It’s often said that everything has a price. The beloved heirloom or that priceless painting that’s been in the family for generations? They might well end up in an auction. And in an extreme situation, if, say, you or someone you love needed an organ transplant, you would go outside the law and pay. Desperate times lead to desperate measures, and often this means the exploitation of the powerless. But what if the person exploiting you were the very person who was supposed to protect you?
“You can buy him for $100,” said a man I came across near an upscale mall in Beirut. Beside him stood a thin, tired-looking refugee boy with big, sad eyes. The man claimed to be his father. The boy looked about nine years old. When I tried to speak to him, he ran off as fast as he could, with his “father” chasing after him, cursing.
When I called the police, they said there were hundreds of such cases, either of parents selling their children or children offering themselves up for cash. This was more than 10 years ago, but the trade in children still goes on openly in places in the Middle East inundated with refugees. For the NGOs trying to help, the numbers of orphans and displaced are simply too great to cope with. As for everyone else, they have become desensitized to the sight of destitute children begging for food, begging for shelter, begging to be seen.
Over the past five years, children have been offered for “adoption” on social media in Egypt for as little as 2,000 Egyptian pounds or $120. New-born babies are more expensive, at around $4,000. This month, the police in Alexandria busted a baby-selling ring after officers posed as a couple wanting to adopt a girl. Payment was due on delivery. And on that very day, July 17, the officers went to the hospital to collect her. The mother was arrested as she handed over the baby, as was the man accompanying her (believed to be her partner and the father of the child). Also arrested was the man who had set up the Facebook page advertising the sale. He had helped to arrange many such transactions before, and as justification claimed he was helping both childless couples and children who would have been abandoned, by bringing them together.
Experts on this heartless trade usually cite “economic reasons” to explain what might drive a mother toward the unthinkable. One might also add greed and a lack of humanity, even for her own flesh and blood, as reasons for selling her offspring into slavery or forced labor or even to a murderer who will kill the child to harvest his or her organs.
According to Anti-Slavery International, 10 million children worldwide are trafficked into some form of bondage – slave labor, prostitution, pornography or recruited as child soldiers. Then there are the 152 million children, aged between five and 17, who are in “employment,” with 73 million of them – almost half – in hazardous jobs. There are 72.1 million child laborers in Africa, meaning one in five children is working. In Asia and the Pacific region, the figure is 62.1 million or one child in 14; 10.7 million or one in 19 in the Americas; 5.5 million or one in 25 in Europe; and 1.2 million or one in 35 in the Arab states. Of course, those figures do not include the many refugee children who are being exploited, violated and forced to work in appalling conditions.
Why does it happen? At its core, the problem stems from the concept that parents “own” their children. Surely nothing with a soul can ever be someone’s possession? We can be the caretakers, in the strictest sense of the word, of other beings – whether children or pet animals – but not owners. Children are not objects to be traded; they are living beings entrusted to our care, and those who violate that trust should be punished harshly.
Children have rights – a concept that is perhaps easier to inculcate in a stable society but one that NGOs are working hard to establish in developing societies. The award-winning “Capernaum,” a 2018 Lebanese film directed by Nadine Labaki, tackled the issues of abuse and neglect suffered by children whose parents cannot care for them and of women having multiple children they cannot look after.
“Rizoo maoo min Allah” – meaning God will provide – is a saying that some poorer Arabs are apt to recite as yet another hungry child trails in their wake. What a lazy, selfish and irresponsible attitude. If you cannot care adequately for a child – provide food, clothing, shelter and attention – then you simply have no business having a child, let alone a brood of them. Children may indeed be a gift from God, but they are also a responsibility – the responsibility of a parent.
They are also the responsibility of the wider community. If there were no buyers, children would not be offered for sale. If businesses did not think they could exploit children as cheap or free labor, there would be no children for sale. If governments recognize the rights of children, they would punish those who ignore those rights with far more than mere fines or derisory jail terms.
Distributing contraceptives in refugee camps and poorer villages is controversial, but how is it right to give birth to a child who will be stateless, undocumented, unwanted and abused? Surely this is a sensible, responsible way to tackle the far greater evil of the terrible abuse and neglect of children, who are the most powerless among us.
Rym Tina Ghazal is an award-winning journalist. In 2003, she became one of the first women of Arab heritage to cover war zones in the Middle East.