“I have to forget, it is hard, but I need to fight hard to put this behind me” she kept repeating while sobbing three years after her ordeal. The now 18-year-old girl from Guatemala was smuggled into Belize when she was 13 on a promise of a babysitting job. Instead her trafficker, a woman originally from Guatemala who grew up in Belize, took her to work in a bar, in a small village where she was made to sell her body, never paid and was deprived from her freedom, threatened of detention for entering the country irregularly and abused with the complicity of a local police officer. Three years after being rescued the victim has not received proper social assistance or psychological support although she now feels at ease living with the foster family who is hosting her. She remains anonymous, three years under the protection of the Belizean Government; she has not been issued a residency permit because the few requests made to the Guatemalan authorities for identification documents remain unanswered.
A woman from El Salvador was promised domestic work, but upon arrival her passport was withheld on the promise of regularizing her situation; instead she was held hostage for 2 months and made to work in a small village bar. Her trafficker exercised control over her by withholding her small child. She was able to escape after two months of exploitation with the help of the villagers.
As I listened to testimonies and reports about the recurring cases of women and children being deceived by promises of employment and smuggled into the country for sexual and labor exploitation, I grew increasingly worried about the fact that these victims often feared approaching the authorities to lodge complaints because they were aware of the repercussions stemming from of the restrictive migration policy.
Background and Context
I would like to start by thanking the Government of Belize for inviting me to visit the country between 12 to 16 December 2013. This visit is of special significance as it is the first time that United Nations Human Right Council appointed Independent Expert is invited by the Government. I sincerely hope that this new opening is the beginning of a continued relationship and openness with the UN Human Rights system and with the Special Procedure mandate holders in particular. I encourage the Government to continue to strengthen its engagement with UN human rights mechanisms, including by issuing an open invitation to the Special Procedures and providing timely reports to the treaty bodies.
During my mission I met with Government officials in Belize City and Belmopan including from the Prime Minister’s office, the Special envoy for women and children, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chief Justice, the ministry of National Security, the Belize Police Department, the Ministry of Human Development, Social Transformation and Poverty Alleviation, the Ministry of Labor, Local Government, Rural Development, National Emergency Management, Immigration and National Services as well as the Ministries of Health, Education and Tourism. I also held meetings with the Ombudsman and the Anti-Trafficking Council. I visited the KOLBE Prison where undocumented migrants are detained, as well as a victims’ shelter. I also interacted with members of the civil society organizations and victims, including potential victims of trafficking.
Trafficking in persons or trafficking in human beings or human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal activities, making millions of women, children and men its victims all over the world, as it knows no border. Almost every country of the world is affected either as a source, transit, and/or destination country for women, children, and men trafficked for the purposes of sexual or labor exploitation, including domestic servitude and bonded labor. Trafficking occurs within and across national borders, often with one consignment of people crossing many borders to reach their final destination. Victims are hidden in the community and the unregulated sectors of the economy including in the tourism industry engaged in particular in sex work, domestic work, construction and garment industries, agricultural labor, including fishery. The root causes of trafficking and migration overlap to a great extent; it is thus important to understand the motivations behind people’s decisions to leave their homes. In many cases, people leave their homes in search of protection and opportunity and in short, human security threatened already in their community of origins.
Belize is a country of destination, transit and to a limited degree also of origin. Belizean mainly travel to Mexico. However, internal trafficking is also an issue of concern. Trafficking in Belize disproportionately affects women who are mainly trafficked for sexual exploitation; particularly women from the neighboring countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. There is also a growing problem of crimes against children, especially sexual exploitation of young girls from poor families through the sugar daddy syndrome and the “ficheria” or “feescheria” phenomenon. The porousity of Belizean borders with Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico makes it attractive for both migrant smuggling and human trafficking, especially for migrants heading to the USA not only from the Central and South Americas but also from Asia.
At the International level, Belize has signed and ratified the major international human rights treaties, including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention Against Torture (CAT), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and both optional protocols including the Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Pornography, as well as the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families (CRMW). Importantly, the Government of Belize has ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Palermo Protocol), which require States Parties to prevent, combat and protect the human rights of trafficked persons.
