- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2005

SAN’A, Yemen — A two-day workshop based on the first study of child trafficking in Yemen was held last weekend, representing the first public admission that children are being sent to Saudi Arabia to support their families and thus exposed to abuse.

Awareness of the issue has grown in the past year, but it has provoked disagreement about the magnitude of the problem and how many youngsters working north of the border should be considered trafficked children.

“We have fully acknowledged that this is a problem for us and appears to be growing,” said Ramesh Shrestha, a Yemen-based representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), speaking at the opening of the forum, which brought government ministers and representatives of aid organizations together Saturday and Sunday.

“There are different issues on the definition of trafficking,” he said. “Whether or not it is trafficking or illegal immigration, and there are different numbers for children being trafficked, but the basic fact is that there is a problem.”

The study by Yemen’s Social Affairs Ministry and UNICEF was carried out in Hajja and al Mahweet, two provinces thought to be primary sources of child trafficking, and was based on interviews and group discussions with victims, families, traffickers and government authorities.

The information gathered showed that more than 25 percent of children interviewed faced risks to their well-being, including going hungry and getting lost. The study found that some died during the journey to Saudi Arabia, and many said they had been robbed or beaten and abused by security officials. In addition, nearly 65 percent of the children trafficked did not have a place to stay and ended up living on the streets.

The most common ways of earning money by Yemeni children abroad are begging or becoming street vendors.

Research teams were not able to carry out a full assessment of sexual exploitation. But according to a woman interviewed in the survey, “Children were sexually abused even by the traffickers themselves and before they got into Saudi Arabia.”

One of the reasons that child trafficking has become a lucrative business in Yemen is that many families are unaware of the hardships that their children may encounter. Most parents involved in the study said they saw no difference between child trafficking and illegal immigration to boost a family’s income, and most were willing to pay a trafficker to make it possible.

The major cause of child trafficking in Yemen is poverty.

“Child trafficking is one of the bad symptoms of people suffering from poverty,” said Amat al-Aleem al-Soswa, Yemen’s U.S.-educated human rights minister. “If the families happened to be well-off, the parents would not have let their children go to another place and be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. It is poverty, and we should fight it if we want a radical solution for this problem.”

In the World Bank’s recent report on Yemen, the country’s rise in gross domestic product slowed from 4.1 percent in 2001 to 2.5 percent last year. Economic expansion is not keeping up with Yemen’s population growth, one of the highest in the world.

The Population Reference Bureau, a private organization based in the United States, estimates that Yemen’s population grows about 4 percent annually. Forty-two percent of Yemenis live below the poverty line, and the percentage is expected to rise unless the government hastens economic reforms.

The child-trafficking study shows that more than 60 percent of the children sent abroad are from families with eight or more members and that most of these families survive on less than $108 per month. Families said sending children to work increased income dramatically, sometimes doubling their family income.

“Saying that raising awareness in communities can solve the problem is probably not accurate,” Mr. Shrestha said. “People will become aware that it is bad, but other compelling reasons — like economic hardship — might motivate families not to take action against child trafficking. Children sending money back to their families living in the poorer areas near the border might continue.”

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