US raps government for downplaying human trafficking

- despite better ranking

Guyana has received a better ranking for its efforts to prevent human trafficking during the last year, but the US State Department has criticized the administration for minimizing the potential scope of the issue and not taking action against complicit officials.

In its 2011 Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report, the US found that the Government of Guyana made limited progress in preventing human trafficking in the last year, resulting in its Tier 2 ranking, which is given to countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.

Last year, the country was on the Tier 2 Watch List for the fourth consecutive year. The same ranking this year would have seen the country lose funding.

Among the important milestones noted in the report was the first conviction of a trafficking offender, while new information emerged that some public servants, including mining officials, made efforts to try to rescue potential victims. President Bharrat Jagdeo’s reported address on forced and bonded labour to a large group of Chinese nationals was also cited as a positive development.

However, the report pointed out that the administration has not updated its national action plan to combat TIP since 2005, while noting that officials did not report any measures to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts during the reporting period and while child prostitution exists in Guyana, there were no reports that Guyana was a significant sex tourism destination.

Also damning for the administration was the suggestion by the report that there maybe some suppression of information on the issue by officials, so as to not draw attention to the country in the area of human trafficking. The report said that for last year “the government continued to focus public comments on propagating a position that there are few trafficking victims in Guyana instead of fostering awareness, open discussion, credible research of the problem, and a self-critical approach to monitoring government efforts.”

The report has recommended that the administration foster a climate in which officials and NGOs are encouraged to discuss human trafficking vulnerabilities openly and for them to feel empowered to assist potential victims throughout the country, “instead of being constrained by public statements that the problem is small.”

Guyana is listed in the report as a source and destination country for men, women, and children “subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour,” and also noted that there are identified cases of human trafficking in the country during the reporting period generally involving women and girls in forced prostitution.

“Guyanese nationals have been subjected to forced prostitution and forced labour in other countries in the region. People in domestic service in Guyana are vulnerable to human trafficking, and instances of the common Guyanese practice of poor, rural families sending children to live with higher-income family members or acquaintances in more populated areas sometimes transforms into domestic servitude,” the report said.

It further stated that other groups particularly vulnerable to human trafficking in Guyana include women in prostitution, children working in hazardous conditions, and foreign workers. Guyanese from rural, economically depressed areas are particularly vulnerable to trafficking in mining areas and urban centres. “Trafficking victims in Guyana face disincentives to self-identify to authorities due to fear of retribution from trafficking offenders, fear of resettlement to abusive home situations, fear of arrest, and lack of awareness that human trafficking is a crime,” the report also noted.
‘Fair ranking’
In a brief response to the report, Human Services Minister Priya Manickchand, who labelled last year’s report “crap,” told Stabroek News she was happy to see that Guyana’s protests over the years have vindicated it and resulted in a better ranking than last year.

“It is unfortunate that receiving a fair ranking had to come only after vehement protest by us and, as some people had said, after we behaved badly,” the minister said, while adding that to ensure that the country and its citizens are not denigrated by unfair reporting is worth every effort.

However, Manickchand said that despite a fairer ranking this year, the contents of the report are becoming “curiouser and curiouser.” She said the report continues to cite anecdotal evidence and speaks of official complicity, of which the administration is unaware and which was never brought to its attention. “This finding contradicts other specific findings in previous reports, which had specifically said that there was no government complicity surrounding the issue,” she added.

Manickchand said she was “gravely unhappy” that the administration’s now-proven justified protests last year and the year before could be interpreted to mean that it is discouraging reports. She stated that the administration has always maintained that trafficking is a horrific crime and remains committed with or without the US annual reports “to combatting this horror and eradicating it from our midst.” She argued that if the government was interested in discouraging reports and investigations with a view of treating perpetrators condignly, then it would not have invested all the time and money and energy in travelling across the country to make people aware of the signs of trafficking, how harmful it is and seeking to help victims and potential victims.

Also, Manickchand dismissed the suggestion by the report that the protests by the government has caused NGOs not to have openly discussed the issue, while noting that she found it odd that it did not mention that two NGOs—the GHRA and Help and Shelter—last year did not agree with the US’s findings. “Surely the readers of these reports deserve to be told that a large section of the Guyanese society, government and NGOs alike, question the veracity of the contents of these reports,” she added.

Like last year, she suggested that the US revisit how the reports are compiled and how evidence is gathered, while questioning how the country managed a better ranking if it was allegedly doing worse things this past year.

