The Bahamas are currently in the process of trying their two first cases of Trafficking in persons under their Trafficking in Persons law, which was enacted in 2008. Two Jamaican women, trafficked by fellow Jamaican women were promised jobs in the Bahamas only to find out upon arrival that they would have to forcefully sell their bodies to pay the women who brought them into the country and withheld their passports as a means of coercion. The two women placed under the protection of the State remain in vulnerable positions as they lack access to financial compensation and have not been able to access the job markets for lack of a work permit. They have now both expressed their will to return home as they left behind children and cannot provide for them despite their ordeal. “It’s like going back to square zero” expressed one of them as access to rehabilitation and victims’ compensation remains a challenge in the Bahamas.
At the invitation of the Government of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, I conducted an official visit to the country from 9 to 11 December 2013 to assess the situation of trafficking in persons, progress made and remaining challenges in combating this phenomenon.
At the outset, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Government for welcoming me as the first UN Special Rapporteur to visit the country. Indeed, this visit is particularly important, as it is the first time that the Bahamas have extended an invitation to an independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. I would like to commend the Government of the Bahamas for opening up to the UN Human Rights system and hope that this visit paves the road for further engagements with other Special Procedures mandate holders as well as with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights monitoring for a world where human rights are respected and enforced and human trafficking eradicated as a heinous crime and human rights violations that shames humanity. This invitation further demonstrates the country’s political commitment to combatting trafficking in persons.
During this official mission which took me to Nassau and Free-port, I met with high ranking Government officials from the Ministries of National Security, Social Services, Foreign Affairs, Labour and National Insurance, the Office of the Attorney General and Ministry of Legal Affairs as well as the Ministry of Gran Bahama. I also met with the Royal Bahama Police Force and the Royal Bahama Defence Force. I further held meetings with the Inter-ministerial Committee on Trafficking in persons in charge of coordinating anti-trafficking efforts and the National Task force on trafficking in persons responsible to provide assistance to victims of trafficking. I also visited the migrant detention center and most importantly met with victims of trafficking during my visit to the government run shelter.
The Bahamas, due to its geographical location, its proximity to the United States of America and its coastal borders spanning about 100,000 square miles with hundreds of islands some of which are sparsely populated remains porous and demanding to secure in the light of required human and financial resources. Thus, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas is a major transit for migrants attempting to enter the US. The Bahamas is a transit and destination country for trafficked persons not only from the sub-region of the Caribbean, but also Central and South America. Criminals and migrant smugglers have lured and deceived their victims in a lot of cases that they’re in the US on arrival into Bahamas where they often abandon them thereby increasing their vulnerabilities to trafficking and exploitation, including criminalization by authorities for entering illegally into Bahamas. The scale of trafficking is difficult to quantify, given low identification and prosecution by authorities.
Notwithstanding, the prevalent form of trafficking in persons is for sexual exploitation of women and girls (Jamaica) but there is a growing demand for migrant domestic workers. There has been reported cases of labour exploitation of Haitians, Filipinos, Dominicans, Columbians and others from South Americas. The phenomenon of Trafficking in the Bahamas is still insidious and coupled with low awareness remains hidden in communities unlike cases of migrant smuggling more regularly reported by the media and authorities, especially when there are tragic incidents, rescues and deaths on the territorial waters of the Bahamas. Trafficked persons often have their passports confiscated by their traffickers and sponsors to force them into work and effectively keep them in debt bondage.
Furthermore, according to information gathered migrants pay as much as $15,000 to be smuggled to the US via the Bahamas and I met with some of their victims who paid these huge sums through their families and friends particularly those living already in the US.
The Government of the Bahamas has demonstrated willingness to combat trafficking in persons as reflected by the ratification of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol), as well as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
At the national level, the Government adopted in 2008 a comprehensive law on trafficking in persons which, in line with the Palermo Protocol, prohibits trafficking in persons in all aspects, and is applicable to men, women and children. The Bahamas Trafficking in Persons Act, the Prevention and Suppression Act, fully transposes article 3 of the Palermo Protocol. Furthermore, the Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Act 2011 provides victims of trafficking with witness protection, through access to video conferencing testimonies.
I also welcome the establishment of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on trafficking in persons under the coordination of the Ministry of National Security as well as the establishment of the Task Force stemming from a recommendation of the said committee. I am further pleased that Guidelines has been developed for the identification and the assistance to victims of trafficking in persons and their accompanying dependent children. I further acknowledge ongoing efforts of the Government to assist relevant agencies as well as civil society partners in taking the necessary steps to fulfill the country’s obligations with regards to the Palermo Protocol and other international normative frameworks.
In this regard the office of the Attorney General set out good practices in cooperating with the Jamaican authorities and creating a precedent for joint investigations of cases of trafficking between the two countries. The existence of agreements for mutual legal assistance between the Bahamas and countries such as the US, the UK and Canada is also positive. The trial of the two cases before the Magistrate and the Supreme Courts also sends a strong message to potential traffickers. However, prosecution rates remain very low considering that the law was enacted 5 years ago.
Furthermore, I acknowledge the Government’s cooperation and partnerships with IOM and UNHCR in conducting capacity building training.
