Searching for Safety: Confronting Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking of Venezuelan Women and Girls

When people are forced to flee their homes, they are at greater risk of exploitation. Human trafficking has been a persistent problem in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, the continuing exodus of Venezuelans—the largest in recent history in the Western Hemisphere—demands urgent and increased attention to human trafficking prevention and response.  

Venezuela Trafficking Report Map - July 2019- all orange-01.jpg

As of June 2019, more than 4 million Venezuelans have fled the economic and political chaos of their country.[1] Access to food, water, and medicine is severely limited, and public services are breaking down. Victimized by widespread crime and targeted political persecution, Venezuelans continue to flee the country in search of safety and to meet some of their most basic needs.

The large numbers of Venezuelans seeking refuge in neighboring countries are straining the capacity of some regional governments to cope. Countries like Colombia and Ecuador, which have experience in responding to internal displacement or hosting refugees, are being challenged by the sheer size of the Venezuelan caseload. Other countries like Trinidad and Tobago and Curaçao are struggling to set up even the most basic systems of international protection. When resources within Venezuela are scarce and options to seek safety and economic opportunities outside of Venezuela shrink, the threat of human trafficking becomes more acute. 

The majority of victims of trafficking (VoTs)[2] detected globally are women and girls, and while not true in certain regions, overall, trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is the most common form.[3] It is important to note that men and boys are also victims of all forms of trafficking and that labor trafficking has also been reported as a problem for Venezuelans in the region. However, this report focuses on women and girls for two reasons. First, the number of reported female Venezuelan victims is on the rise.[4] Second, women and girls face distinct risks.[5]

Over the last year, Refugees International has carried out field research on the plight of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in four countries: Colombia, Ecuador, Trinidad and Tobago, and Curaçao. In all four countries, a few key themes have emerged. First, if Venezuelans have safe and legal pathways to enter host countries, they will be less likely to fall into the hands of traffickers. Second, regularizing the status of Venezuelans already within a host country is vital if victims are to feel safe in reporting incidents of trafficking to the authorities. Third, without the right to work, displaced Venezuelans are at a higher risk of falling prey to exploitative situations to survive financially. 

If these factors are not addressed, the risk of Venezuelan women and girls being trafficked is heightened. However, the full nature and scope of human trafficking in the context of the Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis remains elusive. Information is hard to come by and the coordination of measures to prevent or mitigate human trafficking across host countries remains ad hoc at best. The result is a higher degree of vulnerability. International organizations and host countries alike have a responsibility to coordinate their anti-trafficking efforts, aggregate data, and share lessons learned.

Governments carry much of the responsibility for confronting human traffickers and providing services to their victims. However, civil society also has an important role to play. In general, international donors need to do more to support civil society organizations in host countries to help meet the needs of victims. For its part, the United States should utilize its unique ability to monitor human trafficking worldwide through its yearly Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report to create incentives for regional governments to do better.[6]

Country-specific anti-trafficking programs must be supported while at the same time prioritizing a regional and comprehensive approach. This dual approach is the only way to protect women and girls, who are increasingly at risk.

Recommendations

To host country governments in the region, including Colombia, Ecuador, Trinidad and Tobago, and Curaçao:

  • Expand legal pathways for Venezuelans to enter host countries. In countries where Venezuelans can enter, but which currently require documents that are nearly impossible to obtain, governments should find practical alternatives to these entry requirements. 

  • Regularize Venezuelans’ legal status. If Venezuelans are already in a country but are undocumented, host country governments need to create mechanisms whereby Venezuelans can register and obtain legal status, including the right to work. Venezuelans are less likely to report trafficking if they fear becoming known to the authorities. 

  • Ensure that any victim of human trafficking can file a complaint with the local authoritiesregardless of the complainant’s legal statusin a host country.Reporting needs to be encouraged and victims should not be penalized—either through prosecutions or deportations—as a result of their legal status.

  • Inform trafficking victims of their basic rights and provide access to legal assistance. Legal protection is critical for victims to feel secure. Governments should organize education sessions with incoming Venezuelans and distribute materials about victims’ rights in Spanish. Governments should also provide legal assistance for trafficking victims. 

  • Increase assistance for victims of trafficking, including housing and psychosocial support. Safe accommodation and psychological support are key elements needed for victims to heal. Governments should prioritize reintegration programs that provide these support services.

