Sex work, human rights, and the challenge facing the Guyana TIP Task Force

Iman Khan is a graduate of the York University BA (Hons) programme in Political Science and Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the MA programme in Political Science and International Development Studies at Guelph University, Canada. She is a freelance consultant in the field of rights, access, capacity building, and development in the area of women, children , and isolated populations. She is the mother of a nine year old boy and an entrepreneur.

20131223diasporaOn June 7th, 2015, news media across Guyana reported on an impromptu anti human trafficking raid spearheaded by newly elected Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection, Simona Broomes. According to the reports, twenty-seven women suspected to be victims of human trafficking and two alleged traffickers were taken into custody as a result of the operation. The Anti-Trafficking in Persons (TIP) unit, the Guyana Women Miners Organization and the Guyana Police Force supported the operation. The TIP unit was designed to counteract human trafficking in Guyana through training and sensitization as well as to offer victims and their families protection, accommodation, and psychosocial support through counseling services provided by skilled and professional counsellors. The central objective of the TIP unit is to establish an institutional mechanism aimed at protecting and supporting victims of human trafficking.

According to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, Trafficking in Persons shall mean:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs; (trafficking in persons, especially women and children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime)

Guyana’s TIP Task Force was established in accordance with the declaration of state policy and the recognition of international conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress & Punish Trafficking in Persons; ILO Convention 182 Elimination of Worst Forms of Child Labour; Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography; Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Armed Conflict; ILO Convention 29 on Forced Labour and ILO Convention 105 on Abolition of Forced Labour.

In accordance with the policies of the aforementioned conventions, the primary mandate of the TIP task force is to enact measures and develop policies and programs that mitigate forced migration/ human trafficking and protect victims from any threat, violence, and exploitation. Additionally, the task force should set out to ensure the recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration of victims back into society while promoting and respecting human dignity and human rights.

The ILO Case Management Manual for Trafficked and Severely Exploited Migrant Workers explicitly states that victims’ right to confidentiality and privacy should be respected at all times and it should be unlawful for any reporter, publisher, editor, or columnist in the case of printed material to violate the privacy and cause publicity to a case of trafficking in persons.

The ILO Manual also goes on to note that “Legal protection of trafficked persons who are foreign nationals should ensure that victims are entitled to sufficient protection and services, and should be allowed continued presence in the country for a period to enable them to effect prosecution of offenders” (ILO Case Management Manual for Trafficked and Severely Exploited Migrant Workers, p.20)

On June 7th, the Government Information Agency (GINA) was the first to report on the raid with a headline that read “Minister Broomes Sweeps Bartica –   29 Apprehended During TIP operation.” GINA reported that the alleged victims were between the ages of 20-30 and were all foreign nationals from the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. The names of the victims were published along with photographs of the women lined up like cattle, their identities blatantly unprotected.

Minister Broomes was quoted as saying “It’s a great feeling, I know that when I was honoured as a TIP     hero I had taken an oath to work with government, civil society and individuals in bringing Guyana to a decent stage internationally…definitely, with the power invested in me these are some of the things I will take on. I have been there, I know what’s going on, and I know what to look for.” (GINA June7th 2015).

The faces of these alleged victims were splashed across news media throughout the country. The women were all detained and eleven of them were charged and fined under the immigration act (Immigration Act Chapter 14:02) for “overstaying their time”. The ILO handbook for labour and human trafficking states that the privacy of victims should be respected and information should be treated with confidentiality. Victims should also be exempted from criminal investigations should they have committed a crime under forced labour with respect to the ILO non-punishment clause. Additionally, victims who are foreign nationals should also be spared from immediate deportation and the Task Force should initiate contact with organisations that could offer support and assistance to victims once they arrive in their home countries.

It is more than evident that the recent “sweep” of women in the raid conducted by the TIP task force violated global and national policies on the treatment of victims of human trafficking. The operation was applauded in the media for sweeping up the scourge of human trafficking, but if these women were indeed victims of human trafficking as is alleged, Minister Broomes and the TIP task force failed to comply with the basic mandate of the task force, succeeding instead in publicly shaming and discriminating against the alleged victims. Instead of working in the best interests of the alleged victims, the Task Force, and the media embarked on what can only be described as a deeply flawed and even misogynistic campaign that painted the alleged victims as criminals, charged these women for “overstaying their time” in Guyana and published their faces and names in the newspapers. Furthermore, charging these women with minor immigration offences gives the perception that authorities vested with protecting victims have placed that responsibility of the heinous crime of sex trafficking firmly on the backs of the alleged victims and not the perpetrators.

Why is it that male perpetrators remain unidentified while the women were paraded through the media as rescued sex slaves? And why did the Task Force assume that these women needed to be rescued in the first place? And when images of the women cramped in a police station appeared in major local newspapers and across social media, did the Task Force give any thought to how these arrests, exposure and subsequent charges might have contributed to the further exploitation of these women? In the end, the “rescue” mission ended up reproducing some of the power dynamics that it was created to undo.

It is important to point out that the Task Force appeared to operate under the assumption – and certainly has done little to correct the portrayal in the media – that all foreign sex workers in Guyana are trafficked. This ignored the fact that sex work and trafficking are not one and the same, and that many women engage in sex work as a means of earning a livelihood to support themselves and their families. The notion that all the women apprehended are victims of trafficking reproduces the well worn idea that these women need to be saved, that they are powerless, voiceless beings who need to be rescued.

On the other hand, one might ask what was at stake in the Task Force appearing to deliberately confuse a clear case of voluntary migrant sex work with human trafficking. Was this indeed a war on trafficking or was this a way to criminalize and punish the women for their sex work? If this was indeed a war on trafficking why were the alleged victims shamed, blamed, and punished? Why were recommendations, policies, and regulations as set out by international conventions so blatantly ignored?

Either way, whether this was a Task Force operation gone horribly wrong, or a deliberate conflation of trafficking and sex work as a means to reprimand voluntary sex workers, the ideological outcome and the consequences are the same. Voluntary foreign sex workers and victims of human trafficking will more than likely be discouraged from seeking assistance and reporting abuse to the TIP Task Force if needed due to fear of being punished. In the end, the events are in danger of reinforcing that women, merely because of our sexuality, remain vulnerable not only to potential traffickers and “bad dates” but also to arrests, public shaming, prosecution, and punishments from authorities on a moralistic mission to disempower and deny us our right to own our bodies.

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