Op-Ed: Trafficking in Persons: A Global Challenge

By: United States of America Embassy Georgetown Political and Economic Counselor, D. James Bjorkman

Georgetown   It is time to be frank.  The world has a human trafficking problem.  The United States has a human trafficking problem.  Guyana has a human trafficking problem.  This problem needs to be addressed.  And we allhave to fight it – together.  We are all humans.  We are all connected, and we have to look out for the common human interest.  Not only can we each make a difference, but we each must make a difference by taking the responsibility to protect each other from modern-day slavery.

The U.S. Department of State’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report was released on July 27.  Guyana was placed on the Tier 2 Watch List for the third year in a row.  While the report concludes that Guyana does not yet fully meet the minimum international standards for the elimination of trafficking, it recognizes that the country is making significant efforts to do so.

One area of grave concern is the failure to hold convicted human traffickers accountable.  Despite the pervasiveness of the problem, only eight individuals have ever been convicted for trafficking in persons in Guyana – three in 2012, one in 2013, one in 2014, and two in 2015.  Of those eight people, every single one of them (including this year’s convictions) has been released on bail, pending appeal.  None of these alleged traffickers are currently being punished for their crimes. Not only does this put their victims at risk for reprisal or re-trafficking, such treatment is unlikely to provide any deterring effect on potential traffickers.  Understandably, then, the 2015 Report suggests that Guyana vigorously investigate and prosecute sex and labor trafficking cases and hold convicted traffickers accountable with time in prison that is commensurate with the severity of the crime.

The United States prepares the annual TIP Report not to criticize but rather to call attention to a serious global threat.  By calling attention to the problem, we seek to stimulate discussion, attention, and most importantly action. I say again: we have a global human trafficking problem.  We believe that only a concerted global effort can bring this human tragedy from the shadows into the light.

The new Government of Guyana campaigned on, and has since repeated, a pledge to attack the trafficking in persons problem.  I am both hopeful and optimistic that progress will be made this year.  To help make this progress, the United States Government stands ready to assist by increasing the capacity of law enforcement personnel and other relevant ministries.  For example, we recently funded the travel of six Guyanese officials to the Trafficking in Persons and Child Exploitation Course at the International Law Enforcement Academy in El Salvador.  We also are procuring funding to work with several local NGOs to help increase their ability to help fight trafficking and assist victims.

Although more than 20 million people today are trapped in the modern-day slavery, oftentimes it is difficult to recognize the signs of a trafficking victim.  So what does a victim of trafficking look like? A victim can look like the cook at a mining camp near Mahdia, the victim may be the store-hand on Regent Street in Georgetown, the boy working in the cane fields of Region 6, the barmaid in Baramita, the logger in Region 10, the girls working in kaimus in the Rupununi.  They look like your sister.  They look like your brother.  They look like us. They look like what they are – the sons and daughters of Guyana.  The sons and daughters of Suriname, Venezuela, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and our neighbors across the globe.  And they may have come from any background.

What makes someone a trafficking victim?  The technical legal definition is explained in the full 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report (http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/).  The principle underpinning trafficking is the exploitation of someone – either in forced labor or forced prostitution.  Any child under 18 years of age subjected to prostitution is also a trafficking victim by definition.  At the heart of this phenomenon is the traffickers’ goal of exploiting and enslaving their victims and the coercive and deceptive practices they use to do so.

One of the most terrifying aspects of trafficking in persons is that many people are tricked into becoming victims.  Their stories often begin with aspirations for a better life and a lack of options to fulfill them.  Traffickers exploit these ambitions.  A young woman from the Coastland who is offered a job as a barmaid in the Hinterland might arrive to find that she is being forced into sex work.  An agricultural worker could be promised a lucrative job, but his employer forces him into debt bondage by charging the employee exorbitant prices for necessary goods or services like housing, food, or transportation. In such cases, such people find that they are unable to leave jobs in mines, factories, and agricultural fields, on construction sites and fishing boats, or escape the commercial sex trade, which often flourishes alongside these industries.

Each of us can make a difference, so let us all commit or recommit ourselves to the eradication of trafficking in persons.  Much like the scourge of domestic violence, human trafficking thrives in the shadows.  It flourishes when good people do and say nothing.  Please do not turn a blind eye to your sister behind the bar, to your brother working the fields.  The saying goes that sunlight is the best disinfectant.  So let us shine a piercing and illuminating light on the plague of trafficking in persons by speaking out.  If you see something suspicious or out of the ordinary, report it to the authorities.  If a friend or family member is in a vulnerable situation, ask them if they are okay.  Ask if they are trapped.

It bears repeating: each of us can make a difference.  Each of us must make a difference.  And together we can protect our sisters and brothers, our sons and daughters, and ourselves.  Let us do our part.