Sun, Sea and Sex Slaves

Despite growing awareness, human trafficking remains a major challenge for the Caribbean

Human trafficking, often called modern day slavery, is a serious violation of human rights which affects almost every country in the world to varying degrees. More than 130 countries are affected by human trafficking, including in the Caribbean. High rates of poverty in some Caribbean countries coupled with demands for labour in some urban centres and false promises of jobs drive the incidence of trafficking in the region. In the report Trafficking in Persons in Latin America and the Caribbean, Seelke describes trafficking as a growing problem in Latin America and the Caribbean, regions that act as major sources, transit areas, and destination countries for trafficking victims

The Palermo Protocols define trafficking in persons as the ‘recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.’

Trafficking takes place at various levels, including domestic, intra-regional and transnationally. In 2012, the ILO estimated that there were some 20.9 million victims of forced labour- including nearly 2 million in Latin America and the Caribbean. The report states that these victims are trapped in jobs which they were coerced or deceived into and which they cannot leave. The majority of persons trafficked from the region are within the region or North America with smaller flows to Europe and South America.

Jamaica’s bustling tourist centres like many others across the region, are key destinations for trafficking of women and girls who are forced into prostitution or sex slavery- they remain the primary victims of trafficking. Despite this, there are increased incidences of boys being recruited into prostitution. The Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, launched by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that the most common form of human trafficking is sexual exploitation, followed by forced labour. Jamaica is listed as a source and destination country for adults and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour. Authorities note that underreporting and lack of understanding of what constitutes trafficking has made it difficult to collect credible statistics.

Jamaica is listed on the US’ Tier 2 Watch List in the Trafficking in Persons Report of the United States State Department. Tier 2 Watch List countries are those whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards; the absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing yet. There is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year. The other countries to make that list are Antigua and Barbuda, Guyana, Haiti, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago.

Stories have been told of girls as young as twelve years who were trafficked to work as sex slaves or in porn rings. In such cases, the young girls are lured away from home to places where they are locked away and forced to provide sexual favors for men. One young woman who reportedly escaped from such a house said she was among several young girls who were held captive by the men in a rural parish of Jamaica. In a recent case, a rural shopkeeper was convicted of trafficking of persons for prostituting a 12 year old who had ran away from home and sought refuge with her. One local media house now features a missing person segment during the nightly news which shows people, many of them young women and girls, who have gone missing ‘without a trace’ for several months. Authorities have been unable to account for their whereabouts but many suspect they may have been forced into prostitution.


Head of the Jamaica Constabulary Force Trafficking in Persons Unit, Deputy Superintendent of Police Carl Berry pointed to the increased use of the internet and social media platforms to recruit victims. Some victims have reported responding to online and print ads for jobs as massage therapists and bartenders only to find themselves trafficked to other islands such as Barbados or the Bahamas. Upon their arrival, their travel documents are confiscated and they are forced to work sometimes under harsh circumstances and often without remuneration. The desperate desire to escape poverty and to support families mean that thorough research on the ‘opportunity’ is seldom done. For many victims it is only upon arrival at the destination that they begin to understand what has happened to them. Threats to their lives and that of family members, shame, and ignorance of the supporting systems lead to under-reporting of such offences.

Human trafficking has serious negative impacts on a country’s socio-economic and political systems. The consequences of trafficking are most directly and severely felt by its victims. Victims of trafficking are often subject to a range of abuses including but not limited to physical, psychological and sexual violence which can sometimes be deadly. Physical injuries and depression often result from the torture and abuse victims face. In Jamaica, young women who are victims of trafficking also have to live with the stigma of those who accuse them of running off to work as prostitutes. The shame associated with the experience sometimes cause families to turn their backs on them.

Caribbean countries have signed an array of regional agreements, established committees and taskforces, and ratified international conventions that address human trafficking. In Jamaica, the National Taskforce Against Trafficking in Persons (NATFATIP) was established in June 2005 as a multi-agency approach by the Government to strengthen Jamaica’s legislative, institutional and operational capacity to combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP). The Trafficking in Persons Prevention and Suppression Act of 2007 makes provisions for the prevention of and punishment of traffickers. Despite measured successes and greater levels of awareness via mass media, high levels of poverty, gender discrimination and crime continue to fuel trafficking.

Additionally, there is still a lot of misunderstanding around trafficking in Jamaica. Many persons are of the view that young girls are simply ‘bad or promiscuous’ and have chosen to run away from home to be with men. As a result, some have chosen to turn a blind eye to situations of exploitation. More conversation is needed around the issue to encourage people to identify and speak up about trafficking. In addition, the culture of silence in the region and Jamaica’s ‘informa culture’ which vilifies police informants, perpetuates crime.

Efforts to stem trafficking should include stronger social protection systems and safety nets to address the needs of the poor, as well as educating children on how to spot and avoid perpetrators through formal school education. Agents such as the church, which continues to play an influential role especially in rural communities, should act as advocates against the crime. Systemic gender discrimination which victimises women and girls must be countered to reduce the vulnerability of these victims. Authorities and members of the public must refrain from victim-shaming to encourage those affected by it to come forward and tell their stories. In this way, light can be shed on this deplorable crime and the perpetrators can be brought to justice.

Caribbean Connections
Ayesha Constable

Ayesha is the Caribbean Representative of the Sustainable Development Solutions Youth Network and a researcher in climate change and agriculture with a focus on the vulnerabilities of small farmers and determinants of adaptation. She is also a youth leader and researcher who seeks to build awareness of and advocates on matters of youth, girls’ rights, gender and environmental justice. As an academic she incorporates her interest in youth issues and gender by looking at youth perspectives on climate change, and gender as a key determinant of vulnerability and adaptability to climate change.
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