Marissa Thomas is Programme Coordinator for Trinidad at the The Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC) and El Centro de Orientación e Investigación Integral (COIN) Caribbean Vulnerabilised Groups Project: a five-year regional project which responds to HIV and AIDS among Caribbean sex workers, men who have sex with men, socially excluded youth, drug users and prisoners. A Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at UWI, St. Augustine, Marissa also volunteers with organizations such as the YMCA, Cyril Ross Nursery and CARe. She speaks to WomenSpeak about the situation of Trafficking in Persons in the Caribbean.
What is the extent of Trafficking in the Caribbean? What categories of Trafficked persons most often occur in the Caribbean?
Trafficking is a very real phenomenon in the Caribbean. It is fueled by the feminization of poverty, gender based violence, and aspirations and hope for a better life. Also, it is often facilitated by corrupt immigration and police officers and other intermediaries across the region.
The counter-trafficking unit at COIN provides support, training, legal aid, medical, psychological and social services to trafficked women in the Dominican Republic. In 2010, COIN recorded that of 21 cases of women trafficked from the Dominican Republic, 16 of those women were trafficked to Trinidad.
There are many forms of human trafficking. The UN definition includes (but is not limited to) coercion and force in the sex trade. Although the prevalent form includes trafficking in women for sexual exploitation, there are other categories such as trafficking for forced labour, including domestic labour, for the caring market, begging, forced marriage, and commercial exploitation of children for industries such as tourism, trafficking in organs, and for illicit activities such as smuggling of drugs.
Are some Caribbean islands more prone to Trafficking than others?
It is important to point out that some Caribbean countries, like the Dominican Republic, are not just receivers of trafficked women, but countries of origin, transit and reception of trafficking in persons. In the Dominican Republic, persons who reported cases of trafficking have reported their involvement through travel mechanisms such as having their visas arranged, invitations to secure work contracts, or through arranged marriages. Often they work as dancers, in restaurants and bars, in domestic work, or care for the elderly. There are cases of trafficking, however, up and down the Caribbean. COIN has worked on cases from the Dominican Republic to Antigua to Trinidad.
How can you identify someone who might be a victim of trafficking?
There are signs that indicate a person may be a victim of trafficking. Victims are usually afraid to disclose information about their status because they may be fearful of their trafficker, or imminent harm toward their families abroad. Another indicator is that victims involved in trafficking may not have possession of their own identity or travel documents, such as a valid ID card or passport, are never alone, and have no agency or power over any personal and daily decision-making.
Victims of trafficking are said to experience a range of physical, verbal or psychological abuse. They are also at risk for health issues such as HIV and STIs, and may display physical signs of rape or sexual abuse. Other physical problems may be evident in victims such as malnutrition, psychological disorders, poor personal hygiene, or other untreated medical problems.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Trafficking or about persons who are Trafficked?
It is important to understand the difference between sex work and trafficking, and
their linkages. Sex work is a valid choice of employment, by men and women who chose to sell sexual services as an economic activity. Many women in the region exercise their right to self-determination and enter into this work freely. But sex work must not be confused or conflated with trafficking or smuggling in persons, which are crimes committed against people and not employment choices. Trafficking in persons is the illegal trade of human beings for the purposes of sexual exploitation, forced labour, or reproductive slavery and is a modern-day form of slavery. It is about control and power and exploitation.
COIN is an NGO with 25 years experience of working with marginalized populations. COIN works with and for sex workers and networks of sex workers to increase their access to sexual reproductive healthcare, but COIN in the Dominican Republic also has a trafficking centre which supports people who have been victims of trafficking. COIN focuses on the promotion and protection of the human rights of trafficked women through prevention and direct assistance to victims. COIN opened a care centre in the Dominican Republic for returned trafficked women in 2003. Trafficked women receive medical, psychological and legal assistance as well as training for socioeconomic reintegration. COIN also conducts advocacy for trafficking victims at the national, regional and global level, as well as before the UN, and has conducted research on the trafficking and smuggling of people across the Caribbean.
How has your work with COIN impacted you personally?
Working with COIN/ CVC has given me a greater capacity to impact the lives of vulnerabilized communities. We use the term vulnerabilized because it recognizes that sex workers, men who have sex with men, youth, prisoners and drug-users are not inherently ‘vulnerable’ but instead put at increased risk for HIV and STIs due to structural conditions such as gender-inequality and homophobia, and systematic and institutionalized stigma and discrimination and other human rights abuses. The term ‘vulnerabilized’ also recognizes the agency of communities traditionally labeled as ‘most-at-risk’ and ‘vulnerable’ and THEIR power to change the course of the HIV epidemic.
My experience at COIN/CVC has been overwhelmingly positive. It has encouraged me to be a stronger advocate, especially toward women and girls who may be in difficult situations. I look forward to a long-term and wonderful future with this type of work.