HaitiHuman RightsVenezuela

Combating Human Trafficking in the Western Hemisphere: The Need for Increased NGO Involvement

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U.S. politicization of trafficking unfairly nabs Venezuela;
• Human trafficking is a serious issue;
• Haiti’s restaveks particularly exploited.

Human Trafficking is a global industry that transcends borders, regions, and cultures. Within the Western Hemisphere trafficking is an important issue that arguably helps to shape relations between Latin American and the United States. In June 2010, the State Department Report on Trafficking in Persons (TIP) included, for the first time, in its ten year existence, a ranking allocated to the United States as well as 177 other countries. The TIP report helps substantiate the claim that the United States and Latin American governments must strive to improve the lives of millions of innocent people who increasingly are victims of human trafficking. The restaveks, Haitian youth forced into domestic labor without compensation, exemplify the lack of protective measures against child trafficking who usually turn out to be the chief victims of trafficking.

The plight of these children, in Haiti and elsewhere throughout the region, reflect both the obvious and more subtle weaknesses in efforts to reduce human trafficking in Latin America. The trafficking of children is an immensely serious problem that regional governments paired with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) must address. Moreover, the United States must actively engage with both the governments of other countries as well as foreign NGOs to facilitate this improvement.

Difficulties in Definition: The Palermo Protocol

Defining human trafficking is quite controversial. Although human trafficking is universally condemned by the international community, individual nations struggle to implement measures that meet the standards under the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, more commonly known as the Palermo Protocol. It defines trafficking in persons as:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force to other forms of coercion of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve 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 labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs… The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth [above] shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth [above] have been used.

Though the above definition discusses the illegality of both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, two significant weaknesses remain. An article published by Human Rights Quarterly stipulates that the Palermo Protocol fails to acknowledge the trafficking of persons within borders, and instead may focus too heavily on the transfer of persons from one state to another. However, domestic trafficking exists in many Latin American countries, such as Haiti and Brazil. A second concern regarding the Protocol’s definition is its inclusion in U.N. Convention on Transnational Organized Crime. Its placement there seems fitting, as much of human trafficking comes as a consequence of the actions of organized crime groups; however, individual actors and small groups also are responsible for a significant portion of trafficking.

Human Trafficking Defined by the U.S.

Even though the U.N. instituted the Palermo Protocol, many Latin American countries use the United States’ definition of human trafficking. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines trafficking as:

sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or…the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

The U.S. government allots foreign aid in part based on the grade a country receives in the Trafficking in Person’s Report, thus explaining many regional governments’ attempts to adhere to the U.S. definition rather than the one given by the United Nations.

The TIP Report

The U.S. State Department releases the TIP Report annually. It discusses each country elaborating on improvements or regression and gives countries a grade: Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2-Watch or Tier 3. Tier 1 countries are those deemed to comply fully with the minimum requirements provided by the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TPVA). Tier 2 consists of nations that do not fully comply with the TPVA, but are making substantial attempts to do so, while Tier 2-Watch nations make these efforts as well, but still have a significant increase in absolute number of trafficking victims. Tier 3 countries, such as the Dominican Republic, do not fulfill the minimum standards nor are they making attempts to do so. Some critics of the TIP report argue that some countries in the region attempt to meet TIP requirements out of fear of receiving a low rank in the compilation’s annual report and therefore do not implement measures specific to the nature and dimensions of the tempo of trafficking that is occurring within a given country.

Others speculate that the status of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Latin America serves as the driving force behind the grade each country receives. Opponents of the U.S., like Venezuela unquestionably perceive a lower grade, than a country like Colombia which is rewarded for supporting U.S. interests in the region. For example, the United States ranks Cuba (a country with which the U.S. lacks basic diplomatic relations) as a Tier 3 country while Colombia receives the rank of Tier 1. Moreover, in 2005, Latin America had a higher percentage of Tier 3 countries than any other region in the world.

