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By Lucy Ashton in Harad, Yemen
At dusk, on the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, it is hard to know if more traffic passes through or around the gate. Certainly there are more jeeps turning on to the tracks leading through the scrub and stones of the desert than are passing the flimsy post manned by sweating soldiers.
This night, as every other, the coming darkness will cloak the smugglers as they cross the border into Saudi. Their cargo may be qat, the narcotic leaves chewed in Yemen and banned in Saudi, or families led illegally into the richer state or children trafficked to beg or hawk or steal between the glass towers of Jeddah or Riyadh.
Child trafficking is not a new phenomenon in Yemen and is inextricably linked to illegal migration. The dire poverty in this, the poorest of Middle East states, unemployment and derelict, overcrowded housing push Yemenis to search for a better life in Saudi Arabia.
This month Unicef and the Ministry of Social Affairs have opened a reception centre at the Harad border post. Though the centre was intended to receive only trafficked children deported by the Saudi authorities, many of the children’s stories blur the distinctions between trafficking, child labour and illegal migration.
Approximately 3500 Yemeni children are caught in Saudi Arabia each month, they are almost exclusively boys. In some cases, they cross the border with a family member and are then left. A few go alone or with a friend but often, and contrary to the situation in other trafficking areas around the world, families actually seek out the loose organisation of agents and pay them to take their sons to Saudi. The agents will then also receive a cut of each boy’s earnings.
This movement of children has been increasing since Yemeni men were expelled from their lucrative jobs in Saudi in 1990. Instead, boys as young as 3 are sent. As juveniles, they are not prosecuted by the Saudi authorities, but simply deported back to Yemen.
Families who send their children to Saudi, worry only about the danger of deportation says Souad Al Hebeshi Unicef’s officer specialising in child protection in Yemen.
But a recent government assessment of trafficking shows children face many other dangers, in particular violence, hunger and sexual abuse either on the journey or while working or at the hands of the authorities after arrest.
Even back in Yemen deported children continued to face danger to their welfare.
Until the centre opened, children were sent to prison or locked up in an open-air enclosure in Harad with the adult deportees. “They were stuck outside without food or shelter and the children suffered further threats of violence while their families were located,” explains Al Hebeshi.
This could take weeks since some boys were so young they had only the vaguest idea of where their families live and none had documents. Others had been told by traffickers to deny their identities.
Beyond directly providing shelter for the children, the centre is also a message to all officials and Yemeni society as a whole. “By default anyone deported to Yemen is considered guilty of a crime,” says Solofo Ramaroson, UNICEF's Senior Programme Officer in Yemen. “These children are not criminals and the centre helps give a sense that deported children are victims not culprits.”
The Harad centre is part of a broader scheme to tackle trafficking. “We are working with four ministries to tightening legislation,” says Al Hebeshi “Currently, there is no law against trafficking in Yemen, agents can only be found guilt of abuse and imprisoned for 3 to 6 months. This is being changed.“
In the border regions where the government assessment found 83% of participant families had children in Saudi Arabia, the ministries and Unicef are working to improve education, registration of children and employment.
Border guards are also being trained how to recognise and look after trafficked children. And the programme is developing an agreement with Saudi Arabia on how to treat children during their arrest and deportation.
“For sure the number of trafficked children will continue to increase, we must remember these people are struggling for survival,” says Al Hebeshi. “However if we can tighten up the legislation and target the areas most at risk that will help slow the trend and protect many children.”