However, despite the positive steps taken, a number of challenges must be addressed by the Government if it is to succeed in effectively combating trafficking in persons and protecting the human rights of all trafficked victims.
The Commonwealth of the Bahamas lacks a National Plan of action to effectively address trafficking in persons, setting out clear objectives and responsibilities to implement the existing legal framework while integrating a human rights and victim centered approach.
The country lacks a comprehensive assessment of the trends and scope of trafficking and would benefit from establishing a national rapporteur or equivalent mechanism with a dedicated budget to monitor the phenomenon at the national level but also evaluate the implementation from a human rights perspective of existing policies and their impact on the issue of trafficking.
More worrisome is the fact that victims are hardly ever identified, and necessary referral done in accordance with existing standard protocols.
Moreover, given the increasing influx of migrants arriving mainly by boats, especially from Haiti and Cuba, and the government’s rapid deportation programs, some informed by existing MOUs with countries involved, I’m concerned of the possibility that trafficked persons may be arrested, detained and deported without opportunity of being identified and provided necessary assistance. My fear is heightened also by the fact that there is capacity gap in terms of ability for quick and accurate identification of victims of trafficking.
The restrictive immigration policy further deters potential victims of trafficking from reporting their situation for fear of being further penalized due to their immigration status. I encountered a case where victims were made to pay a 300 USD fine in Gran Bahama for illegally entering the Bahamian territory even before being screened by immigration officers at the Nassau undocumented migrants detention center. Such practices put vulnerable persons at risk of re-victimization if not properly identified by law enforcement officers.
Whilst government have started to incorporate information on human trafficking into the regular training curriculum of the Royal Bahamas Defence force, including Police, Border Guards/Marine there is urgent need to scale this up and continually enhance the knowledge and skills of these front line officers to identify and protect trafficked persons. This includes Labour inspectors who currently are unable to carry out their functions of business inspection and monitoring to ensure compliance with standards in respect of working conditions and importantly to assist in identification of trafficked persons and potential victims of trafficking.
Furthermore, I have noted that although the Ministry of National Security in collaboration with the ministry of Social Services have provided shelter to the few identified victims of trafficking, comprehensive assistance to victims remains at a preliminary stage. Indeed, while victims are provided with decent living conditions there is no specialized shelter and care for trafficked persons that is hands on to continually respond and provide to victims psychological, medical, language and other support services they may need. Furthermore, assisted victims do not have access to compensation or monthly allowance nor can they work while awaiting the outcome of the legal proceedings, as they are not provided with a work permit during the period. This places victims in situation of vulnerability with the potential to fall back into the hands of traffickers. It further creates psychological and moral distress as victims often leave behind families that they need to care for. I remain concerned about the absence of a specific visa program to enable victims of trafficking to remain legally in the country.
While acknowledging the current efforts at awareness raising from the Ministry of National Security, and the committee on trafficking in persons, prevention remains at its infant stage. The general population and the civil society remain unaware of the issue of trafficking, and government’s action to combat and prevent it. Existing tools such as the hotline to report vulnerable or endangered women and children need to be further advertised as well as the different activities undertaken by the government to tackle the issue in order to mobilize and ensure partnership from grassroots organizations who come in direct contact with potential victims of trafficking. There is a need to strengthen partnerships with non-governmental organization working in the Bahamas for the effective implementation of existing policies including for the identification and the assistance of victims.
In view of the above observations I make the following preliminary recommendations to the Commonwealth of the Bahamas:
• Ratify without delay the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography
• Ratify, without delay the ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers as well as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.
• Enter into Bilateral and multilateral agreements for exchange of information, mutual legal assistance and safe returns should be established with countries of origin but also countries of destination in order to jointly tackle the root causes of trafficking in persons in the region.
• Recognize the need for foreign work force and develop safe migration pathways for seasonal or temporary workers by entering bilateral agreements with countries of origin.
• Develop as soon as possible a national Action Plan based on a human rights and victim centered approach, to effectively combat trafficking in person by setting out clear objectives, delineated responsibilities, and clear indicators to measure progress and impact as well as involving all relevant actors, including the civil society in implementing the plan.
• Carry out a national base line study in collaboration and in cooperation with an independent research institute, bilateral partners and the civil society to document the scope and trends of trafficking at the national level.
• Put in place a comprehensive data collection system on the phenomenon of human trafficking in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, covering all forms and trends of trafficking including children trafficking and internal trafficking. Such data on victims of trafficking should include their countries of origin and disaggregated, inter alia, by sex, age, nature and type of trafficking involved but also documenting similar information on traffickers themselves as well as gathering data on investigations, prosecution rates and sentencing.
• Enhanced coordination and efforts at combating trafficking would be better achieved if an office of an independent national rapporteur or a equivalent mechanism is created by law and charged with the responsibility to implement, monitor and evaluate activities aimed at combating human trafficking. The current Inter-Ministerial Committee is not sufficient, as it is not a body with a secretariat, budget and personnel to have the desired impact.
• Amend the 2001 Labour Act in order to provide protection for domestic workers in accordance with international legal standards.
