Anti-trafficking missions draw scrutiny
A U.S. ministry responds to accusations of kidnapping in Ghana
A recent headline on a BBC story accused anti-trafficking workers in Africa of committing one of the crimes they are trying to prevent—kidnapping.
“Ghanaian children wrongly taken in raids backed by U.S. charity IJM,” the headline read.
According to the BBC story, IJM, or International Justice Mission, mistakenly identified four children as victims of trafficking last year and led Ghanaian police to remove them from their families at gunpoint, traumatizing their entire community in the process.
IJM says the BBC report and the accompanying documentary’s portrayal misrepresented the ministry’s work. The media scrutiny has fueled broader assertions that reports of trafficking in the region are overblown.
The criticism comes as another anti-trafficking group—one highlighted in the hit movie Sound of Freedom—faces controversy over its tactics and its financial management. Much of the criticism of that group, Operation Underground Railroad, has centered on founder Tim Ballard, who stepped away from the group before the movie was released, according to Vice.
Vic Lacey used to work with IJM and investigated Ghana’s fishing industry for himself. He read the BBC story with skepticism. Ten years ago, he spent three weeks on a small fishing boat crisscrossing Lake Volta, the largest manmade lake in the world and the center of Ghana’s fishing industry. Lacey and a fellow IJM staffer were investigating claims about child slavery in the region.
Of the nearly 20,000 children involved in Ghana’s fishing industry, most work on Lake Volta—mending nets, scooping water out of the wooden canoes, and diving overboard to untangle the nets caught in the flooded forest beneath the reservoir. Lacey and his colleague spent months researching the industry before visiting Ghana in 2013. Once they arrived, they interviewed Ghanaians about labor and apprenticeship practices and spoke with psychologists and police. Then the two men, plus a Ghanaian interpreter and boat driver, took to the lake with pseudonyms and a seafood business cover. They talked with boatmasters and hundreds of children under the guise of needing to buy their own boats and hire young boys to man them.
According to their investigative report, young boys often began work at 3 a.m., straining to draw in heavy nets full of last night’s catch. Many did not attend school, and some drowned. The majority of the children were 10 years old or younger, far below the country’s legal age limit for hazardous labor. “You’d see a 5-year-old out on a boat by themselves, no clothes on, distended stomach,” said Lacey. Others had “scars all over them from beatings from work,” he said, “They were just in utter emotional distress.”
Lacey said more than 500 of the over 800 children they spoke with were likely forced to work under threat of physical abuse or the withholding of food. In a separate study commissioned by IJM in 2022, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the University of San Diego, and Kantar Ghana found that 38 percent of children working in the industry were likely trafficked and 45 percent were being exploited. Other independent academic studies have reached similar conclusions, as has the United Nations.
The mission that raised questions, dubbed Operation Hilltop, took place in September 2022 when IJM staff provided Ghanaian police with information about one likely case of child trafficking and three that were unclear. The children, including an 11-year-old girl named Fatima, spent more than four months at an IJM partner shelter until Ghanaian social services concluded there was no evidence of trafficking. Police also arrested two of Fatima’s uncles and prosecuted them on charges of child trafficking though they were eventually released and their names cleared.
IJM Ghana director Anita Budu told me the case of suspected trafficking involved a 7-year-old boy. His extended family sent him to work on the lake to scoop water out of boats and draw in nets even though he could not swim. He worked from before sunrise until afternoon without food and did not attend school. The three other children, who were also working and not in school, showed signs of malnutrition and illness, but it was less clear whether they were victims of trafficking.
IJM works alongside local law enforcement to investigate suspected trafficking cases, but police ultimately decide whether to pursue a tip. Budu said staff made clear in Operation Hilltop that there was one likely case of human trafficking while the other cases were less clear, though there was evidence the children’s well-being was at risk.
“IJM as an NGO has a mandate to provide such information to the authorities,” Budu said.
IJM adheres to the International Labor Organization’s definition for forced labor, modern slavery, and human trafficking. It describes forced labor “as work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty.” This includes the use of intimidation or more subtle means such as “manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.”
In Ghana, IJM also follows the guidelines laid out in the country’s 2005 Human Trafficking Act. The law defines trafficking as the “recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring, trading, or receipt of persons” by use of “coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, the abuse of power or exploitation of vulnerability” along with “giving or receiving payments and benefits to achieve consent.” Parental or guardian consent is not a defense.
In 1998, Ghana passed The Children’s Act, which prohibits children under the age of 18 from working hazardous or exploitative jobs detrimental to their development or education. While it’s normal for children to live with extended relatives and help out with the family business, it’s illegal for children ages 4 to 15 not to attend school. The law defines hazardous work as any job that involves going to sea, mining and quarrying, or carrying heavy loads. It also prohibits work in “manufacturing industries where chemicals are produced or used and work in bars, hotels and places of entertainment where a person may be exposed to immoral behavior.”
In the Operation Hilltop case, the Department of Social Welfare concluded the children should be removed for the sake of their well-being, Budu said, until they could conduct an assessment of their family members and ensure they received the support they needed to take care of the children.
