Human Trafficking in Venezuela
Authors: Nabilah Binte Azhar, Keeven Cheong Aik Wei
Editor: Tan Chok Geow
Background and Impact
As a country brimming in oil and potential, Venezuela possesses dark secrets that plague its people. Human trafficking, a crime that exploits someone through forced labor, slavery, and sexual favors, is a common occurrence in Venezuela. The main reason why citizens choose to flee their country is due to Venezuela’s prolonged state of unrest where scarcity of resources has already forced approximately 5 million refugees and migrants to leave (Cone, 2019).
In the bustle of political turmoil, human trafficking is thriving and the impactful damage it causes continues to spread around the region. Venezuelans seeking refuge in neighboring countries are straining the capacity of regional governments. Countries like Ecuador and Colombia are being challenged by the sheer size of the Venezuelan caseload (Cone, 2019) while countries like Trinidad and Tobago and Curaçao are struggling to implement even the most basic systems of international aid. With the resource scarcity faced by its people and the shrinking pool of options to seek safety, refuge as well as economic opportunities outside of Venezuela, the issue of human trafficking becomes more acute.
Health effects on human trafficking victims are severe. 95% of victims experience physical and sexual violence, resulting in severe health issues such as HIV and gynecological infections (UN, 2020). It has also been observed that the longer the victims are under the control of traffickers, the more severe the mental toll (UN, 2020). Child victims experience such symptoms more severely as well as stress in adapting to regulated situations such as schools.
The Causes of Human Trafficking in Venezuela
Even after knowing the horrors of trafficking, many Venezuelans consciously take the risk for many unfortunate reasons. Reasons such as relentless poverty, high unemployment rates, civil and military violence as well as political turmoil motivate millions of Venezuelans to flee the country in search of safety and to meet some of their most basic needs.
Due to the mitigating pandemic and quarantine measures, unemployment continues to increase, as well as the rising vulnerability of Venezuelans to sex trafficking and forced labor (Seelke, 2016). Many Venezuelan migrants felt an urgency to send money back to their families, increasing the risk for criminal gangs and guerilla groups to force children into begging and women into inappropriate favors and labor exploitation, in turn increasing the likelihood of falling into trafficking (Chazkel, 2020).
Under Maduro’s presidential reign, the dictator shifted the majority of the country’s focus into maintaining his regime and socialist ideals. This came at the expense of proper safeguards of law and order, which led to neglected criminalization of human trafficking. Despite the prescribed sentence of 15-20 years of imprisonment, perpetrators often go free due to the lack of demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion, despite such a mandate being inconsistent with international law (Prather, 2019). Furthermore, officials under him were believed to be complicit in trafficking crimes perpetrated by non-state armed groups. Even though his reign ended in January 2019 according to the legislation, Maduro’s grip on the country persists today (ICG, 2019).
The clashes between the Venezuelan military and Colombian guerillas along its borders have also caused great distress, sparking a humanitarian crisis that has led to massive displacements of citizens (Wilhelm, 2021). Amidst the chaos, death tolls increased and civilians were wrongfully targeted by the administration in the process. In fear of being targeted, many Venezuelans fled as refugees into Colombia and other neighboring areas, exposing them even further to the manipulations of traffickers (Grattan, 2021).
What Has Been Done Thus Far
In addressing human trafficking, the country has generally adopted a recovery and protective stance in its approach. Its organized crime office (ONCDOFT) is the country’s main hub and force in tackling its human trafficking issues. Between 2018 and 2019, ONCDOFT arrested 116 individuals for trafficking.
However, a huge issue of transparency exists in its developments and operations where little to no disclosure is given on its action plan against increasing trafficking numbers and its prosecutions (Martinez, 2021). ONCDOFT also sought to operate a 24-hour hotline to receive general reports of abuse and violence against female victims, including human trafficking allegations but several numbers provided were often inactive (Martinez, 2021).
Under Maduro’s administration, the government continued the Misiones approach from its predecessor to indirectly eradicate trafficking by eradicating poverty through improved provision of basic needs and education (Prather, 2019) instead of stronger law enforcement. Health-related support was made available to the victims, but additional services like follow-up aid, legal aid with filing a complaint, and economic assistance such as job reintegration were minimal (Seelke, 2016). This approach has proven ineffective due to administrative instability and insufficient funding.