  • Provide alternative income-generating opportunities to women to reduce the risks of recruitment/trafficking. Financial insecurity is a significant reason why Venezuelan women and girls are susceptible to trafficking and exploitation. 

  • Screen for human trafficking indicators among incoming Venezuelans. Government officials, especially those working in immigration and humanitarian assistance, need to be trained to identify human trafficking cases and respond appropriately. 

  • Coordinate anti-trafficking efforts and service provision for victims across the region. Police and prosecutors in host countries should have regular referral mechanisms whereby cases can be tracked and pursued across borders. Service providers should also have strong cross-border communication so that, with the consent of the victims, they can share the needs of specific cases and improve service delivery.

 

To donors and United Nations agencies:

  • Provide increased technical and financial support for governments’ prevention and response systems. Even if host countries have sound anti-trafficking plans in place, limited capacity hinders implementation. Donors and governments need to provide adequate funding and technical expertise to support host countries’ anti-trafficking efforts.

  • Support international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and local groups that are providing services and support for trafficking victims. NGOs and other civil society groups are engaged in remarkable work to assist vulnerable Venezuelan women and children, but there are too few and they are often poorly funded. 

  • Support research into the trafficking threat facing Venezuelan women and girls, as well as strategies for prevention and response. International organizations and UN agencies have the ability to coordinate comprehensive research across multiple countries to better understand human trafficking in the region. This kind of research is crucial in developing effective, evidence-based prevention and response programs. 

To the United States government:

  • Launch a regional initiative to strengthen coordination across host countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. This initiative would improve communication between those working to prevent or to mitigate the impact of trafficking of Venezuelans in the region. It would also strengthen the capacity of the relevant law enforcement agencies and service providers in host countries. The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department could provide funding and expertise for the initiative. 

Background

Although Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador currently host the greatest numbers of Venezuelan refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, the entire Latin America and Caribbean region has been affected by the crisis in Venezuela. Most Venezuelans who have fled their country are desperate to find safety wherever they can.[7] Millions of vulnerable Venezuelans have sought refuge in more than a half-dozen nearby countries to try to survive and leave the deterioration of their country behind. In 2018 alone, Venezuelans lodged over 340,000 asylum applications—more than double the number of Venezuelans seeking international protection during the previous four years combined.[8]

Of the Venezuelans who have left and crossed international borders, it is estimated that at least 40 percent are female.[9] The proportion of women and children among those traveling is increasing as they seek to join male family members who already have traveled ahead. Both the travel involved in reaching these countries of asylum and the reception upon arrival have inherent risks that disproportionally affect women and girls. One specific risk affecting Venezuelan women and girls is that of human trafficking.[10]

 

Human trafficking

The prevalence of human trafficking worldwide led the United Nations to include in its Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime a Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, known as the Palermo Protocol. This legally binding instrument was the first step in the global recognition that all states need to address trafficking of women and girls because, of the victims currently detected globally, they are significantly affected. According to the Protocol, Trafficking in Persons is defined as follows: 

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.[11]

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicates that the most common form of detected human trafficking worldwide is sexual exploitation; in 2018, approximately 72 percent of all known trafficking victims were women and girls.[12] When countries experience conflict or are economically depressed, the risk of human trafficking can increase because institutions do not function properly, people are forced to migrate, and many people become desperate to gain financial sustainability. 

The regional challenge

According to organizations operating in the region, Venezuelan women and girls who have fled to neighbouringcountries, particularly within the last 18 months, often arrive malnourished, with few possessions, and extremely limited financial resources. Sex work has long been established as a means for migrant women to earn a living in the region. Because it usually is unregulated, the risk of exploitation is high. With the crisis in Venezuela continuing to escalate, NGOs working in the region have told Refugees International that this commercial sex work often starts voluntarily, but sometimes becomes involuntary and, in effect, sexual slavery. The vulnerable position of Venezuelan women and girls living in host countries with uncertain legal status creates this potential for exploitation. The desperation to support family members can also lead Venezuelan women and girls into situations of survival sex[13] and being forced into and trapped in situations of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. 

Traffickers often advertise to Venezuelan women and girls that they will be provided with a job and legal status in another country. However, once they arrive, they are unable to leave and find themselves either working for no pay or engaging in sex work when they expected to be doing something else.[14]

One of the key challenges in addressing this issue effectively is that there is a lack of clear data on the trafficking and exploitation of women and girls affected by the Venezuelan crisis. However, a significant number of people in the region with whom Refugees International spoke noted that trafficking and sexual exploitation of Venezuelan women and girls is a growing problem. 

