Essi Abbam is a 32-year old mother from Moree, a fishing community in the Central Region of Ghana whose 12 year-old daughter (Mary not her real name) became paralysed after she was forced to work for her aunt.
Mary was sent to live with her aunt in Kumasi in the Ashanti Region by her father. After several weeks of daily fish trading in the market, she was taken to the hospital where doctors’ examination showed a spinal cord damage. This was due to carrying heavy loads on her head.
Asked whether she was ready to report her daughter’s perpetrators to the police, Essi said no, with the reason that the people involved are her in-laws. “The police will only collect money from me, they will not do anything”, she said; “I cannot go through the frustration at the court”, she added.
Despite trafficking and slavery being illegal in Ghana since 2005, trafficking investigations and prosecution of perpetrators have been slow and in some cases, do not happen at all. Corruption and political interference is rife in the justice system, thus, several victims are unable to seek justice.
Trafficking and modern day slavery in Ghana
Ghana is known to be a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.
The most common type of trafficking in Ghana is internal child trafficking, where children are subjected to forced labour – usually in the fishing, mining, agriculture and informal sectors – within the country.
In 2017, Ghana was ranked by the US Trafficking in Person (TIP) Report, as one of the countries with the highest prevalence of internal and cross border human trafficking.
Internal child trafficking is often facilitated by parents and guardians who, under the pretext of poverty, sell their children to traffickers.
These traffickers target vulnerable communities and exploit girls, selling them into domestic servitude. They are often sent via relatives or middlemen to work in harsh conditions.
The involvement of family - relatives, according to Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Irene Oppong, Head of the Anti-Trafficking Unit of the Ghana Police Service, Central Region, is a big challenge in the country's fight against trafficking and modern day slavery.
She says most Ghanaians perceive the act as a family issue particularly when the traffickers are related to the victims, meaning they are more likely not to support prosecution of the perpetrators.
Mr. David Kofi Awusi, Executive Director of Youth Rise International, an anti-child trafficking Non-Governmental Organisation, estimates that more than 49,000 children are working on the Volta River under harsh conditions.
Investigation and prosecution of trafficking crimes in Ghana
The government has over the years embarked on rigorous anti-trafficking law enforcement activities to stop the practice. The 2005 Human Trafficking Act criminalized sex and labour trafficking.
The Act has impressive prosecution provisions, and prescribes penalties of a minimum of five years, which experts say are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious offenses, such as rape.
The country has also established a National Action Plan for the Elimination of Human Trafficking. Yet, despite the laws in place, the practice still persists with low investigation and prosecution into trafficked crimes.
According to the 2019 US TIP Report, the Government of Ghana initiated only 82 investigations into suspected human trafficking during 2018, compared to 113 investigations in the previous year.
The report states that trafficking suspects were prosecuted using laws with lesser penalties, due to insufficient evidence for a trafficking violation. The report also said that political interference with police investigations and prosecutions of suspected human trafficking continued to be a major concern for Civil Society Organisations and other stakeholders.
“NGOs and organizations continued to report general corruption within the police and judicial system. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking offenses”, the report stated.
Mr. Isaac Arthur heads the Child Rights, Gender and Empowerment Program at International Needs Ghana, an Accra-based NGO.
Mr. Arthur said that “a total of 317 children and adults have been rescued from slavery between 2016 and 2019, as part of the project.”
However, he said: “We were able to arrest only 19 people, out of them, five have been successfully prosecuted, with two convictions.”
He claimed that the rest (14) were released based on orders from influential people in high political offices. “In some instances, the police will say they received an order from above and for that matter they were released.”
DSP Oppong and Mr. Philip Andoh, Counsel for the Ghana Immigration Service shared their experiences with respect to the challenges faced in investigating and prosecuting trafficked crimes.
They both mentioned the difficulty of getting witnesses to testify in court.
“When we process the cases for court, some of the complainants come and declare in court that they are not interested in the case. We have a lot of cases at the court but we do not get witnesses to testify for the prosecution to be concluded”, DSP Oppong said, adding that, lack of cooperation and support was a major problem, especially in cases where the trafficking was perpetrated by a family member.
For Mr. Andoh, some of the victims, especially those from other countries, do not trust that their issues would be handled well.
According to him, “there might be delays in the prosecution process but that is because due processes would need to be followed”.
“Sometimes too, the reason for delayed justice is that judges can be changed and new judges start trials all over again” he added.
DSP Oppong called for co-operation from the community saying, “the practice happens in secret and if a community member or a family member does not inform the police, we will never know”.
As Mr. Arthur put it: “not every officer has been trained or has knowledge of how to handle issues of human trafficking and so most of them do not consider it as a criminal case, and only issue warning to perpetrators and free them.”
“Our state prosecutors must be given in-service training to become more resourceful”, he added.
Corruption and human trafficking
Mr Arthur of International Needs Ghana talks about a gap in the police service which must be closed.
“Police officers who are trained and are passionate about human trafficking issues are often sidelined for reasons that are not so clear”, he states.
