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Human trafficking

Impunity remains largest hurdle for human trafficking in the Americas, says UN

There are more laws on the book than ever in Latin America criminalizing human trafficking, but these laws rarely lead to prosecutions or convictions, according to a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Organ trafficking may grab the headlines, but reported cases are extremely rare when compared to the number of people trafficked for sex or forced labor.

The 2014 “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons” found that impunity is high despite legislative progress, and conviction rates in the Americas remain very low. While the United States and Peru registered more than 50 convictions for the crime, some countries in the Caribbean and Central America did not report a single conviction. Other countries reported less than 10 convictions per year. The conviction rate in the Americas is “well below” 0.1/100,000 people, according to the report.

During a regional meeting on human trafficking in Central America held in San José in August, Immigration Administration Director Kathya Rodriguez said there are five human trafficking cases under investigation in Costa Rica.

An illegal kidney trafficking ring allegedly run by the former head of nephrology at the public Calderón Guardia Hospital in San José caught the attention of Costa Rican and international media, but these cases are very rare compared to other kinds of human trafficking reported by the UNODC. Globally, trafficking victims for the purpose of illegal organ removal accounted for 0.3 percent of the total number of cases, compared to 53 percent for sexual exploitation and 40 percent for forced labor.

Trafficking victims in North and Central America and the Caribbean were nearly evenly split between sexual exploitation and forced labor at 48 and 47 percent, respectively. While the majority of victims in the region were adults (69 percent), the report highlighted the troubling fact that there was a relatively larger percentage of child victims in Central America compared to North America and the Southern Cone, between 2010 and 2012. The report noted this trend was “clearly increasing” across North and Central America and the Caribbean while other countries in South America showed mixed results. Two out of three children trafficked in the region are girls.

Other issues highlighted in the region are the high number of people trafficked for forced labor — a topic that experts lamented as underreported in August — and the relatively large number of female traffickers compared to the rest of Latin America, a fact the report suggested could be linked to the larger numbers of child trafficking victims.

The U.S. State Department has previously recommended Costa Rica take more steps to help victims once they are rescued from exploitative situations, but there are some groups working to rehabilitate trafficking survivors in Costa Rica.

Recommended: Saving hearts: A halfway house rescues girls from slavery

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Ken Morris

Well, the report on which this article is based sure is slickly presented. It also seems to be as responsibly written as possible under the circumstances.

Unfortunately, the circumstances aren’t conducive to responsible understanding.

A chief problem is methodological. According to the report, “The statistical information was collected by UNODC in two ways: through a short, dedicated questionnaire distributed to Governments and by the collection of official information available in the public domain (national police reports, Ministry of Justice reports, national trafficking in persons reports, et cetera).”

In other words (as the report goes on to specify) 92% of the information used in the report comes from governments. Governments however have different priorities. Some likely look more for sex trafficking than for forced labor, others more for children than adults, and so on. That government-provided data reveal different patterns of trafficking in different countries may therefore only tell us that governments look for different things, not that the underlying trafficking is different.

Moreover, it’s not clear that we can have much confidence in government-supplied data. In some countries, government officials are themselves involved in trafficking. Others are beholden to ideological pressures to emphasize some forms of trafficking over others.

As the report notes, it is only covering the “tip of the iceberg.” Problem is, we don’t know whether that tip is shaped the same way the rest of the iceberg is or not.

A second difficulty is definitional. Although the definition of human trafficking in this report is the best and most thorough that I’ve ever seen, the fact remains that who is and who isn’t trafficked is very much in the eyes of the beholder.

My guess is that some if not a lot of trafficked victims don’t considered themselves victims, but rather see themselves a voluntary migrants. This is in turn why the conviction rate is so low; the alleged victims often refuse to cooperate with the authorities. Then, when it comes to trafficking in children, by definition no one under 18 can consent to their migration, even though in many cases it is voluntary.

There is then the strange measure of action on the problem measured by convictions, and these given in absolute numbers rather than as a percentage of the population or cases. If we were measuring the murder rate, we wouldn’t count convicted murderers but rather dead bodies, yet when it comes to trafficking the emphasis seems to be on the number of convictions. Granted, the conviction rate may sometimes be relevant, but it looks to me that the report writers don’t have much other hard evidence to count so they resort to this. And oddly, they don’t adjust the conviction rate for population size. A country of 5 million is equated with a country of 50 million.

I write this because I fear that the issue of human trafficking is fast becoming the contemporary equivalent of the “kid on the milk carton” kidnapping cases in the US a couple decades ago. In reality, the kids pictured on the milk cartons weren’t kidnapped. More commonly they were caught up in a custody dispute between divorcing parents, yet the public went wild with hysteria over the rash of kidnappings. Now the issue of human trafficking seems heading to a similar hysteria. The data are weak, the definitions arbitrary, and the ideology thick, yet everyone is sure that there is a rash of human trafficking.

And those hurt by a public hysteria like this are the genuine victims. These victims exist, and by all means we should do what we can to intervene and help them. But when the problem of human trafficking is expanded by guesswork and ideological innuendo to include zillions of people anywhere and everywhere, the genuine victims become overlooked in favor of whatever feeds the mass hysteria.

Despite these reservations, this is actually a good report, under the circumstances. The researchers did a good job of cobbling together what is known about the problem. Unfortunately, as the report concedes, not much is really known about it.

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