Monday, March 14, 2011

Trinidad and Tobago: The Beginnings of a Human Trafficking Investigation

I spent the best part of December 2010 and January 2011 in the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad is located only a few kilometers north of Venezuela and because of that proximity - among other geographic factors - it has become a thriving transition point for both the drug and arms trades.

My question was, what about human trafficking?

There’s a reason that the trafficking of persons is called a shadow crime. The difficulty in defining the problem and in ascertaining exactly what the situation is at any given time in any given place makes it that much harder to combat.

I set out with a simple starting point. Before I could assess what – if anything – was being done to fight human trafficking in Trinidad or even in the wider Caribbean region, I had to get a handle on how large a problem it was or rather how large a problem people
thought it was.

I was able to conduct a series of interviews with people in a wide variety of sectors. I spoke to people in the Trinidad & Tobago government. I spoke to people in the Crime and Problem Analysis branch of the national police force. I spoke to people at CARICOM IMPACS, the regional body charged with coordinating efforts to combat crime and enforce security in the Caribbean.

And of course I spoke to regular citizens. In a country as small as T&T – it has just under 1.5 million people spread over two islands – people talk.

Several things became clear. Firstly, the government of T&T is adept at saying the right things, at least when faced with a foreign freelance journalist like myself. I was told that there were fewer than 10 instances of human trafficking recorded in Trinidad and Tobago and that while illegal immigration was certainly an issue – particularly with women from South America (Venezuela and Colombia in particular) who end up working in brothels – there was no reason to believe human trafficking was cause for major concern.

Then I was told that despite human trafficking “not really being a problem” the government was determined to be proactive. A task force was formed in order to produce legislation that will bring Trinidad up to the standards set forth within the UN anti trafficking protocol. That legislation is expected to pass this month.

Trinidad and Tobago is not the only Caribbean island without legislation currently in place. Quite the opposite, it’s my understanding that there are currently only eight countries within Caricom that have introduced human trafficking legislation.

Without the legal framework, it’s obviously very difficult to have the right infrastructure in place to identify human trafficking, punish the perpetrators and assist the victims. Ultimately, the impression I left Trinidad with was that no one – within the government or outside of it - has a complete or clear picture of the human trafficking situation in the country.

But again, this state of affairs is not limited to Trinidad and Tobago. It’s a reflection of a wider global trend. Accurate data on human trafficking is one of the hardest things to come by but without it institutionalizing a response is a tricky prospect.

Traffickers aren’t bogged down by bureaucracy in the way that democratic governments and the NGOs that operate within them are.

Education on human trafficking is also lacking. Although awareness of the issue is steadily increasing, in many places people still don’t have an accurate understanding of what human trafficking actually means. It is often confused with human smuggling and illegal immigration. In Trinidad, a particularly brutal spate of kidnappings led to a change in the law that did away with the 24 hour waiting period before someone could be declared missing.

According to the Assistant Superintendent of the Crime and Problem Analysis Unit, Macdonald Jacob, this resulted in a drastic increase in the number of persons reported missing when in actual fact they weren’t. But the damage was already done to public perception and missing person quickly became synonymous with trafficking victim.

Trinidad’s society is complex but one of its characteristics is that many things are common knowledge without being on the record. None of the citizens with I spoke seemed particularly surprised at the idea that human trafficking could be a major issue. Not only that, but given the widespread belief that there is extensive corruption within both the police force and the government, it was suggested to me that there are factions within those two institutions that could be involved with or profiting from illegal trade in guns, drugs and possibly people. I have no way of knowing whether or not there is real truth in those allegations but if there is, it would be one more in a long list of challenges faced by those fighting human trafficking.

In the weeks that I was in Trinidad, all I did was begin to scratch the surface. There are dozens of other angles and leads that could and should be pursued. But even a brief glimpse into the inner workings of one country’s response to human trafficking shows just how difficult it is and will be to win this fight.


  1. Anonymous10:18 AM

    Difficult though it be to win the fight on the various levels of improprieties in the nation of Trinidad & Tobago, we should not give up.

    In order to win the fight, there would need to be more participation coming from the public. The people of the nation would need to be more involved in providing information on crimes to law authorities.

    Measures need to be implemented to shield the identity of those who report crimes. Reassurance of the confidentiality of their identity needs to be constantly proclaimed by authorities until it is fully accepted by all.

    I have a workable solution to that problem. However, acquiring an appointment to meet with the responsible minister to discuss the issue has been challenging. They are protected by a slew of secretaries, advisers and others who block, deflect and discourage face to face meetings. They are arrogant, demeaning and are condescending in their tone and verbiage.

    Email requests for appointments have so far, gone unanswered.

    How do I get an appointment? Any ideas? Respond to insert "T&T"in the subject line.

  2. Anonymous11:55 AM

    ever so often we are informed of people missing in Trinidad and Tobago.
    information is ciculated through the internet ,and through the media , once brought to the public's attention .
    information regarding persons who have disappeared over time is dificult to get the true extent of the problem is not known by the general public.
    it should be noted that there exists a direct correlation between the prevalence of the DRUG trade and human smuggling and consequential trafficking .