The 2017 US State Department report emphasised that there are delays in prosecuting suspects, reports of police collaboration with criminals, and a public perception of police ineptitude in the prosecution of trafficking crimes.
DSP Oppong of the Police Anti-Human Trafficking Unit in the Central Region explains: “with human trafficking, it is not the police that prosecute, it is the Attorney General. We have the police prosecutor who just makes a court appearance once to seek remand or bail for the offender after which the docket goes to the AG’s office.”
She said “people who accuse the Police of taking bribes in human trafficking prosecution are ignorant and needs to be educated.”
However, she complains about lack of resources and logistics to thoroughly investigate trafficking cases.
“We usually work with the social welfare and the judicial service as our main stakeholders but we sometimes don’t have enough resources and logistics, so when it comes to them playing their part, it becomes difficult.”
Interference from authorities
Interference from authorities including traditional and religious leaders as well as politicians has been identified as a major factor affecting swift prosecution and fueling human trafficking and modern day slavery in the society.
NGOs, CSOs and human rights activists have consistently complained about interference from political and traditional authorities as well as corruption within the Police and the justice system - impeding investigation and prosecution of trafficking crimes.
Mr. Arthur cites, an incident in 2016, when about 14 children being trafficked from a community in the central region were intercepted at a police barrier.
“Our officers went there and saw the situation and so were just going to prepare for the next line of action only for us to be told that the police had received information to let the children and the perpetrators to continue their journey.
“The order, I was told, came from a politician. Those children were returned to their communities alright but the perpetrators were never seen again.”
He spoke of another instance where he said, a former politician called the police in connection with a trafficking offence that was in court seeking to get the matter settled out court.
“So this politician actually called our officer to try and negotiate for the case to be taken out of court and our officer was frank and told him that it cannot happen”, he said.
“There are slave masters with big money behind the practice but information to lead to their arrest is a big challenge for the police”, says DSP Oppong.
“The perpetrators will do everything to escape justice. They will pull every string available to them to ensure that justice doesn’t happen”, said Mr Awusi.
“We have cases where senior police officers harass and intimidate NGO staff, to frustrate the search for justice”, he added.
DSP Oppong, however, discounts that and complains about the lack of cooperation from NGOs.
“The NGO’s are only interested in data and not prosecution so you realise that after rescue, they fail to cooperate with the police”, she said.
Seeking justice and reintegration
“Please brother, find the man and arrest him for me. What he is doing is not good at all”.
These are the words of an eleven year-old boy who was trafficked and sold into slavery in the southern Lake Volta’s waters of the Volta Region of Ghana, virtually begging that his perpetrator is arrested and made to face the full rigour of the law.
Desmond (not his real name) and the other 130,000 people in the country who, according to the 2018 Global Slavery index, are entrapped in modern day slavery, are not likely to be served the justice they want.
Another victim, Ama (not the real name), a mother of two, from Assin-Fosu in the Central Region, was baited with a fake supermarket job by a relative to travel to Saudi-Arabia, where she ended up as a sex slave.
“I became a sexual object to the son of my boss and himself. They took turns to sexually devour me for hours and days with threats and heaps of insults. My boss usually took his turn any time his wife was not around and threatened to kill me if I told his wife”
Now back in her home country, Ama has been wondering if she can ever get justice. Unconvinced that she will get any justice, Ama has refused to report to the police but determined on building a new life.
Charting a committed path
Dealing with corruption, especially within the police and the justice system in the fight against human trafficking and modern day slavery, requires strong government commitment. It will also demand effective stakeholder collaboration.
“If people can do it and get away with it, then the motivation to do it will be high. The human trafficking laws are not enforced consistently. Therefore, there is no deterrent at all”, said Mr. Awusi.
“It is important to ensure that every single case that is reported is pursued all the way through till a conviction is arrived at for the traffickers.”
“The back and forth can be very frustrating, daunting and demanding. If the parties involved do not have time and resources to follow it up to the end, then the case gets thrown away.” said Mr. Awusi.
“The government must put in place systems to facilitate fast-track prosecution of trafficking crimes”, he added.
“Government and other stakeholders can help by prioritising the arrest, prosecution and conviction of perpetrators of trafficking especially children trafficked into forced labor and the related psycho-social support of trafficked children”, a 2014 report of child trafficking into forced labour by the International Justice Mission recommended.
Mr. Arthur underlined the need to put a system in place which would make it easier for people to report criminals who attempted to take advantage of weaknesses and delays in the courts system.
He also called for the police, social welfare department, the courts and other relevant stakeholders to work together to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.
“Until we get to that point where the district child protection agencies are actually accounting to one another and collaborating effectively, we will still have gaps when it comes to prosecutions”, he stated.
“The state must show total commitment to address the delays in the justice system and to fully resource its institutions and agencies to respond adequately to issues of trafficking especially child trafficking at the district level”, he added.
This article was produced as part of a “Reporting Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery” journalism programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.