Ali Hassan Salem was 10 when he was trafficked to Saudi Arabia. “When I grew up I did not go to school, but cleaned cars,” he said. Earning very little money in Yemen and having heard of the opportunities in Saudi Arabia, Ali decided to try his luck there.
“No-man’s-land between the borders is a harsh place,” Ali said. “There are wild animals and criminal gangs. I was lucky that nothing happened.”
In Jizan across the border he found work at a construction site. “I didn’t earn much and after expenses for food I only managed to save 200 SAR [US$55],” he said. “It was hard work and the Saudis mistreated us and called us dogs.”
After a month of hard labour and sleeping in an abandoned house with some men from Egypt and Somalia, Ali wanted to go home. “I was scared all the time and I missed my family.”
However, Ali was stopped at the border by Saudi police. “We tried to run away, but we were beaten with belts and batons and I spent three days in a detention centre,” he said.
Today Ali has this advice for any Yemeni children trying to go to Saudi Arabia to find work: “Don’t go. It’s dangerous and many come home damaged.”
However, with growing poverty and a shaky ceasefire in the north, there are fears that child trafficking may increase.
There are no reliable figures on child trafficking from Yemen. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour (MOSAL) says the number of children trafficked to Saudi Arabia are down from 900 in 2008 to 602 in 2009 due to awareness campaigns and collaboration between the Yemeni and Saudi authorities.
However, others say the dip in numbers is due to enhanced Saudi border patrols as a result of the conflict in the north. “If the restrictions [on the borders] are lifted the numbers will go up again,” said Jamal al-Haddi of The Charitable Society for Social Welfare (CSSW), a local NGO.
Mona Ali Salem of MOSAL’s Child Labour Unit worries that when internally displaced persons (IDPs) start returning to their homes in Saada, poverty will force many to put their children to work. “I am worried that children will be sent to work in the big cities and Saudi Arabia,” she said.
According to al-Haddi, child trafficking is linked to poverty. “The economic situation is bad in Yemen… Many have lost their homes and livelihoods because of the war [intermittent fighting between government forces and Houthi-led rebels in the north since 2004],” he said.
A 2008 study by CSSW entitled Situation Analysis of Child Trafficking said 70-80 percent of families interviewed sent their children away because of poverty.
“When people return many will have no choice but to send their children to Saudi Arabia or start smuggling. There is no other work,” said al-Haddi. “In many instances they will rely on their children for money.”
Children are both smuggled into Saudi Arabia to find work, and themselves also smuggle goods across the border, al-Haddi said, adding that while there were no accurate figures, it was estimated that two thirds of children living in the border areas of Harradh were involved in smuggling. While adults can face long prison sentences if caught, children do not.
But it is a dangerous business and often leaves children without much of an education in Yemen. “Many children leave school, as they work at night,” said al-Haddi. “Sometimes the Saudi authorities crack down on smuggling. Often children will try to run away, which results in them sometimes being shot at and wounded or killed,” he said.
On a visit to the Yemeni border village of al-Khadour in 2008, al-Haddi was told there were hundreds of children with disabilities as a result of gunshot wounds or having been hit by Saudi border patrol cars whilst trying to flee.
According to a report by CHF International (a US-based NGO working for “long-lasting positive change in low and moderate income communities around the world”), over 60 percent of children who had worked in Saudi Arabia were exposed to physical abuse, and over 10 percent reported sexual abuse. More than 80 percent of children were pushed by their parents into smuggling.
To help reduce trafficking, CHF - in cooperation with CSSW, through their Access Plus Programme - is looking to work with five government schools near the three al-Mazraq IDP camps in Haradh District, Hajjah Governorate, to reach IDP children, as well as children vulnerable to trafficking in host communities.
The plan is to provide primary education for at least 2,000 girls and boys aged 6-14, of whom about 70 percent are IDPs and 30 percent local. There are also plans to provide employment for 500 young people aged 13-17, of whom 30 percent are local and 70 percent IDPs, through informal education and vocational training.
To further help curb and counter child trafficking and smuggling, the UN Children’s Fund is assisting Yarmouk Mazraq School (near the three al-Mazraq IDP camps) where some 1,250 IDP children are currently enrolled. The local authorities have enrolled 299 IDP children in other schools in Haradh District.
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