At the National level, Belize adopted the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Prohibition Act that repealed the earlier 2003 Act on the same subject. I particularly welcome the establishment by law of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Council (ATIP- Council) under the 2013 Act. Furthermore, the House of Representatives just passed a bill on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (Prohibition Act, 2013). I commend the Parliament and the government for this initiative, especially the leadership role of the Special Envoy, Mrs. Barrow, in championing advocacy for ending sexual abuse and exploitation of children, especially girls. I particularly welcome the fact that this soon to be law also criminalizes the practice of using adolescent or young adult women as “ficherias”in bars where the men pay a higher price to drink with the girls, this practice has long been identified as a gateway to the prostitution of these girls. I also commend the Government for the adoption of the 2000 Protection Against Sexual Harassment Act.
Furthermore, I positively acknowledge the Labor Act Regulations, which extend protection to domestic workers in its chapter 297, section 182.
The Anti-Trafficking in Persons Strategic Plan of Action 2012-2014, which was developed in cooperation with IOM, is a positive development and I urge the Government to ensure specific budget allocations for its effective implementation.
The political commitment to end human trafficking clearly exists in Belize but notwithstanding there are numerous concerns.
Areas of Concern
I have concerns about the capacity and the willingness to identify trafficked persons and potential victims of trafficking, especially those in mixed migration situation. Despite existing standard operating procedures and the indicators card carried by police and immigration agents, identification remains very low negatively impacting the prosecution rate of trafficking cases.
Moreover, reliable statistical data remains unavailable, I was not provided with consistent figures by the different Government agencies with regards to number of trafficking cases prosecuted and victims rescued. This underlines problems of coordination with regard to data collection, which are paramount to determine the scope of the problem of trafficking and especially to understand the trend, forms and manifestation of trafficking in persons in Belize.
More worrisome is the rampant and indiscriminate criminalization of irregular migrants for irregular entry into Belize which contributes to driving the phenomenon of human trafficking further underground as the routine practice of immigration officers is to strictly apply the immigration law, namely prosecute, convict and/or fine immigrants even before giving them an opportunity to tell their stories or be identified as trafficked persons or potential victims of trafficking.
I met irregular migrants who even after serving out their various terms for irregularly entering the country are still kept in prison indefinitely. The practice of criminalization of irregular immigrants is against international human rights standards and practices, especially given the inhumane conditions of detention and the absence of basic assistance including in establishing contacts with families, embassies and lawyers.
It is also worrisome that persons from the Central America sub-region should be incarcerated for such immigration offences when they could easily be sent back to their respective countries without going through the trouble of criminalizing them.
Of particular concern is that children under 18 years of age are also punished for breach of immigration laws and kept in prison since there is no separate facility for the detention of irregular migrants. I met pregnant under-age girls who may be potential victims of trafficking and are currently detained along with adults. Furthermore, I received a variety of complaints of abuses of rights of migrants by the police and immigration officers who regularly confiscate their personal belongings, including cash and clothing, which are never returned to them.
I am further concerned about the growing reports of child prostitution and sexual exploitation of girls in the tourism industry, especially around the cruise ships arriving into the country.
Limited human capacity is a major issue in combating and preventing trafficking in persons, especially the capacity to identify trafficked persons and potential victims of trafficking.
Moreover, I note the absence of a comprehensive victim protection and assistance program even for the few identified cases of trafficked persons. The lack of specialized shelters as well as other support services including psycho-social and legal assistance jeopardizes the effective recovery of victims.
Although the Government through its various programs especially “Restore” Belize and “Boost” is addressing societal problems, especially youth violence, it is still of concern that the root causes such as inequalities and social exclusion have not been sufficiently addressed thus invariably exacerbating vulnerabilities for trafficking and other social crimes that reinforce abuse of girls and women.
Whilst the Government has established an Ombudsman that addresses complaints, including violations of human rights, there is no independent human rights monitoring institution in line with the Paris Principles, that accords with international good practice in promoting and protecting human rights.
The implementation of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Strategic Plan of Action 2012-2014, appears weak and fragmented. Since the plan was adopted prior to the new anti-trafficking law, there is need to review it and ensure that it is not only in conformity with the law but that it becomes a vehicle for the translation of that law into practice.
Concerns have been raised about the lengthy judicial processes and the lack of speedy judicial trials including for cases of trafficking. These concerns have been heightened by the 2013 law, which provides that trafficking cases can no longer be tried summarily by the Magistrate Courts but only by the Supreme Court that now has original jurisdiction since it is an indictable offence.
While acknowledging innovation in placing trafficked persons in foster homes and especially with residents from their countries of origin, there is a need to balance this with victims’ need for privacy, confidentiality and specialized care to aid their recovery.
