WASHINGTON, DC, USA — Exotic bars and massage parlours have become covers for some of the brutal experiences that women are undergoing as sex workers who are trafficked through the Caribbean, even as governments bristle at the suggestion that the problem exists.
Yasmin Solitahe Odlum, gender specialist, Inter- American Commission of Women (CIM) in the Organisation of American States (OAS), said trafficking is a huge problem in countries like Jamaica, Suriname, Belize, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago, a problem exacerbated by the confusion in the region about what exactly is trafficking.
Speaking to Caribbean journalists on a US State Department Foreign Press Centre domestic violence tour in Washington, DC, last week, Odlum said there is need in the region for serious empirical studies to determine the scope of what is considered trafficking.
The Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) governments, she said, are the most resistant to the notion of accepting the existence of human trafficking, and this has to do with the fact that they are so tourism-dependent.
“There’s a whole discourse that needs to be had honestly and sensitively where the OECS nations are concerned,” she said. “To dare suggest that there is any trafficking, and then the United States has a tier list that it puts countries on... and the countries are bristling a little under the requirements of getting to a better position on this tier list, and that hides a lot of what goes on.”
Trafficking, according to the United Nations protocol, is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of threats, 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”.
Hilary Anderson, specialist on key women’s issues in the region at CIM, said a number of the countries in the Caribbean don’t know how to begin to deal with the plethora of issues surrounding trafficking that is overwhelming them, even as more women become vulnerable.
“The women are lacking in economic empowerment for various reasons. They become vulnerable to these networks of people who promise them a better life and other opportunities because they don’t have what they need to support their children and their families where they are, so they become vulnerable to trafficking, or to involvement in gangs, or to criminality just because they are lacking basic necessities in their daily lives,” she said.
Many women also become vulnerable to trafficking, she said, because they’re living in situations of violence already. Their fathers or their uncles or their brothers or other male family members have subjected them to violence, so in order to escape the violence they may be more vulnerable to trafficking.
“Trafficking involves an extraordinary amount of violence against women,” she said.
CIM was the first inter-governmental agency established to ensure recognition of human rights of women. It has become the principal forum for debating and formulating policy on women’s rights and gender equality in the Americas.
Between 1999 and 2000 CIM started studies in Latin America and Central America on trafficking in persons in an effort to find out what exactly was happening in the region.
CIM teamed with the International Organisation of Migration and expanded the study that had started in Belize, to nine other Caribbean nations, including Jamaica, Odlum said.
“That was quite an interesting bit of work, because the governments were very resistant, they did not want us to come and determine that there was trafficking in the Caribbean, so there was a lot of push back against that sort of project,” she added.
She said the topic started to blow up, and the OAS subsequently had to redefine the portfolio to its Department of Public Security, because it felt that the problem of trafficking was bigger than the CIM’s capacity to handle it.
This department now addresses the problem by working with police, Immigration officials and other representatives of the security sector to try to identify suspected victims and process them in an Immigration setting, something Anderson said doesn’t necessarily address the issue from a holistic perspective.
“We certainly think it’s a problem in the region,” said Anderson. “We would like to see the CIM expand its work in trying particularly to prevent human trafficking though its development area and providing women with economic opportunities to reduce their vulnerability to trafficking. So we would prefer to take a more holistic approach to trafficking,” she said.
She explained that CIM is exploring proposals with other areas of the OAS that are involved in this work.