“All the facts were laid out to the government partners, and a decision was made in terms of the way forward,” said Budu, adding IJM included “distinctions between suspected cases of trafficking versus suspected cases of exploitative child labor.” She said IJM is still required to provide evidence to authorities about exploitative labor situations even if they don’t meet all the criteria for trafficking because someone is still committing a criminal offense against the child.
“Police and authorities make their own determination if Ghanaian law has been violated,” Budu said. IJM issued a statement countering claims that the families targeted by Operation Hilltop had no idea where police were taking their children: “Ultimately, DSW decided to place the children with other family members in a different area where they were able to go to school.” Staff supporting local law enforcement during the operation said they did not witness officers using guns in the manner described by the BBC.
While they investigated Operation Hilltop, the BBC said its undercover reporter, posing as an IJM volunteer, discovered another rescue gone wrong. The story claimed an innocent mother of four, Mawusi Amlade, was thrown in prison for human trafficking after her children were taken away from her in 2019.
The BBC reporter secretly filmed an IJM lawyer who said Amlade pleaded guilty to charges of trafficking—much to the surprise of the court. Amlade was seriously ill at the time and most likely only put the children in danger of being trafficked because she had no other means of support. “They asked, ‘Are you sure?’” the lawyer told the reporter, “She said, ‘Yes, I’m guilty.’” Ghana’s Human Trafficking Act required the court to sentence Amlade to a minimum of five years because she pleaded guilty.
IJM repudiated the BBC’s claims that she did not know where her children had been taken. The organization said they worked with government social workers to set up phone calls between Amlade and her children while she served her term. Staff reunited the children with their aunt after they provided her with the equipment she needed to start a business, IJM said in a statement.
The BBC attributed the questionable cases to a “target-driven culture,” claiming IJM demands that staffers fill rescue quotas or put their jobs at risk. Samuel Okyere, a Ghanaian professor at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, has spent years researching child labor in Ghana. IJM jobs are “very highly paid positions relative to a lot of jobs in Ghana,” he said. “They are motivated by the need to stay in a well-paid job.”
Budu pushed back against the characterization. “We have targets, but that is not what drives our team,” she said. She said employees’ salaries are consistent with those of other nongovernmental organizations of a similar size working in Ghana’s development sector. IJM found no evidence that staff were “motivated for any other reason than to help children suffering from trafficking and exploitation” during their internal review, Budu noted.
IJM measures success through the rescue and rehabilitation of survivors along with whether the government is taking initiative to conduct cases independently, Budu said. The U.S. State Department’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report concluded that the Ghanaian government identified and referred 574 trafficking victims to services in 2022, compared with 727 victims in 2021 and 391 in 2020. The majority were cases of labor trafficking, and 359 of the victims were children. Budu noted that IJM has seen a “dramatic increase” in arrests and trafficking prosecutions since 2018. The organization has also noticed an increase in awareness of the problem in vulnerable communities, all of which she called “hopeful signs that prevalence is indeed decreasing.”
But Okyere called the BBC’s report the “tip of the iceberg” and said IJM’s reports of trafficking in the Lake Volta region are exaggerated. He argued that while cases of children performing hazardous work under threat of force do exist, they are less widespread than the organization claims. IJM activity in the region criminalizes poverty, he said, by characterizing any fishing activity involving a child as exploitative. Okyere said what counts as hazardous work isn’t clearly defined and can be distorted by groups like IJM. “You have these gray areas,” he said.
For many families in coastal and island villages, fishing is their sole livelihood, so it’s integral that they introduce their children to the industry at an early age. Families commonly pay a distant family member or friend to train their son and set him up as a fisherman when he is old enough, Okyere said. Other times, the boat master pays the family for the child’s work. By disregarding their means of survival and splitting families, he claimed that IJM has “alienated the very communities with which they should have been building bridges.”
He argued that even a clear-cut case of child slavery or exploitation doesn’t warrant a raid. “This mode of intervention is unacceptable,” he said. Instead, “it’s dialogue that is needed,” Okyere argued, adding that social workers, not armed police, should sit down with village elders if they need to remove a child and involve the community in the solution. He urged organizations like IJM to tackle the root of the problem by creating more business opportunities for impoverished coastal communities.
Lacey agrees that not every child working on the lake is trafficked. He and his team talked with fishing families whose children were not starved, abused, or molested. “It is a culture where families work together,” he said. His 10-year stint with IJM took him to 20 countries where he realized that childhood won’t always look like it does in the West, nor should it. But Lacey also said he watched boat masters offer village elders $150 per boy and openly admit they will force the child to work for as long as they want. He said many mothers get next to nothing. Sometimes families borrow money from the boat masters, who keep their children in a form of debt bondage for years.
“The bottom line is that there are situations where children are being abused, children are being exploited,” said Budu. “It’s important to get a deeper understanding of the nuances on the ground. But the law [lays] it out very clearly. And the law is set by Ghanaians.”
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