Concerns were expressed about the corruption of law enforcement agents, especially Immigration and Police officers who are critical for the identification and investigation of potential cases of trafficking in persons. I also learned that even stint operations are sometimes botched through the complicity of officials leading to mistrust and complicated rescue plans to avoid leaks.
Public awareness of human trafficking is still low and may have heightened the lack of confidence in law enforcement agencies in reporting cases of trafficking, including through the existing hotlines.
- In full appreciation of challenges a young and small country like Belize may face in terms of human and financial resources to tackle wide ranging issues, including combating and preventing human trafficking and acting in full compliance to its international obligations, I encourage the Government to continue its close cooperation with the United Nations and its agencies in the country and beyond in order to access necessary technical support within the UNDAF, to address in particular issues of development and human rights violations that cause and results in human trafficking. I urge the Government to ratify the ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. $
- I recommend that the Government develops a National referral mechanism that will involve social workers, NGOs and faith based organizations, including service providers and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the screening and identification of potential victims of trafficking.
- The Government should improve partnership with civil society organizations, including faith based groups and involve them in the identification, protection and assistance to victims of trafficking as well as in creating awareness at all levels, especially in rural communities on the forms and manifestations of human trafficking, its causes and consequences and their roles in reporting and referring potential cases.
- The Government should scale up training of law enforcement agents (Police, Immigration, Customs, labor inspectors) and importantly ensure their retention, especially Police and Immigration officers for a reasonable number of years with appropriate career incentives to enhance needed capacity to ensure continuity in their work of identification and investigation of cases of trafficking in persons.
- The police capacity to investigate cases of trafficking needs to be enhanced and the number of dedicated officers working in the human trafficking unit should be increased to improve effectiveness in conducting investigation, surveillance and collection of necessary evidence that will aid in the apprehension and indictment of traffickers.
- Section 24 of the TIP Law 2013 recognizes restitution for VOTs but this is yet to be implemented. Thus, there is need to ensure effective implementation of this provision, including tracing of proceeds of crime of trafficking and seizure of assets of traffickers to further assist victim’s recovery/rehabilitation.
- I urge the Government to embark on a Justice sector reform to reduce the length of time it takes to complete prosecution of trafficking cases more so now that it is an indictable offence for which only the Supreme Court has jurisdiction. In this regard I recommend partnership with UNDP, Belize and other stakeholders for the effective delivery of justice, especially in mainstreaming human rights based approach in the administration of the criminal justice system.
- Furthermore, to assist in the quick dispensation of justice, I would recommend that the Government trains specialized prosecutors, Magistrates and Judges that will be regularly involved in the prosecution and trial of human trafficking related cases.
- I recommend amendments to the current 2013 Act to create hybrid offences that could be tried either by the Magistrate or Supreme Courts. It must be emphasized that speedy adjudication in cases of trafficking is important for redress, recovery and re-integration that victims of trafficking need.
- I call upon the Senate to fast track the bill on child sexual exploitation recently passed by the House of Representatives and urge the government to ensure effective implementation of the law.
- The Government should improve existing data collection tools and work in partnerships with the UN country team to enhance the data collection system on trafficking in persons so as to gather information disaggregated by age, gender, nature of trafficking and nationalities of victims amongst others.
- I am aware and I commend the efforts being made by the Ministry of Tourism and the Belize Tourism Board to sensitize and educate those in the tourism industry about human trafficking, nevertheless there is need to scale up public information in this sector and get buy-in from the private sectors to adopt a zero tolerance approach in order to eradicate the sexual exploitation of children in the informal sex tourism industry.
- More stringent inspection of entertainment businesses and other businesses should be guaranteed to ensure that absolutely no person under the age of 18 is engaged in prostitution and that trafficking victims are not exploited in the sex industry.
- The Government should reconsider its restrictive immigration policy that further compounds the problem of human trafficking and undermines efforts at combating and preventing human trafficking. The Government should urgently establish a separate migrant detention facility and amend relevant laws to decriminalize irregular migrants and also stop forthwith the practice of detention and deportation of children as this is against the concept of the best interest of the child and the principle of non-discrimination entrenched in the international Convention on the Rights of the Child to which Belize is a State Party.
