Hundreds of children in Ghana residing along Volta Lake have been reported to be forcefully removed from their homes in an operation backed by one of the world’s leading anti-slavery organisations, according to a BBC Africa Eye investigation.
The organization, International Justice Mission, is said to help in rescuing children from trafficking and slavery but their operation in this area has been highly suspicious according to the investigation.
In Ghana, IJM focuses on rescuing children who have been trafficked to work as slave labourers on Lake Volta. Children work in the local fishing industry under varying degrees of exploitation: some support their families in fishing, and others are hired to work under boat masters for little or no pay.
According to Mogyigna village residents, these children were forcibly taken from their huts by men in cars and guns, mostly late at night to the dismay of many villagers.
The villagers described these incidents as violent kidnappings as no permission was sought from family members living with these children.
A villager narrating one of the incidents he witnessed said he saw armed men from the cars approach two homes, and he shouted in an attempt to wake the other residents. The men entered the huts and forcibly removed four children, carrying an 11-year-old girl called Fatima by her arms and legs from the room where she had been sleeping with her grandparents.
Fatima amidst wails and crying saw her grandmother being pointed with a gun at her head while her two uncles were being arrested on allegations of subjecting her to child slavery.
Officially, it was a rescue operation carried out by Ghanaian police officers, under Ghana’s Human Trafficking Act. The operation was instigated by IJM under Operation Hilltop.
According to the investigation, this forceful kidnapping was fuelled by the organization’s target-driven culture where employees are expected to rescue at least 100 children failure to which they were fired.
Explaining this, one of the employees told the undercover investigator’ You must meet targets of at least 100 children no matter what, or else you will be fired,’ she said.
Through the undercover intern planted in the IJM offices, it was discovered that while IJM was telling their partners in both the police force and social services that the four children had been trafficked, internally the charity had reached a different conclusion.
An IJM legal officer said in an internal message sent after the raid that the charity had already concluded there were “no elements of trafficking” in the case of Fatima and two of the other children taken that night from Mogyigna. Only one of the four cases, Fatima’s cousin Mohammed, included elements of trafficking, according to the legal officer – a conclusion that is disputed by Mohammed’s family.
However, the operation was still carried out because IJM concluded the children were at risk of being used for child labour, an issue that, although serious, would not have merited such an aggressive raid.
An internal message said the children were not in school and “working between the hours the law states they should not work, and deprived of good health then there was a need to rescue them [as they were] being used for the purposes of child labour”.
The four children were taken to a safe house for four months but were reunited with their families after investigations Ghanaian social services concluded the children had not been trafficked and they should be reunited with their families.
Relatives of these children say that this incident left them traumatized and they associate any stranger visiting the village as kidnappers.
This prompted parents of three children to take them to live elsewhere in an attempt to make them forget this incident.