Drought and floods are pushing families into poverty, and youth into modern slavery in northern Ghana.
As a child, James Kofi Annan remembers he understood injustice.
“It didn't make sense to me that I should have to work from 3am to 8pm, typically,” the 42-year-old tells TRT World from Winneba, on the central Ghana coast.
James is the head of Challenging Heights, an organisation that rescues and reintegrates youth who have fallen victim to trafficking and debt bondage.
He was six years old when he was sold into slavery to work on a fishing vessel, where he remained until his escape six years later.
“That was too long a number of hours for a child of my age at that time to work,” he recalls, “sometimes you were working continuously throughout the night, [or] be tortured in many ways when you made a mistake.”
He eventually managed to escape and rebuild his life. He went on to become a banker, a job he later would quit to establish an organisation to help children and young people out of the same cycle of poverty and debt bondage that had led his parents to give him away as a child.
Modern slavery is inevitably linked to poverty, often compounded by the need to migrate. Climate change is increasingly recognised as a major driver of migration or internal displacement.
An estimated 40 million people are thought to be victims of modern slavery worldwide. One in four is a minor, and almost three quarters are women and girls. Far from being a problem of the developing world, victims are found in farms, households and on the streets in rich countries. About 4,000 teenagers exploited to sell drugs in London are also recognised as victims of modern slavery.
In Ghana, it is estimated that nearly five in 1,000 people are victims of bonded or forced labour and other forms of modern slavery.
Trapped on Lake Volta
Lake Volta, the largest artificial lake in the world in southeastern Ghana has received some degree of attention in recent years as a hub for child labour and exploitation.
According to the NGO Free the Slaves, more than one third of 1,621 households it surveyed around Lake Volta are affected by child slavery.
Children and young people are taken to work in the fishing industry from very young ages, usually in exchange for money or loans provided to their parents. As families keep borrowing money in order to meet their needs, the debt continues to mount and the child – whom the trafficker would have paid an initial sum for – becomes trapped.
“The parents themselves, as a coping mechanism, decide to sell their children to [a] fisherman in order to get money. But anything they get is not enough to survive,” James explains. Young people end up “working endlessly without knowing how much [their] parents owe the trafficker and how long it is going to take to pay the debt.”
James was one of those children. His family migrated to Lake Volta from the coast, where fish stocks had been dwindling for years.
“I'd always wanted to run away, but it was not easy.” James recounts.
“The fishing communities are islands, and you needed a boat to cross the lake. 100 percent of the time you’d be caught if you ran away.”
But he eventually managed to return to the town where his parents lived.
“All I cared about then was education… I didn’t have time to think about anything other than education and food.”
His organisation now has a recovery centre with space for more than 200 children. Rescues, he says, normally happen in collaboration with the police and where possible, the child is reintegrated into the family. Parents are sometimes recognised as victims too.
Drought and floods pushing people to migrate
Changing rain patterns in northern Ghana have in the last ten years spurred further waves of migration, particularly of young men and women who move to cities in the more urbanised south.
Rising temperatures have caused droughts in the dry season, and devastating floods in the wet season in northern communities, impacting farmers and wreaking havoc in villages poorly prepared for extreme weather, despite some government efforts towards adaptation. The much-discussed $100 billion a year in climate funding for developing countries that rich nations have promised — and so far failed to fully deliver — could go towards efforts to improve infrastructure and adapt in communities such as these.
Challenging Heights has been supporting young women from rural areas who move to the capital, Accra. One young woman the organisation came across, whom we will call Kakra, migrated when her family lost everything in a devastating flood.
“They lost the house, they lost every belonging that they had,” James says. Kakra went to Accra to look for a job and help out.
“Her movement was negotiated by somebody who promised that she knew a woman in Accra who could help her,” James says.
Kakra started working as a Kayayie, or head porter. Debt bondage and other exploitative practices have been documented in the business, often perpetrated by those posing as the young person’s guardian.
“She's supposed to bring all the money [she makes] to the woman, who gives her a small space to sleep at night and buys food,” James explains, adding Kakra was also sexually exploited.
“Climate change is one of the fundamental reasons why people migrate and become vulnerable in the course of their migration,” James says, “it’s one of the root causes we need to address.”
But adaptation and Loss and Damage, two issues that are key for developing countries on the frontline of climate change having contributed very little to it, have been sidelined at the UN climate negotiations in Glasgow. Loss and Damage recognises that some of the effects of climate change cannot be reversed, and acknowledges the need for redress. But so far there has been no agreement on what should be covered and how.
So people like James put out the fires where possible.
“It’s a self-imposed obligation towards these children to ensure that there is freedom for them,” he says.