Minors in Migration: Child Trafficking in the Caribbean

04/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Trafficking in human cargo is not a new phenomenon. But one aspect of the human trafficking equation that does not get the attention it deserves is child trafficking - particularly in the Caribbean. Ten Americans are currently being detained by the Haitian government on suspicion of child trafficking, after they attempted to cross the border into the Dominican Republic without the requisite documents or identification for the thirty-three children in their custody. In television interviews, family members of the detainees attest that the individuals, all of them Baptist missionaries, were simply trying to do the Lord's work by taking the minor children to an orphanage for shelter and a better life. The Haitian authorities, declaring that some of the children are not orphans, have maintained a tough stance in the face of the alleged child trafficking. And rightfully so.

In 2004, USAID sponsored a study which examined the case of child domestic servants from Haiti who are trafficked to the Dominican Republic. In 2005, both the United Nations Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHCR) condemned the practice involving the trafficking of about 30,000 children from Haiti.

The trafficking label is applied to cases involving minors, whether a child was taken voluntarily or by force. As provided by the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), trafficking in persons is defined as "sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained the age of 18 years of age; or ... the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery".

According to a fact sheet on human trafficking compiled by the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, an estimated 2.5 million people are in forced labor (including sexual exploitation) at any given time as a result of trafficking. Of these, 10% (or 250,000) are in Latin America and the Caribbean. Although the majority of trafficking victims range in age from 18 to 24 years, it is estimated that 1.2 million children are trafficked annually. The majority of victims experience physical or sexual violence during trafficking and are destined for a life of forced commercial sexual or economic exploitation. Male traffickers or recruiters outnumber the women and, more often than not, they are not acquainted with their victims.

Human trafficking is big business. Estimated global annual profits generated by the exploitation of all trafficked forced labor totals US $31.6 billion - of which $1.3 billion (or 4.1%) is generated in Latin America and the Caribbean. Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean serve as the source, transit and destination countries for trafficking victims.

The rise in human trafficking in the Caribbean can be fueled by both individual or external factors. As listed in a 2007 Congressional Report, Trafficking in Persons in Latin America and the Caribbean, among the individual factors are illiteracy, poverty, homelessness and unemployment - all prevailing factors in post-quake Haiti. Among external factors are increased demand for domestic servants and government disinterest in the issue of human trafficking - as can be said to exist in the republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

Almost a year ago, the Police Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago issued a statement saying that the Police Service had found no evidence of trafficking of nationals of Trinidad and Tobago. So then, how do you explain the 608 persons reported missing in Trinidad in 2008? Just ask Nathiffa Mitchell, founding member of the Missing Persons Association (MPA) of Trinidad and Tobago, whose niece Lena Johnson went missing on November 8, 1998.

In the eyes of family members in Idaho awaiting reunification with loved ones currently detained in Haiti, the action of the Haitian government may appear heavy handed. But I heartily endorse the course of action as a step in the right direction. Otherwise, child trafficking could remain the Caribbean's best kept secret.