By William Ysaguirre
Belize’s repressive immigration policy compounds the phenomenon of human trafficking, and undermines efforts at combating and preventing trafficking in persons and helping the victims, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on human trafficking, Joy Ngozi Ezeilo told reporters at a press conference at the Radisson Fort George Hotel.
Ezeilo works out of the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights in Geneva, Switzerland and she was wrapping up a four-day visit to Belize during which she had met with government officials in Belize City and Belmopan.
She had visited with illegal, undocumented migrants detained at Kolbe Prison, who told her horror stories of how they were smuggled into the country with promises of employment, but ended up being forced into commercial sex work in bars.
Ezeilo chided the Belize government for the indiscriminate enforcement of Belize’s immigration policy, which only serves to drive victims of human trafficking underground, as they fear reporting their abuse to the authorities, for fear of deportation and/or fines and incarceration.
She said as long as Belize’s law criminalizes undocumented migrants, victims of human trafficking will be reluctant to come forward to lodge complaints for fear of the repercussions. Ezeilo said the system lends itself to abuse by corrupt and unscrupulous police and immigration officers who may demand and receive sexual favors from women and girls whose immigration status makes them vulnerable to such abuse. Ezeilo said she was concerned that such officers might be reluctant to correctly identify and accord the women proper treatment and protection as victims of human trafficking, when the officers themselves are guilty of the abuse.
Belize is a country of both destination and transit for human trafficking and even for the origin of trafficked person, to a limited degree. Ezeilo was most concerned that trafficking in Belize disproportionately affects women for sexual exploitation, mainly women from the neighboring countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. She said she found it disturbing that there is no reliable statistical data from any of the enforcement agencies on how many human trafficking victims have been rescued, and their traffickers prosecuted. She found it worrisome that Belize criminalizes illegal immigrants from Central America when they could just as easily be deported back home, without criminalizing or imprisoning them.
She was most concerned that children under 18 would be subject to these same harsh measures and sent to jail among criminals, because there is no separate detention center for illegal migrants. The detainees Ezeilo spoke to also complained that law officers abused their rights by confiscating their personal belongings, cash and clothing, which were never returned to them.
Growing reports of child prostitution and sexual exploitation of young girls in the tourism industry and around cruise ships also reached Ezeilo’s ears and she was most disturbed.
To all this, Ezeilo responded with a list of 23 recommendations for the Government of Belize to remedy the situation. Since Belize is such a small country and lacks the adequate resources to address this problem, she suggested GOB work more closely with the UN and its agencies to get the technical support Belize needs to deal with human rights violations that cause human trafficking.
She also called on GOB to ratify the International Labor Organization’s convention 189 for decent work for domestic workers. GOB should also develop a national referral mechanism for screening and identifying trafficking victims, and improving the partnership with civil society and religious groups to help in this work.
Ezeilo also recommends proper training for law enforcement officers, training police officers to properly investigate trafficking cases; and justice sector reform to reduce the time it takes for trafficking cases to be properly prosecuted. GOB needs to train specialized prosecutors, magistrates and judges for this work, and amend the current act to create hybrid offences which can be tried by either magistrate’s or Supreme Courts.
GOB and the Senate should fast track the bill on child sexual exploitation already passed by the House of Representatives. Data collection needs to be improved. A public education campaign is needed to adopt a zero tolerance to child sexual exploitation. Entertainment business should be inspected to ensure children are not being exploited in these industries.
She called on GOB to reconsider its restrictive immigration policy, and to stop forthwith the detention and deportation of children, in keeping with the principles of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.
She suggested that, in addressing the problem of illegal migrants, Belize should partner with neighboring countries to safely return migrants to their home countries, to prevent trafficking and labor exploitation.
She outlined the five P’s prevention of trafficking: protection of victims, prosecution and punishment of trackers and promotion of human rights and partnership.
She added GOB needs to reduce the impunity of trafficking offenders by adopting a zero tolerance to public officers corruption and complicity with traffickers.
Belize has a national trafficking in persons council, but she called on GOB to speedily appoint a coordinator or CEO, and establish a secretariat to deal with the problem. Belize should also establish a national human rights institution, in compliance with Paris principles, with government providing the necessary funding and human resources, to make this body independent and autonomous.
By William Ysaguirre
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