‘Major obstacles’

In addition to continued rhetoric “from higher levels of the government minimizing the potential scope of human trafficking,” the report identified lack of action against official complicity in human trafficking and poor results in the area of victim protection as major obstacles to future progress.
The report concluded that the government made limited progress in holding human trafficking offenders in Guyana accountable during the reporting period. It said the administration reported that four new sex trafficking investigations were initiated in 2010 and authorities initiated two new prosecutions against sex trafficking offenders as compared to the previous reporting period, during which authorities did not initiate any new prosecutions.

According to the report, in one case, a magistrate refused bail for an alleged trafficking offender at the request of a prosecutor while two prosecutions initiated in other years were dismissed. Significantly, for the first time, authorities reported a conviction of an offender who received a three-year prison sentence for sex trafficking.

“Local experts believe, and media reporting suggests that some government officials are making a good-faith effort to obtain convictions in human trafficking cases,” the report said.

However, officials and other local experts view Guyana’s legal system as “largely dysfunctional and an ineffective deterrent” against human trafficking.

“Accused criminals generally wait two years or longer for a judgment, and their cases are often delayed by backlogs, incorrectly filed paperwork, or the failure of witnesses to appear at a hearing,” the report said. It noted that while the Minister of Human Services has attempted to strengthen trafficking prosecutions by hiring private attorneys to serve as special prosecutors in trafficking prosecutions, this appears to be a temporary solution.

The report also highlights concerns about the credibility of the government’s anti-trafficking task force, since it has denied the existence of forced labour in Guyana. Here, the report cited the case where authorities removed a domestic servant complaining of forced labour and sexual assault by her private employers. “Other government officials intervened and apparently brokered an informal settlement between the parties. The government reported no follow-up investigation of this case for potential human trafficking,” it said.

The case referred to by the report involved John and Cynthia Singh, the owners of the Guyana Variety Store & Nut Centre, and their Amerindian maid, who was removed from their Alberttown home after reports surfaced that she was being imprisoned. John Singh had also denied making sexual advances to the employee but had said he had asked her to rub his upper leg for which he later paid her as it was not part of her duties. The parties later had a meeting with officials from the Labour Ministry and subsequently the woman decided to “finish the matter”.

Protection

Meantime, the report said that the government made limited progress in protecting victims of trafficking during the reporting period, while noting that the administration reported identifying only three forced prostitution victims and no forced labour victims in that time.

“The government has a protocol in place to guide officials in identifying and referring suspected trafficking victims to assistance, but a 2010 government report indicated that the small quantity of victims is an internal measure of success in combatting trafficking, creating a potential disincentive for officials to identify victims proactively,” the report said.

On a positive note, the report disclosed that the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission officials, during routine inspections last year, found children working in gold mines, which is a warning sign of potential human trafficking, and ordered the mine operators to remove the children. However, the report said that the government did not report on any subsequent action to refer the children to protective services or hold the mine owners accountable.

And while some non-governmental organisations reported overall good working-level relations with anti-trafficking officials, “some local observers expressed concern that pressure from senior officials may have prompted some lower-level officials to suppress information to avoid drawing attention to trafficking in Guyana.”

The report noted that the government provided approximately US$50,000 to a domestic violence shelter in 2010 (an increase from US$45,000 the previous year) that provided psychological counselling and shelter for two child trafficking victims during the reporting period. It also provided medical assistance to one of the two victims placed in the shelter during the reporting period.

But the government did not report on assistance provided to any other potential trafficking victims.

“There was evidence that some trafficking victims were penalized for crimes committed as a direct result of being in a trafficking situation,” the report said while adding that local observers have noted that other potential victims may have been sent to the juvenile detention centre, and one victim was arrested and charged with “wandering” as a result of her trafficking experience during the reporting period.

NGOs, the report has recommended, should also identify and help more potential victims of sex and labour trafficking throughout the country while the government should empower and fund or offer in-kind support to NGOs to identify and actively help the women, men and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. It was also suggested that the government develop policies to ensure all identified victims are helped and not punished for crimes committed as a direct result of being in a forced prostitution or forced labour situation; vigorously and appropriately investigate and prosecute forced prostitution and forced labour, including trafficking complicity; raise awareness of forced labour and forced prostitution and opportunities for help in and around mining areas in addition to Georgetown and coastal areas.

The 184-country report is intended to raise global awareness and spur government action against all forms of trafficking in persons.

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