By Lara Pickford-Gordon
There is a myth that human trafficking happens only to the poor in society. The reality is that anybody can be a victim—people in their 40s and 50s, “mature men”, even university students.
“Human trafficking is about exploiting person’s vulnerabilities, that is it in a nutshell,” said Alana Wheeler, director of the Counter Trafficking Unit (CTU), Ministry of National Security in a presentation ‘Combatting Human Trafficking’.
“They [traffickers] have a knack; they have a talent to spot vulnerability and naivety,” Wheeler said at a panel discussion January 31 hosted by the Franciscan Institute for Personal and Family Development at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Chaplaincy, St Augustine.
It highlighted the need for better public awareness about human trafficking and collaboration between governments, non-profit organisations, and civil society to prevent human trafficking, protect victims and prosecute perpetrators.
Human trafficking is a profit-driven business and combatting it means “interfering with a person’s profits”. It is about demand and supply with traffickers ready and willing to meet demand for commercial sex, organs, labour etc.
From its experience, the CTU has identified vulnerable persons to be: irregular or undocumented migrants; individuals “looking for love, attention and affection”; victims with a history of physical, sexual and psychological abuse; runaways and the homeless; persons who frequently use social media, naive persons and persons in dire need of food, shelter, clothing, education.
The CTU’s first human trafficking case was a local 15-year-old who went for an interview to be a model. She ended up working in a bar and graduated to “adult entertainment”.
She came from a single mother household with five other siblings, her mother recently got a “new boyfriend” and there was no financial support for her education. “She wanted to continue school, so her need was education,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler explained that undocumented migrants can be at the “behest” of persons who are assisting them because they have no identification documents or may have committed an immigration offence.
“There are many persons willing to help undocumented migrants, some persons are well-intended and other persons are not,” she said. The persons who fall prey to the “loverboy syndrome” long for romance, marriage, attention or affection “that is not available to them in their family or community…” Wheeler said traffickers frequently recruit using social media—Facebook, WhatsApp. Parents who think their children are safe at home because they are always on the computer need to be vigilant.
“They are actually more vulnerable than the one who is always going out partying and giving you all the trouble because who monitors what they are doing on the computer,” Wheeler said.
“Red flags” which can alert about a case of human trafficking: persons not in possession of their own identity or travel documents, working in an environment without safety gear, “debt bondage”— individuals working to clear a debt after someone spent money to arrange a job or for them to come to Trinidad; persons who have no control over their own earnings; undocumented migrants, migrants who claim to be married but do not live with their spouse; someone without freedom of movement.
Wheeler said of the latter, “They [are] always dodgy, uncomfortable when they go out”.
Other presenters were: Jonathan Bhagan, attorney-at-law; Shireen Pollard, head of the recently-launched Gender Based Violence Unit in the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service; Naureen M Nalia, deputy public affairs officer, US Embassy; Margaret Johnston, child psychologist, Franciscan Institute.
Sr Gillian Jerome SSM delivered the opening address on behalf of the Institute.
WHAT IS HUMAN TRAFFICKING?
The Trafficking in Persons Act states:
“trafficking in persons” means the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, the abuse of power, the abuse of a position of vulnerability or the giving or receiving of payment or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation; “trafficking in children” means the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation, irrespective of the means used so long as the purpose is the exploitation of the child;…