Ana wanted to help her family with some extra money. She thought she was going to work on a food stand over the Easter holidays before returning to her home with some earnings. Upon arrival at her new job, Ana found out she had been sold and brought to a brothel. She was threatened and forced to have sex with clients. She was kept in debt and told she would be killed if she didn’t do what the clients wanted. Thankfully, Ana managed to escape this violent and volatile world, but many don’t. Ana still lives with the repercussions of her experience of human trafficking.
Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, raking in annual revenue of $5-9 billion dollars. 800,000 people are estimated to be trafficked across international borders every year and many more will be trafficked internally. 2.5 million are estimated to be trafficked for the purposes of slave labour at any one time. Furthermore, 80% of victims of human trafficking are women and girls, exposing their particular vulnerability to the crime.
Human trafficking is a growing phenomenon in Central America where a volatile political and economic backdrop and a culture of violence in some areas are maintaining the profitability of trafficking humans. As women and girls are facing extreme levels of poverty, violence and vulnerability in the region, the desire to seek a better life is widespread; this creates a large supply of recruits for traffickers to exploit. They are then forced, coerced or deceived into trafficking, believing a better life awaits them.
Women and girls from Central America are trafficked internally within the region, especially to Costa Rica and Mexico. However, traffickers also take advantage of external routes, exploiting their victims in countries like the USA, Canada and various European countries. These countries are becoming increasingly restrictive in their border controls. This, coupled with the inevitable desire of vulnerable groups in developing countries to seek a better life, facilitates the illegal transportation and eventual exploitation of human beings.
Immigration has been a persistent point of contention in the UK and other parts of Europe, yet the UK shows a particular hostility. One international survey found that the British population are by far the most hostile on the subject of immigration. Out of the countries surveyed, more people in the UK than in any other country felt there were too many immigrants and that they are a burden on social services. Unfortunately, political rhetoric is equally hostile. Human trafficking is still seen by the current government as an immigration issue, not a human rights issue.
Last year, the British government introduced a new anti-trafficking strategy in which they highlighted the issues around immigration crime and border control. This focus results in victims of human trafficking being seen at worst as offenders of immigration crimes (seeking illegal entry into the country), or at best as potential witnesses. Yet victims of human trafficking should be seen first and foremost as human beings who have been victims of human rights abuses. Primarily, they need protection and accessibility to services.
In Central America, government responses to human trafficking have been slow and inadequate. Deep rooted gender discrimination and extreme levels of corruption have made women and girls particularly vulnerable. Despite anti-trafficking plans having been developed in many of the countries of the region, concrete action against corruption and gender based violence have been limited. Prosecutions have been few and far between, and resources to combat trafficking are scarce. The extreme level of violence and gender discrimination against women in the region clearly contribute to the low level of protection of victims and prosecution of offenders of human trafficking.
Nevertheless, human trafficking is a global phenomenon. 161 countries are affected and it isn’t only the developing countries who are failing in their duties to protect vulnerable people. While the UK has significantly increased prosecutions for human trafficking cases, wider efforts to protect victims have been lacking.
As alluded to above, in the UK, anti-trafficking experts are still expressing concerns about victims of trafficking being detained, punished or deported. Furthermore, child victims of trafficking reportedly continue to go missing after being put into the care of local authorities. There is still too much emphasis put on immigration status which means EU nationals have a better chance of receiving a ‘positive grounds conclusion’ or being recognised officially as victims of trafficking by the authorities. Non-EU nationals trafficked into the UK are particularly vulnerable.
Furthermore, the phenomenon of human trafficking is heavily linked to the actions of developed countries like the UK, and international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. Human trafficking has increased due to the de-regulation of industry and free trade agreements promoted and supported by such national governments and institutions. Multi-national companies access cheap labour and produce their goods where labour is cheapest and sell them where the cost of living is highest. Neo-liberal policy adopted by the UK and other countries has led to high levels of global inequality, and extreme levels of poverty. As such, vulnerable populations in regions such as Central America, where the negative effects of neo-liberal policy have been detrimental to the economic, social and political stability of the region, are being forced to take up opportunities offered to them by traffickers.
If we are to combat human trafficking, serious efforts need to be made to reduce global inequality levels and combat poverty. This cannot simply be done through superficial solutions but require deep structural changes. All countries have a responsibility to respond to the growing phenomenon of trafficking, to protect people like Ana from violence and abuse.