Ending modern-day slavery

Recently, at a major international airport in the United States, a teenage girl who was travelling with her maternal aunt was pulled aside by immigration officials and questioned as to whether she was willingly going to her destination. The teenager and her aunt, who did not have the same last name, were entering the US and the aunt, possibly seeing herself as guardian, had presented both of their foreign passports to US immigration, raising a red flag. A person who is not in control of his or her own travel or identification document is a human trafficking red flag and US immigration officers would have been trained to notice this and act on it.

In the instance mentioned above, the officers were able to determine after a few questions that no crime was being committed. That is not always the case.

According to statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which publishes an annual global report on trafficking in persons, children between the ages of 1 and 18 years old are trafficked both in and out of the US for labour, sex or their organs. Those who are taken to the US are not always smuggled in, some enter legally. While some are actually sold to traffickers by their families, in other cases parents would send them with relatives or friends on vacation or for better educational opportunities. The report noted that US-born children are also trafficked within the states and that they can come from any racial group or socio-economic background; the trafficking takes place both in cities and rural areas. However, troubled or vulnerable children are most at risk for falling prey to traffickers; these children are more likely to already be on the streets, having run away from home often to escape abuse of some sort.

Trafficking in persons is a global problem. According to statistics compiled by the International Labour Organisation and Walk Free Foundation, up to last year an estimated 24.9 million persons were trapped in modern-day slavery. Of these, 16 million were being exploited for labour in the construction, manufacturing, mining, hospitality, domestic work and agriculture industries; 4.8 million for sex and 4.1 million were being exploited in state-imposed forced labour.

The report stated that “71% of trafficking victims around the world are women and girls and 29% are men and boys.” It added that “15.4 million victims (75%) are aged 18 or older, with the number of children under the age of 18 estimated at 5.5 million (25%).”

Trafficking in persons has plagued Guyana for many years. Children, women and men, to a lesser extent, are trafficked for sex and labour. Both Guyanese and non-Guyanese are trafficked in and outside of Guyana. For a long time, not much was done in terms of prosecuting human traffickers. However, there has been some amount of action in this area in recent years, though not as much as there could have been.

Early this year, in January to be precise, a bar owner was found guilty of recruiting, transporting and harbouring a 14-year-old child for labour exploitation between February and March 2016. The man, Jagetram Hariram, who operated a bar on the East Coast Demerara was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $100,000. There have not been many successful prosecutions of persons accused of human trafficking, even in cases where the evidence appeared to be overwhelming. There is not much indication at present that things are about to change.

Late last month, just prior to the July 30 observance of World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, Minister of Social Protection Amna Ally announced that 77 persons suspected to be victims of human trafficking were rescued between January and July 3, this year.

Ms Ally stated that 60 of them were placed in protective care, while some were helped with job placements, educational and training opportunities and judicial support where necessary. While she did not elaborate on their ages and nationalities, there are regular updates from the Guyana Police Force about young foreign women being ‘rescued’ during raids. Invariably, the young women are Spanish, mainly originating from Venezuela, Colombia and the Dominican Republic and it is likely their inability to speak English which makes them stand out leading to the police being informed and the raids taking place. They usually do not have their travel documents and when these are retrieved, they would be found to have overstayed the time granted to them when they entered Guyana.  Formerly, the practice had been to charge them with breaking the country’s immigration laws, parade them before the court and then deport them. And though this is no longer the case, the persons who would have been holding the young women’s passports for ‘safekeeping’ or who ‘employed’ them to work in bars would not be charged and are therefore free to ‘recruit’ another group of girls to replace them. The cycle is unending.

Although the Guyana Women Miners Organisation has done a reasonably good job of identifying and rescuing them in interior areas where they would have stood out, locals who are being trafficked might be a bit more difficult to spot. The conviction in January of the bar owner suggests that the scourge of human trafficking also exists along the coast; it has been found in the city as well.

As Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan said in June, much more needs to be done to prevent trafficking in persons in Guyana. At the same time, education which would prevent Guyanese from becoming human trafficking statistics in other countries must be widely promulgated.  

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