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Human Trafficking: Modern Day Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean

SikhumbuzoServitude or slavery has been a pervasive problem in the world throughout history and even though it was officially eliminated in the nineteenth century, it still exists today. Human trafficking has been categorized as a modern form of slavery.

Drawing from the definition laid out in Article 3(a) of the Trafficking in Persons Protocol, “human trafficking entails the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of 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.” With this being said, this piece is interested in examining the nature of trafficking in persons in Latin America and the Caribbean and conclude by stating the responses of regional policy makers to the crime.

Trafficking in persons is a growing challenge facing Latin America and the Caribbean, partly because this region is seen to encompass the main source, transit-point, and destination countries for trafficking victims. For instance, in 2004, Argentinian officials allegedly discovered approximately 700 victims that were trafficked from China and en-route to the United States. The primary forms of human trafficking in this region include commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, labour trafficking, and the trafficking of illegal immigrants in Mexico and Central America. Trafficked persons are often forced, through sexual, physical, and psychological violence, to perform exploitative acts under slavery-like conditions. After trafficking of narcotics and weapons, human trafficking is ranked amongst the most lucrative criminal activities in the world, and is certainly of major concern for Latin American policy makers and the international community at large.

A combination of individual and external factors contribute to high volumes of human trafficking within Latin America and the Caribbean region. Having said that, individual risk factors include poverty and unemployment, a history of physical and sexual abuse, violence and crime, underdevelopment and political and economic instability. It is of great value to note that the feminization of poverty and gender-based violence in this region has resulted in more and more women becoming bread winners in their families and, children increasingly becoming responsible for their own well-being. This absence of an enabling environment at home has created a situation in which these groups have become vulnerable to trafficking. Eventually traffickers manipulate their victims into a life of sexual exploitation and forced labour by offering them false promises of a better life with many opportunities in the destination countries.

External factors that are responsible for human trafficking within this region include the increasing global demand for domestic servants, cheap agricultural and industrial labourers and commercial sex workers. Research has shown that other outside factors that stimulate trafficking in persons, especially women and children in the region are protracted masculine traditions and norms that habitually discriminate against women and girls; the existence of established trafficking networks that operates with sophisticated recruitment techniques; a culture of public corruption especially when it comes to collaboration between law enforcement and border agents with traffickers and human smugglers.

Trafficking in persons and immigration are to some extent linked together on the grounds that wherever undetected and irregular movements occur, the migrants are exposed to the risk of exploitation since they enter a shadowy world where traffickers are active and often disobey the rule of law. Women and children particularly put themselves in a vulnerable position of being trafficked for prostitution, forced labour and domestic servitude. Within Latin America and the Caribbean, unregulated immigration flows are making the region a primary source for people trafficked to the United States and Canada. In line with this statement, scholars assert that increasing irregular migration flows have been witnessed along the US-Mexico border and Mexican authorities have recently reported that as many as 200 000 undocumented migrants were detained during the period 2003-2004. Even though the migrants were chiefly from Central America, it was asserted by the authorities that they included large numbers of individuals from South American countries such as Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil.

Nevertheless, governments and policy makers in this region have made some strategic advances aimed at eliminating human trafficking. The US Department of State in its 2014 report, praised efforts by Chile and Honduras to invest more in anti-trafficking law enforcement personnel. Peru is also said to be expanding the number of prosecutors who specialise in investigating trafficking crimes, while in Argentina, the 2012 landmark ruling that released suspected traffickers due to lack of physical evidence was overturned and resulted in the conviction of ten people. Brazil has also reinforced border controls and revised the penal code in order to criminalise the illegal adoption of children and forced labour. Aruba is a source country for human trafficking and the government has introduced the Anti-Human Trafficking and Smuggling National Coordinator, which has from 2009 up to 2012 documented 10 official cases of alleged or confirmed human trafficking. All in all, more Latin American and Caribbean countries than ever before have passed legislations that meet international standards for human trafficking in terms of the 2014 UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report.

Mr Sikhumbuzo Zondi is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.

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