Even though it is difficult to produce a completely unbiased account of government efforts against trafficking without being swayed by foreign policy objectives, the TIP could at least try to find a balance between ethical concern and broader U.S. geopolitical goals and interests. This equilibrium is particularly important with regards to Latin American countries because the concept of migration and human trafficking are closely related to one another. Illegal immigrants who travel up through Mexico and Central America lack legal protection and are therefore more vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking. Moreover, strict immigration policies, such as those in the United States, provide only limited opportunities for legal migration that would go to protect immigrants. Restrictive human trafficking measures implemented by other countries in the region are likely to reduce the amount of trafficking in the United States.

The TIP Report as a Tool

In an interview with COHA, Mark Lagon, Former Ambassador to Combat Trafficking in Persons and current Senior Advisor of Corporate Responsibility for Lexus Nexus, uses the case of Venezuela to refute some criticism of the TIP report: “I advocated for raising Venezuela to a better ranking. The integrity of the report requires acknowledging improvement because all in all, there is no reason to give countries anything but an objective assessment.” In this capacity, Lagon contributed to global anti-trafficking policy and directed the compilation of the TIP report. Venezuela, a nation with which the United States has strained ties, had a Tier 3 rank in 2007, but in 2008, it was moved down a level to Tier 2-Watch class. Lagon views the TIP report as a constructive tool for improving relations between the U.S. and Latin America.

He describes the improvement in US-Mexico relations with regards to human trafficking as a “quiet success,” which in part is due to the State Department’s decision to assign the U.S. a grade for the first time. Furthermore, Lagon contends, “Mexico continually hated any report where it was given a grade, but by including the U.S. in the TIP report we admitted, weaknesses in a way that we had not done before. Consequently, this dialogue has led to a more constructive relationship, fostering cooperation in regards to preventing human trafficking.”

He went on to clarify that “the heart of human trafficking lies in exploitation; it’s not always about migration. Forty percent of trafficking victims in the U.S. come from Latin America. It is every bit as much for labor as for sexual exploitation.” A Congressional Research Report highlights the case of Mexico because it accounted for twenty-three percent of recognized human trafficking victims in the U.S. in 2008 alone. Thus, increased collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico regarding immigration and trafficking legislation will only yield positive outcomes. By examining the case of Mexico it is evident that a deepening of relations between the U.S. and Latin American countries could be facilitated by engaging in dialogue regarding human rights, especially trafficking.

The Nature of Child Trafficking

Countries that do not provide programs to combat child trafficking often receive more condemnation and higher rankings in the TIP report. One of the most unsettling aspects of human trafficking is the exploitation of children used for sex tourism. A significant discrepancy exists in the legal age of consent for females in Latin American countries. Averages range from fourteen to eighteen years, the legal age as provided by the Palermo Protocol. These disparities make victim identification more difficult. A 2008 article published in Human Rights Quarterly reports that “other forms of trafficking include using children as panhandlers, news agents, garbage recyclers (i.e. those who sort through the public dumps for recyclable materials), domestic help, mining, agriculture, illegal adoption and child soldiers.” These types of forced labor jobs frequently occur within the borders of one country, as with the restaveks in Haiti and child soldiers in Colombia.

A Focus on the Restaveks

The term restavek comes from a French word meaning “to stay” and refers to Haitian children who are forced into domestic labor without pay or guarantee of decent living conditions. According to the TIP report, there are 230,000 restaveks in Haiti who epitomize the concept that trafficking is not based solely on sexual exploitation. The United Nations Human Rights Council estimates that there are between 150,000 and 500,000 restaveks. Either figure still leads to the same conclusion: this form of exploitation should be of real concern to the island nation. Haitian society has historically been characterized by class stratification whereby authoritarian and hierarchal factors largely influence standards of living. In the most impoverished country in the hemisphere, adults regularly view children as economic commodities, which make them highly vulnerable to the perils of trafficking. Death of parents, runaways, and local sources of demand for child labor in urban centers and free trade zones are all factors that leave Haitian children open to exploitation.

