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Trading in human misery: the trafficking of children is a growing problem in Yemen, with immoral and unprincipled "dealers" making money out of smuggling children across the border into remote areas of Saudi Arabia.

THE INTERNATIONAL LABOUR ORGANISATION (ILO) reports that more than 1.2m children are trafficked every year worldwide, many of them ending up being used as forced labour or for sexual exploitation. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has warned that people trafficking, mostly of women and children, is a serious and escalating problem, as the authorities in Yemen have discovered.

Awareness of children being trafficked out of Yemen has been growing over the last year, and the government and various aid organisations have recently acknowledged it as a problem that unscrupulous "traders" have turned into a lucrative business, often with the support of unsuspecting parents.

"This is a problem and one which appears to be growing," confirmed Ramesh Shrestha, a UNICEF representative based in Yemen. "There are different issues on the definition of and whether it should be described as trafficking or illegal immigration but whatever you call it, it is definitely a problem."

Yemen's Ministry of Social Affairs, together with UNICEF, carried out the first study in Hajja and Al Mahweet, two provinces near the Yemeni-Saudi border and believed to be the major transit point used by the highest concentration of child traffickers, according to interviews and group discussions with victims, families, convicted traffickers and government authorities.

A UNICEF spokesperson observed that although the governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia are working to prevent this appalling trade in human lives, more must be done if it is to be stamped out. What makes their task even more difficult is the fact that most children are being sent away from home with the knowledge and approval of their parents.

The majority of parents interviewed for the survey said they had sought out and paid traffickers to take their children abroad to find work, in order to supplement the family income. However, it was clear the families had no idea of the dangers and heartache their children would face while living abroad without parental guidance or protection.

Many of the children interviewed complained of hunger and getting lost. Reports claim that some even died on the journey to Yemen's northern border. Many children said they had been robbed, while others claimed they were beaten by security officials. Nearly 65% of all the trafficked children interviewed did not have a place to stay and ended up living on the streets.

The most common form of earning money was said to be begging or becoming a street vendor. Research teams were not able to carry out a full assessment of sexual exploitation. But according to one woman interviewed for the survey, children are frequently sexually abused, often by the traffickers themselves before they get to their destination.

The primary cause of child trafficking in Yemen is a result of poverty. Over 60% of the children interviewed came from households earning less than $108 a month and with eight or more family members. Some families said the funds sent home by their children were a significant financial support. One parent claimed his children's wages had doubled the family income.

"Child trafficking is one of the bad symptoms of people suffering from poverty," said Amat Al Aleem Al Soswa, Yemen's minister of human rights. "If families were well off, parents would not have to let their children go to places where they would be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. It is poverty we must fight it if we want a solution to this problem."

According to The World Bank Yemen's gross domestic product slowed from 4.1% in 2001 to 2.5% last year. It is estimated that around 42% of Yemenis now live below the poverty line, while 25% live only just above it. The Population Reference Bureau, a private organisation based in the United States, calculates that Yemen's population increases at around 4% annually, making it one of the highest growth rates in the world.

"We need more than economic growth that matches population growth to reduce poverty," said Yemen's minister of social affairs and labour, Abdulkarim Al Arhabi. "We need much stronger economic growth to be able to reduce poverty, an increase of 6, 7, or even 8%, anything lower will just maintain or increase the incidence of poverty."

Roughly 2m children, out of Yemen's total population of 19.3m, work on a full-time or part-time basis inside the country. The majority of these working children live in rural areas, where 75% of families reside, and most of their work is concerned with agricultural activities or the family business. It is estimated that around 40% of Yemeni children are not enrolled in basic education.

Although the Yemeni government started economic reform in the mid-1990s with the guidance of The World Bank, implementing change has since stalled. Little has been done to improve the investment environment or to overhaul the civil service or judicial system. According to a report issued by Transparency International last October, Yemen was seen as being "riddled" with corruption and placed near the bottom of the organisation's list of offenders, ranking 112 out of 145 countries, just above Iraq, which was the worst of all the Middle Eastern countries listed.

Urgent action must be taken to streamline Yemen's legal system if it is to support government authorities in clamping down on traffickers. Al Soswa observed: "It has been proven that in many cases of trafficking, the courts have not been able to strictly address the issue because of the absence of clear, local legislation."

The precise number of children being trafficked remains unclear. With the lack of facilities in rural areas and many children never having been issued with birth certificates or identification cards, it has been difficult to distinguish between children travelling with their families or relatives and those being trafficked by unscrupulous middle men. "It is not clear how many children are trafficked," confirmed Al Arhabi. "We cannot discover the numbers because there is no information system at the border." However, it is clear that this trade in human misery is widespread and that child trafficking is only rarely reported by families.

After months of debate, government officials in Yemen have agreed that the problem exists and some steps have recently been taken to curb children being sent abroad.

"What we are doing now is trying to survey those districts where we know victims have been taken for trafficking and see what we can do there to help their situation. It is important to undertake a campaign of promoting awareness of this problem within families," said Al Arhabi. "It is also important to improve living conditions and the basic services, such as schools," he added.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs
Author:Willems, Peter
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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