ACCRA, GHANA – Ten boys who grew up as slaves on Ghana’s Lake Volta are now free. On Friday, March 20, IJM embarked on our first-ever rescue operation in the region and, working side-by-side with Ghanaian authorities, rescued boys as young as 5 from wooden fishing canoes.
Freedom was possible thanks to an investigation that started over a year ago.
During a scouting trip to Ghana in 2013, a small team of IJM investigators spent about a month interviewing children and boat masters on Lake Volta. The lake is the world’s largest man-made reservoir—over 600 miles wide. Nearly 50,000 children work in the country’s fishing industry, and most of these work on Lake Volta.
The stories the investigative team collected were shocking. Boys who should have been in kindergarten were instead working 12-plus hours a day. Seven days a week. Their legs were covered in thick scars from motor accidents and dangerous fish, and their hands were calloused and hard from pulling rope and mending nets. They were malnourished yet had overly developed muscles from years of manual labor.
The IJM team spoke to hundreds of boys and estimated that well over half had been sold into slavery.
IJM supporters enabled us to open an office in Ghana in late 2014, and the team spent the first several months establishing critical partnerships and learning from others already working on the ground. This month we were ready to attempt our first operation with local officials.
The First Rescue Mission
A team of experienced anti-trafficking officers, government social workers, local police and EMT professionals joined with IJM on March 20 to find children enslaved in the fishing industry.
Timing was critical. The boys start working at 3:00 AM to pull in heavy nets they set the day before. (The fish hide as the hot sun rises, and the boys take the morning’s catch onto shore before noon.) Although the rescue team had assembled at 4:00 AM, obstacles cropped up and caused unexpected delays.
The setbacks would compromise the timing of the operation; it appeared there would be no rescue that day. Until an IJM investigator’s voice crackled over the radio to the command boat.
One boy had been found.
IJM’s leaders consulted with officials. There were children who still needed rescue, but it was too late to find more that day. They decided to start even earlier the next day to target the fishing cove.
Just after daybreak on March 21, motor boats manned by police and IJM staff pulled up beside wooden canoes with children at work. It was clear from a few questions which boys were fishing with family, and which ones were enslaved.
One by one, they carried each child onto the safe speedboat and then shuttled them back to the command boat to get medical help, clean clothes and snacks. The police took nine suspects into custody and held them on a separate speedboat.
Social workers greeted the children in their familiar languages right away. Some boys wore tattered shirts too big for their small frames; others wore only underwear. All were barefoot. They were exhausted and quiet.
“The biggest message we want the children to hear is that they are safe. They have nothing to fear,” says IJM Aftercare Director Benson Shamala. Earlier in the week Benson had led a workshop for police, EMT officers and social workers on how to interview children who are victims of trauma like these boys. He led by example on the command boat, reassuring the boys and asking simple questions to learn their stories.
More stories emerged at the temporary shelter set up to interview the children. An older teenager told social workers how he had been sold when he was 2. Another said this Easter would mark a decade of servitude. Many children did not know their own ages or how to write their own names. When one child was given a book, he held it upside down.
Police also conducted forensic interviews with each child; these testimonies will be used as evidence against the suspects who were arrested during the operation. IJM will support that legal case as it develops. Between interviews, the boys played games, ate solid meals and plenty of snacks, bathed and napped.
IJM social workers have now helped the children settle into a longer-term aftercare home where they will get ongoing care and a chance to go to school—many for the very first time. The goal is to eventually reunite the boys with their families.
Restoration will take time and trauma-focused counseling. But already the signs of freedom are remarkable. The group that was listless and vacant of any emotion that first day on the boat are now a rambunctious bunch of boys, full of energy and eager to learn.