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Efforts Underway to Free Enslaved Children - 2003-01-08

The International Organization for Migration has launched a program to free an estimated 1,200 children in Ghana who have been sold into slavery.

Officials of the International Organization for Migration say poverty is what drives this modern-day slave trade.

Desperately poor parents can get as much as $180 by selling their children to what are known as slave masters. Some of the children are as young as five-years-old.

The International Organization for Migration says slave labor is widespread throughout West Africa, but is particularly acute in the Lake Volta and central regions of Ghana, where the fishing industry is located.

A spokesman for the organization, Jean-Philippe Chauzy, says the children are forced to work in the fishing industry under harsh and dangerous conditions. "Their lives are pretty dismal because they work extremely long hours, from the crack of dawn until late in the evening," he said. "And we know from testimony that we have already collected that these children are very poorly fed, usually soup and cassava. They have got very little opportunity of escaping because they are part of this forced labor practice and they have not got any structures basically or families on which they can rely on."

The International Organization for Migration says it is working closely with Ghanaian authorities and private agencies involved in child rights to end slave labor.

Since there are no laws in Ghana to punish people who traffic in child labor, Mr. Chauzy says his organization is relying heavily on the traditional chiefs to persuade the fishermen that it is not acceptable to use children as slaves. "In Ghana, paramount chiefs do have still quite a lot of clout," said Jean-Philippe Chauzy, who noted "there is evidence in the few days that our program has been running that if a paramount chief speaks against the exploitation of children that the word is going to be heard and is going to be taken seriously by the fishermen. So, we are hoping that that will act as a catalyst."

The program launched by the International Organization for Migration is the result of a $350,000 grant from the United States. Under the plan, poor families are given a small amount of money to help them earn a living and to allow their children to go to school and start vocational training.

The program also will help the fishermen improve their fishing methods and discourage them from employing children.

Officials say the program, which began two-weeks ago, is already getting results. They say slave masters have pledged to free 58 so-called fishing boys in the coming days.

Though the program is scheduled to end in 15 months, Mr. Chauzy says the International Organization for Migration is hoping that it will be extended and allowed to spread to other countries in West Africa where child labor is still practiced.