Video: What freedom looks like for Foli

In April 2019, two girls and 21 boys, all between the ages of six and 16 years old, were rescued out of slavery in the fishing industry in Ghana.

After two weeks of investigations, it was revealed there were more than 20 trafficked children being exploited for labor on an island near a forest reserve along Lake Volta, the largest man–made lake in the world.

But after a two–hour boat ride, when police arrived on the island, there were no children to be found. Alarmed, the police noticed that not only the trafficked children were missing, but there were no children in the community at all. It was clear that the community had learned about the rescue ahead of time and had hidden the children on other islands or in the nearby forest.

Based on this information, the Ghana Police Service, with support from IJM launched a rescue operation. Their goal? To find the children that had been identified, bring them to safety, and arrest the traffickers and “boat masters” who had forced the children to fish.

The police arrested eight suspects. When questioned, the suspects confessed that they had loaded a group of trafficked children into a van and sent them back to their home communities that same night.

The police acted and immediately sent a team to intercept the van carrying 15 of the children. Once they were found, they were sent to a safe center where they were interviewed and cared for by social workers.

The slave masters who were in custody called their family members back on the island and told them to turn in the children they had been hiding. As a result, eight more children were delivered to the police and to freedom.

The children were initially terrified, as their masters had lied to them, telling them that the people who had come to rescue them were really there to kill them. Because of this, it took time and patience for IJM and the Local social workers to win their trust. Eventually, the children understood they were not in danger and began to talk.

This isn’t the first time that Ghana’s fishing industry has enslaved children, nor the last time people will fight to rescue them. In fact, many other children have been rescued from slavery in Ghana’s fishing industry, including Foli, the boy in the video above.

Foli was raised by his grandparents in a loving home in Ghana several hours from Lake Volta. They wanted to send him to school, but simply could not afford his school fees, so Foli stayed home and worked with his grandpa. However, when his grandfather was struck by a car and medical expenses quickly began to pile up, raising Foli became financially difficult.

During a visit to Foli’s grandpa, a relative who lived near Lake Volta offered to take him in. His grandparents truly believed he would go from one loving home to another, so they let him go.

But when Foli arrived at his new home on a remote island on Lake Volta with that relative, there was no school, and there were no medical facilities.

Foli didn’t understand it at the time, but he had been tricked and forced into slavery. Every day, Foli was taken by his boat master out on the massive expanse of Lake Volta, surrounded by the dark, murky water. On these boats, he learned the reason for his slavery: his boat master needed children to dive into the deep water and untangle nets that would catch on branches below the surface.

Foli didn’t know how to swim. Despite this, 18–hour work days diving and pulling in heavy fishing nets would become routine for him. He woke at 2 a.m. and fell asleep around 8 p.m. Then, the cycle repeated.

Foli didn’t know how to swim. Despite this, 18–hour work days diving and pulling in heavy fishing nets would become routine for him.

One particular morning, as he was preparing for another grueling day on the boat, some IJM social workers, investigators, and local authorities were searching for children who were working as slaves on Lake Volta.

Their boat pulled up next to a canoe, which happened to be Foli’s. They called to him, asking him questions about his life. When the boat master answered, they saw straight through his lies and façade.

Soon after, the abusive boat master was arrested and Foli was taken from the canoe with the other boys.

Today, Foli is free.

Edited by: Sarah McMains 

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