Whether in Colombia or elsewhere, the data that do exist on complaints and prosecutions for trafficking give a limited picture of the extent of the problem because so few Venezuelan women and girls make complaints, and even fewer complaints result in convictions.

“Campaigners and the United Nations say Venezuelan migrant women and men selling sex in Colombia are at high risk of being trafficked into forced prostitution, but little is known about the true scale of the largely invisible problem.”[15] Whether in Colombia or elsewhere, the data that do exist on complaints and prosecutions for trafficking give a limited picture of the extent of the problem because so few Venezuelan women and girls make complaints, and even fewer complaints result in convictions.

A lack of data is one consequence of most such cases going unreported. Victims often fear that reporting could lead to violent repercussions against themselves and their family members by traffickers. Trafficking is also underreported because undocumented women and girls may fear negative consequences, such as deportation, if they make themselves known to the authorities by making a complaint. Furthermore, given the lack of adequate support for trafficking victims, it is unsurprising that the number of complaints and prosecutions is low, and the official data thus do not reflect the full picture. However, trendlines exist that give serious cause for concern. 


Endnotes

[1] “Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Operational Portal: Situations of Refugees and Migrants, accessed July 11, 2019, https://data2.unhcr.org/es/situations/platform.

[2] Throughout this report, Refugees International uses the term “victim” to describe trafficked persons. As explained in the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s Guide for Victim Advocates, “this is not to connote powerlessness or a lack of resilience, but to convey the acute conditions under which someone who has suffered from trafficking often encounters an advocate, as well as the magnitude of the crime that has been committed against him or her. The terms perpetrator and trafficker are used interchangeably to describe individuals who recruit and traffic women, men, and children for laboror sexual servitude.”

[3] “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2018,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), accessed July 21, 2019, https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/2018/GLOTiP_2018_BOOK_web_small.pdf.

[4] Giacomo Tognini. “Another Consequence of Venezuela Crisis: A Sex Trafficking Boom.” Worldcrunch, June 11, 2018, https://www.worldcrunch.com/world-affairs/another-consequence-of-venezuela-crisis-a-sex-trafficking-boom.

[5] Women’s Refugee Commission, “The Time to Act Is Now: Addressing Risks of Exploitation for Women and Children Seeking Refuge,”April 2019,https://www.womensrefugeecommission.org/resources-refugee-protection/1716-the-time-to-act-is-now.

[6] The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2003 requires foreign governments to provide the U.S. Department of State with data on trafficking investigations, prosecutions, convictions, and sentences to fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. 

[7] Liz Throssel, “Majority Fleeing Venezuela in Need of Refugee Protection – UNHCR,” UNHCR, May 21, 2019, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/briefing/2019/5/5ce3bb734/majority-fleeing-venezuela-need-refugee-protection-unhcr.html.

[8] UNHCR,“Operational Portal: Venezuela Situation,” https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/vensit.

[9] Estimated by the authors based on Peru’s government statistic that 42 percent of Venezuelans who register are female. The numbers are probably greater, given that many do not register. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “Fear and Exhaustion Shadow Venezuelan Women on the Long Trek to Peru,” February 28, 2019, https://www.unfpa.org/news/fear-and-exhaustion-shadow-venezuelan-women-long-trek-peru.

[10] When referring to human trafficking or trafficking in persons, Refugees International uses the UN definition: “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.”

[11] UNODC, “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children,” September 29, 2003, https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/organized-crime/intro/UNTOC.html#Fulltext.

[12] UNODC, “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2018,” https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/2018/GLOTiP_2018_BOOK_web_small.pdf.

[13] For the purposes of this report, Refugees International defines “survival sex” as exchange of one's body for basic subsistence needs, including clothing, food, shelter, and medicine.

[14] Anastasia Moloney, “Venezuela Crisis Forces Women to Sell Sex in Colombia, Fuels Slavery Risk,” Reuters, June 5, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-colombia-trafficking/venezuela-crisis-forces-women-to-sell-sex-in-colombia-fuels-slavery-risk-idUSKBN18W1EX.

[15] Maloney, “Venezuela Crisis.”