Haiti has a long history of economic destitution. Seventy percent of the Port-au-Prince population was living in abject poverty even before the January 12thearthquake. Mark Lagon explains that this distress perpetuates human trafficking in that “the rule of law is lacking in Haiti and economic desperation only exacerbates the already dire status quo. Poverty is the driving force here. It leaves people vulnerable and it’s likely to take decades if efforts are limited to fighting trafficking.” Consequently, parents, if possible, will send their own children to stay with other families in urban areas based on the reasoning that these new caretakers will provide a better life than they themselves could. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as most end up subjected to little better than indentured servitude and then may have to work for their “owners” from birth to adulthood. Often these children must work from the early hours in the morning until the last household adult goes to bed. When discussing trafficking in Haiti specifically, Mark Lagon commented, “Restaveks suffer the most acute form of domestic servitude. In Haiti there’s a permanent underclass locked in homes, paid little or nothing.”

In order to improve the lives of Haitian restaveks as well as those of trafficking victims in general, a moral imperative must be present as well as the maintenance of a political system where everyone has equal access to justice, not just the wealthy elites. Additionally, trafficking usually occurs as a consequence of corruption that pervades all levels of society, from law enforcement to the judiciary. The United States has the capacity to assist other countries in the region to make laws become reality by helping train enforcement agencies, pressuring governments, to conduct themselves with rectitude and cooperating with NGOs that have proven themselves worthy of respect.

UN Perspective on the Restaveks

Gulnara Shahinian, Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, also articulated the manipulative nature of the restavek system in a BBC article in June 2009. She contends that it is equivalent to slavery through the ways in which it “deprives children of their family environment and violates their most basic rights such as rights to education, health, and food as well as subjecting them to multiple forms of abuse including economic exploitation, sexual violence, and corporal punishment, violating their fundamental right to protection from all forms of violence.” This ‘modern form of slavery’ has proven difficult to suppress for a number of reasons. First, a law exists in Haiti stating that employers must pay people for their services, starting at the age of fifteen. This almost guarantees restaveks being thrown on to the streets at that age, adding to the chronic cycle of poverty in the country. Although Haiti is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it has no laws to protect restavek children and the likelihood of any law’s effectiveness today would be limited. The January 12th earthquake has only made the situation worse, as both the Haitian National Police and NGOs have reported an increase in alleged cases of forced labor and forced prostitution of children and adults since the disaster. Haiti’s inability to protect the most vulnerable societal demographic —children—reflects a problem rampant throughout the region and the world.

The Importance of NGOs

Increased cooperation between the U.S. and Latin American countries regarding laws as well as punitive measures will be crucial to countering the efforts of traffickers in the region, but the legal canvas is not necessarily the only area of concern. Lagon pointed to the problem of corruption among law enforcement officials who “tend to blame victims instead of help them.” In order to assist victims not only in Haiti but also those to be found within the region, it is crucial that Washington step up its assistance to NGOs. For example, the Polaris Project is an NGO that focuses on victim identification and then provides social services and transitional housing as called for by advocates of stronger federal anti-trafficking legislation. Another NGO, International Justice Mission (IJM), works in many locations, such as Guatemala, Peru, and Honduras, to rescue victims of human trafficking, particularly children, and bring justice to their perpetrators. Lagon explains that “We need to move the needle by extending the capacities of NGOs. They are often seen as an irritant, but are an essential part of civil society. By assisting NGOs financially, we can help build the capacity to decrease human trafficking.” It is not merely a coincidence that Colombia which has a flawed human rights reputation, nevertheless received a Tier 1 ranking and is the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the region as well as being among Washington’s primary military allies in the Caribbean.

Working Towards a Brighter Future

Human trafficking is a wealth-generating industry in which the risk to reward ratio eventually perpetuates the problem. A person can be exploited repeatedly, whereas drugs bear a one-time use restriction. This makes trafficking a lucrative matter for those involved. Tensions over definition and desensitization on the trafficking issue have only weakened efforts to prevent it. Consequently, the United States and governments in the region need to work together and thrust human trafficking into more of a spotlight. This must be done not merely once a year when the State Department releases the TIP report. Progress in the fight against human trafficking in the region will not come to fruition until the United States is willing to not only assist the governments of the Latin American countries, but also help NGO’s identify as well as liberate victims. Washington must also resist any temptation to politicize the matter, as has been seen in the evaluation of Venezuela.