Who are these victims of human trafficking?
She is 15 years old and she hangs out with some of the ‘hottest’ girls in her school (one of the top high schools in Kingston.) One day, one of her ‘crew’ asks her to go with her to visit her new boyfriend. When they get there, she is uncomfortable with her friend’s boyfriend and his friends, but tries not to show it. It is a decision that she will later regret.
A few weeks later, she wakes up to find herself in another parish – with only fleeting recollections of having sex with different men. She finds her way to the police station and is returned to her home in Kingston. Investigations prove that she was a victim of human trafficking – she had been drugged and held captive for a period of time.
This is the story the unnamed victim told to the counsellor she eventually ended up seeing after considerable time spent trying to figure out where to go for assistance. Her case heightened concerns about where victims of human trafficking go for help… and why more victims are not coming forward to report their plight.
It is an issue that government officials and non-governmental organisations are still grappling with as initial checks show that there was very little in place to help persons who have been trafficked.
“We are looking at mechanisms for accommodating and protecting victims,” discloses Annemarie Bonner, principal director of the Policy Analysis and Review Unit of the Cabinet Office and Trafficking in Persons Taskforce.
“We really don’t know the extent of trafficking in Jamaica,” Bonner admitted to a panel discussion on human trafficking at the annual Woman Inc seminar held at the Pegasus Hotel recently. “It is hard to identify because victims do not readily come forward,” she added.
Bonner’s unit is still in the planning process but it is intended to provide counselling services for trafficked victims when they are found.
The police refer crime victims to the Victim Support Unit of the Ministry of National Security which provides counselling for victims of all crime and not necessarily for trafficked victims. Similarly, the Jamaica Red Cross said it had no specific programme geared towards helping trafficked victims, but it was willing to help if the government referred them.
“We support the government system in the provision of accommodation, meals and counselling for Haitian refugees,” says Lois Hue, deputy director-general of the Jamaica Red Cross. “But we would be interested in helping if anyone is referred to us.”
The issue of human trafficking came to prominence in Jamaica in August 2005 after the United States Department of State placed the country on a tier-3 ranking, the lowest rating any country could receive for its efforts to fight human trafficking.
Human trafficking, also called trafficking in persons, is the movement of people by force, fraud or deceit in order to exploit them. It happens inside a country and across international borders. It is the third most profitable international criminal activity after drugs and arms trafficking, according to the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM) in its 2002 report, Trafficking in Women and Children – Research Findings and Follow-up.
Victims of human trafficking suffer extreme violation of their human rights. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says that victims trafficked from and within the Caribbean region, usually end up in domestic servitude in private homes, forced labour in places like construction or mining camps and sexual slavery in brothels, massage parlours and on the streets. They suffer from violence, serious psychological impairment and health problems. Those in sexual slavery are at high risk of HIV/AIDS.
According to Sheila Nicholson, programme director of People’s Action for Community Transformation (PACT), a non-governmental organisation concerned with poverty alleviation, thousands of young Jamaicans are at high risk of becoming victims of human trafficking.
“We are in a very precarious situation. Our people are at risk because of hardship, poverty and lack of education. What they need is education,” she says.
Last year, PACT conducted a USAID-funded project to investigate the incidence of human trafficking in Jamaica. The project, which ended in June 2005, focused on Montego Bay, St James, Negril, Westmoreland and Spanish Town, St Catherine, and its activities included identifying people who are at risk for being trafficked and sensitising the general population about human trafficking.
Nicholson says they never found anyone who admitted to being trafficked.
“We found one girl who said people came to offer money. But of the 700 young persons we have talked with, none of them could say they have been trafficked.”
As the issue is just being given more serious consideration, current efforts to help victims are mostly centred on prevention. In 2005, PACT worked with Children First and the Western Society for the Upliftment of Children to conduct skills training and literacy programmes for young people at risk of trafficking.
“We held counselling sessions, skills programmes and literacy sessions. We helped them to find part-time jobs. We conducted health programmes to keep them from HIV. We held community talks. We went into schools and talked at PTA meetings. We gathered young people to forums and had seminars with parents,” Nicholson adds.