- I encourage the Belizean authorities to take proactive measures in discussing and entering into bilateral agreements with countries within the sub region of Central America to address the issue of irregular migration, safe returns and importantly adopt safe migration options. Further, cooperation with other foreign Governments and Embassies, especially India and China, should be established to combat irregular migration and trafficking in persons, including for labor exploitation.
- In order to effectively implement prevention, the general population should be educated through the dissemination of information on human trafficking and migrant smuggling as well as on the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Act and the Amendment to the Criminal Code that protects children from sexual abuse and exploitation. Information should be made available in print in English, Spanish and Mandarin and Hindi. This will enhance community participation and involvement in the identification of cases of trafficking in persons as well as the rejection of practices and values that encourage child prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation.
- I urge the Government to adopt a comprehensive victims’ protection and assistance program, including the establishment of specialized shelters with appropriately trained personnel and the provision of compensation in line with the new law as well as considerations of granting of permanent residence status for trafficked persons on humanitarian ground. Moreover, victims should be provided with information and adequate legal assistance in a language they understand.
- The Government should address the root causes of trafficking in persons including demand for services of trafficked persons. Government should take urgent steps to deal with growing youth unemployment, poverty inequalities, social exclusion; while continuing current efforts to tackle the problem of youth violence that may foster a culture of impunity and sexual violence against women and girls.
- The Government should strive to reduce impunity for crimes against children, especially sexual exploitation of young girls from poor families through the sugar daddy syndrome and the phenomenon of “feescheria” or “ficherias” by creating awareness and implementing the relevant penal laws.
- The Government should condemn and entrench a culture of zero tolerance for corruption and complicity of public officials with traffickers, including officials who demand and obtain sexual favors from foreign migrants female workers in vulnerable situations in order to provide the assistance required of them as law enforcement officials. Such cases should be prosecuted and offenders adequately punished as deterrence in line with the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Act.
- I urge the government to provide a secretariat and appoint without delay a national coordinator/Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for its Anti Trafficking in Persons Council. This will improve capacity, coordination, cooperation and effectiveness in dealing comprehensively with the problem of human trafficking in Belize.
- Finally I recommend the establishment of a National Human Rights Institution, which complies with the Paris Principles and encourages the State to provide the necessary financial and human resources for such an institution to work effectively and independently.
As Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, the backbone of my work has been to advocate for a human rights based approach to combating trafficking. Violations of human rights are both a cause and a consequence of trafficking in persons as rightly noted in the Principles and Guidelines on Human Trafficking and Human Rights developed by OHCHR. Thus, efforts to combat trafficking in persons will not be effective unless they are centered on universal respect for the human rights of all individuals, particularly trafficked persons and persons at risk of being trafficked. Victims of trafficking suffer grave violations of their fundamental rights; therefore it is crucial that any response to trafficking be constructed around the common goal of remedying such violations.
I will never advocate enough for the formulation and implementation of anti-trafficking responses based on 5Ps (protection, prosecution, punishment, prevention, promoting international cooperation and partnership), 3Rs (redress, recovery and reintegration) and 3Cs (capacity, cooperation and coordination), guided by international human rights law and standards.
The role of prevention is critical in ensuring that the crime of trafficking does not occur in the first place. Despite its importance, the efforts to combat trafficking have been largely centered on a “symptom-specific” approach in that solutions are sought only after particular problems occur. Governments and States Parties to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons must commit resources not only to prosecuting traffickers or developing assistance programs for survivors of trafficking but also for the development and implementation of comprehensive and systematic prevention measures. To that end, States parties are obliged to undertake measures such as research, information and mass media campaigns and social and economic initiatives to prevent and combat trafficking in persons. Article 9 of the Palermo Protocol further provides that States parties shall adopt or strengthen various measures to alleviate the factors that make persons, especially women and children, vulnerable to trafficking, such as poverty, underdevelopment and lack of equal opportunity and to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking.
I must reiterate that International cooperation and partnership among all stakeholders are critical to fighting trafficking in persons in effective and sustainable manners. Trafficking in persons requires a multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder response. It is the primary obligation of the Government to protect its citizens, to prevent and combat trafficking in persons under international law by enacting and enforcing legislation criminalizing all forms of trafficking including forced labor, imposing proportionate punishments on perpetrators but also ensuring effective remedies to victims. I fully appreciate the Government of Belize current efforts towards tackling human trafficking, it has adopted appropriate laws but much more needs to be done to ensure effective implementation of the law and especially in adopting a victim centered and human rights based approach to combating trafficking in persons.
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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