishing nets that get caught in the trees under the water. And they're doing so often under threat of violence or the withholding of food. And so IJM's most recent report that's set to be released soon has concluded that 38% of children are likely trafficked and 45% are at least in exploitive labor conditions on the lake.

REICHARD: As we mentioned earlier, the BBC accuses IJM of wrongly removing children from their homes. What’s behind the claim?

OFFEREINS: The rescue mission in question was called Operation Hilltop, and that occurred last September when IJM provided authorities with information about one likely case of trafficking and then three that were unclear. And so police, Ghanian police removed the four children from their families, including an 11 year old girl and arrested two of her uncles on charges of human trafficking. And so the children stayed in an IJM shelter for four months, while Child Welfare investigated and assessed the families. And they concluded there actually weren't cases of trafficking and so they released the children and released the uncles as well. And so the IJM Ghana director told me that Ghanaian social welfare workers wanted to assess the families make sure it was safe for the children to return. And she pointed out that even if all four weren't necessarily cases of trafficking, IJM still has the responsibility to give law enforcement information about what could still be exploitive labor conditions that are putting children at risk, and still violating Ghanian child labor laws and keeping children out of school, which is illegal in Ghana between a certain age bracket.

REICHARD: I want to turn to you now, Onize. Is the Western media missing any nuance in reporting this story?

ONIZE OHIKERE: I believe there's some nuance that could explain why there's tension between some locals and groups like IJM. So two years ago, CNN published a somewhat similar report on how child slavery is visible, and in plain sight in the Lake Volta Region. That sparked a response from Samuel Okyere, he's one of the researchers Addie spoke with, along with Betty Krosbi Mensah. She's a member of parliament whose constituency is along the lake region. And she also spoke in the BBC documentary. So they both argue that Western organizations don't necessarily get the local dynamic. So for instance, fishing is in the lifeblood of these communities. So parents pass on the skills to their children. They also highlighted the extended family system that makes it somewhat normal to find children living with aunties or grandparents. That's a different family dynamic from what you would find in the West. But even if that's the case, you know, it still leaves the problem of child labor, and risks of trafficking in some of the cases that IJM dealt with, for instance. So you know, you have these traditions that are passed on, but that doesn't automatically mean that there aren't problems within the system.

REICHARD: So what do locals or African researchers see as a holistic solution?

OHIKERE: You know, so I've seen that some some of them have pointed to the fact that there, well, they see a disconnect between the policies and the on the ground experiences of the children who are working. So many of them are calling for more focus on solutions that make these children you know, less susceptible to trafficking or forced labor. That's more of a secondary approach, but looking at, you know, more social intervention programs like free education access, feeding programs, even skill acquisition programs, and for their families, economic empowerment programs, that gives them more stable or reliable income sources, so they don't have to force or rely on their children as another source of income.

REICHARD: Addie, how is the BBC report likely to change IJM’s work in Ghana, if at all?

OFFEREINS: IJM did conduct an internal review after this report came out. But outside of IJM, there have been some calls for parliamentary review in Ghana of the work that organizations like IJM do, whether their methods are effective, whether they might be unintentionally hurting some of these communities. But really, it remains to be seen if that will change their work in a substantial way.

REICHARD: Addie Offereins is WORLD’s Compassion beat reporter, and Onize Ohikere is deputy chief of the Global Desk. Thank you both!

OFFEREINS: Thanks for having me.

OHIKERE: You're welcome, Mary.

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