Apart from the initial Misiones, Maduro’s government-administered two additional laws - the “Organic Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence” and the “Organic Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents” (Prather, 2019). The former promised the participation of the state in addressing and punishing traffickers of women, as well as educational programs on gender-based violence (Parther, 2019). The latter law states that the government too is obligated to develop the necessary policies and aid to address the mistreatment and abuse of children victims in trafficking (Prather, 2019). Despite these laws, however, gender-based brutality continues to rise and the enforcement of these laws is weak (Murray, 2019).
UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) with the support of the US’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (JTIP), also recently started a 3-year initiative that aims to strengthen criminal proceedings and the delivery of justice in cases of trafficking involving Venezuelan migrants (UN, 2020). Titled TRACK4TIP, it has been implemented in 8 countries in South America and the Caribbean with the ultimate aim to identify human trafficking victims and to respond adequately to human trafficking cases by guiding victims through the entire legal process (US Department of State, n.d.). However, its effectiveness has yet to be assessed.
To adequately tackle this issue, here are some solutions we have developed:
One way to tackle human trafficking is to have formal education and cognizance on the issue by collaborating with education providers. Schools and educational institutions can approach providers who have set out topics to be taught and discussed in their developed program. One such provider is A21 Campaign, Inc, which has operated its efforts in Mexico, Cape Town, and Thailand. They offer professional training in rescue efforts, aid to the victims, and programs that cater to the young and old regarding human trafficking (A21, 2021).
The Power of its People
Despite everything that comes crashing in Venezuela, there is one undeniable resource that yet continues to be neglected - its people. Venezuelans are more than ready to take up jobs, utilize and renew their skills to gain income to do their part to pull Venezuela out of its disaster. This pool of people can be tapped on as volunteers in A21’s operations. Overall, should such campaign companies be able to penetrate Venezuela through schools and social efforts, its people can be the key players in the change against human trafficking, without such a heavy need to wait on policies and governmental assistance.
Currently, Venezuelan law and authorities do not consider males as potential victims of trafficking, resulting in a lack of policies, administrative support, and general aid for male victims of the crime (Martinez, 2021). The Venezuelan government has to sort out its political debacle to identify the rightful President, be it Maduro or Guaido, who has the power to implement laws. However, we recognize that that may be a whole Pandora’s box altogether. Instead, we propose for a group of regional actors - some close to Maduro and others to Guaido - to work together with the EU's International Contact Group to press both sides for some action to be taken (ICG, 2019). This allows some commonality to be achieved and for both sides to understand the seriousness of human trafficking in Venezuela. Also, this allows for the acknowledgment that human trafficking can happen to both genders so that policy provisions are equal between them. By recognizing the issue, the most important step would have been taken towards tackling it.
Corruption remains to be a huge obstacle for Venezuela, especially since the country ranks 176 out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 (Transparency International, 2021). Traffickers can easily bribe their way through checks since there is little to no focus on enforcing them. A solution to this is to coordinate anti-trafficking efforts and service provisions for victims across the region. Police and prosecutors in countries around Venezuela should have a system to strengthen coordination in Latin America to improve communication between those working to prevent or mitigate the impact of trafficking of Venezuelans in the region. This strengthens the ability of law enforcement agencies and different parties in surrounding countries to be better equipped to address the issue. The US’s JTIP can lead this effort and provide the necessary funding seeing how it leads the United States’ global engagement to combat human trafficking (US Department of State, n.d.). This would be beneficial for neighboring countries to partake in since the humanitarian crisis has already severely threatened the interests and security of their homes.
Ultimately, the fact remains that Venezuela is still a Tier 3 nation (i.e defined as a state whose administration lags behind in the compliance of minimum trafficking preventive efforts) with ongoing political instability and an extremely corrupt public sector (Martinez, 2021). To outsiders, it may be seen as a lost cause where Venezuelans simply have to accept their reality. However, if countries around the region band together to tackle human trafficking and Venezuelans are engaged in the issue, perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel for Venezuela.
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