IDENTIFICATION, TRAINING AND CAPACITY BUILDING
• Specifically outline and harmonize protocols following the Government’s Guidelines for the prevention, suppressing and prosecution of trafficking in persons for the identification of victims, defining red flags and indicators to look for while screening vulnerable persons and undocumented migrants.
• Establish and advertise a national referral mechanism whereas anyone can even anonymously report potential victims
• Raise awareness on the distinction between cases of trafficking and irregular migration while underlining the impact of mix migration influx on trafficking.
• Provide comprehensive training programs to enhance knowledge and awareness of human trafficking for all stakeholders, including the police, the Defense force, the immigration and border agents, prosecutors, judges and lawyers, as well as labor inspectors; but also the civil society organizations, including the media on effective reporting on trafficking in persons.
• Additionally train all stakeholders involved in providing short and long term assistance and care to victims of trafficking
SUPPORT SERVICES FOR VICTIMS OF TRAFFICKING
• Protect and assist all victims of trafficking, including child victims, with full respect for their human rights, and include a human rights based approach in the investigation of cases of trafficking that requires the needs of all victims to be placed at the core of any response.
• Make provision for appropriate support, including the establishment of separate shelters for minor victims of trafficking and adults along gender lines. Shelters should also be made available outside the capital city to other islands.
• Ensure that the free 24 hours hotline is accessible in the foreign languages that potential victims may only speak such as creole, Spanish and Mandarin and that the responsible staff are multi-lingual and receive specific training on trafficking in persons.
• Provide adequate funding on a regular basis to service providers and organizations working on trafficking in persons both in cities and rural areas in order to enable comprehensive assistance such as social, psychological, medical, legal support, as well as translation assistance and interpretative services to victims of trafficking;
• Maintain close cooperation with IOM and UNHCR for the safe return of trafficked victims in their country having due regard to the need, if any, of international protection of the victims and the 1951 Refugee Convention and the application of the principle of non refoulement.
• Establish a victim fund that will provide comprehensive national compensation scheme for victims of trafficking.
• Step up efforts to raise awareness about all forms of trafficking in persons, including for domestic servitude, forced labour and sexual exploitation, in order to promote understanding of what constitutes trafficking; among the general population and the foreign community based in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. In this regard, all the family islands should be sensitized and efforts should not be concentrated in the capital city alone.
• Empower NGOs including through increased interaction and the provision of funds, to conduct sensitization on trafficking and handle complaints related to trafficking at the grassroots level.
• Furthermore, widespread campaigns should be launched to raise public awareness on this issue using media outlets such as the television and the radio, and other channels of communication in order to promote common understanding of the phenomenon of trafficking and encourage reporting through the hotline number form the general population.
• Improve the justice delivery system to ensure speedy adjudication of future cases of trafficking whilst guaranteeing fair trial rights consistent with human rights based approach to criminal justice response in the prosecution of trafficking cases.
• Ensure that in prosecution of cases of trafficking, victims/witnesses protection at pre-trial, during and post-trial is duly implemented to avoid reprisal attacks.
In conclusion, I wish to emphasize that the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons requires ratifying State Parties to take effective and comprehensive action to prevent and combat trafficking in persons, especially women and children, protect and assist the victims as well as prosecute and punish traffickers. To that extent, a holistic, effective and sustainable approach to combating trafficking must be hinged on the following 5 P’s (Protection, Prosecution, Punishment, Prevention, and Promotion of public-private partnerships), 3’Rs (Redress, Rehabilitation/Recovery and Reintegration of victims) and 3’Cs (Capacity, Cooperation and Coordination).
I therefore urge the Government to address demand for cheap labour and sexual services from poor neighbouring countries and the prevailing social fabric that may contribute to increase people’s vulnerability to trafficking.
Effectiveness and efficacy of laws are determined by its enforcement and implementation. Consequently, the Bahamian Government should take all appropriate measures to ensure that its Laws criminalizing trafficking in persons are fully enforced and that guidelines for protection and assistance to victims operationalized to bring succour to trafficked persons in practice. Cooperation is imperative to end the impunity of traffickers and to prevent human trafficking. I therefore urge the government to continue to explore through bilateral cooperation effective and sustainable ways to combat trafficking and provide safe migration option, especially for sending countries of origin of most at risk of being trafficked. I am confident that the Commonwealth of the Bahamas can become a model for other countries in the Caribbean Region.
A full report of this mission will be submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2014.
For the use of the media; not an official record.
Joy Ngozi Ezeilo assumed her functions as Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially in women and children on 1 August 2008. Ms. Ezeilo is a human rights lawyer and professor at the University of Nigeria. She has also served in various governmental capacities, including as Honorable Commissioner for Ministry of Women Affairs & Social Development in Enugu State and as a Delegate to the National Political Reform Conference. She has consulted for various international organizations and is also involved in several NGOs, particularly working on women’s rights. She has published extensively on a variety of topics, including human rights, women’s rights, and Sharia law. Ms. Ezeilo was conferred with a national honour (Officer of the Order of Nigeria) in 2006 for her work as a human rights defender.
Learn more about the mandate and activities of the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Trafficking/Pages/TraffickingIndex.aspx
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