RIGHTS-COSTA RICA: Persons for Sale

 By Daniel Zueras

May 11, 2009 / IPS News

 Global trafficking of persons continues apace and Costa Rica is not exempt from sexual exploitation and forced labour. Data compiled by the United Nations indicate that women and girls are most affected by human trafficking, making up 80 percent of victims worldwide.

A large proportion of these girls and women are trapped into sexual exploitation, although there are no real statistics. "There is a lot of mythology around this subject," Ana Hidalgo, head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) unit combating slavery and human trafficking in Central America and Mexico, told IPS.

She explained that sexual exploitation cannot always be prosecuted as illegal trafficking in women, because it is not necessarily combined with coercion or deprivation of freedom, a basic requirement for the U.N. definition of trafficking.

The phenomenon is still popularly referred to as the "white slave trade", a phrase that originated in its impact on white people. "It seems as though problems only exist when they affect white people in the West," Hidalgo said.

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, also known as one of the Palermo Protocols after the Italian city where it was signed in 2000, supplements the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.

Among the shortcomings of the convention is that it addresses and penalises traffic between countries, "but in Costa Rica, the domestic trade is more of a problem" than cross-border trafficking, although "they are closely interlinked," said Hidalgo.

Other forms of exploitation endured by victims of trafficking include recruitment as child soldiers or beggars, illegal adoptions, forced marriages, surrogate motherhood, organ extraction, forced labour, servitude, classical slavery or forced participation in crime, the expert said.

In the last few years, the justice system in this country has acted in cases involving the sex trade and forced labour. Costa Rica is a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking.

The main victims of forced prostitution, apart from Costa Ricans themselves, are women immigrants from the Dominican Republic, followed by those from Nicaragua. Costa Rica is documented as the country of origin for human trafficking bound for Canada, Mexico and Japan.

According to the Regional Study on Legislation regarding Trafficking of Persons in Central America and the Dominican Republic, 54 prosecutions for human trafficking were opened in Costa Rica between 2002 and 2006, which led to the conviction of 16 people.

Between 1998 and 2007, 151 victims of such crimes were identified, including a contingent of 56 persons from China and another group of 44 Peruvians and 13 Ecuadoreans.

The other cases investigated by the justice system during that period focused on the traffic of women for sexual exploitation and the sale of children for illegal adoption.

According to Hidalgo, there are many cases of young women travelling back and forth under the auspices of modelling schools and agencies, where they are offered attractive contracts. However, when they reach their destination they find the reality to be very different to what they were promised.

The most susceptible victims are "poor, unemployed women looking for opportunities," she said.

Slave labour is another serious problem in Costa Rica, and Chinese mafias engaged in human trafficking, apparently to meet that demand, have appeared on the scene. In the latest case, in early April, a shipment of 300 under-age children from China to Costa Rica was foiled.

The Costa Rican embassy in Beijing had been warning the Chinese authorities since 2008 about forged "hukou" (family registration booklets), which are required to obtain visas to enter Costa Rica.

The mafias look for Chinese people living in Costa Rica whose surnames match those of future under-age Chinese forced workers. "They would ask for people with a certain surname, and a given number of people would come forward. They would set a maximum price and hold a reverse auction," the head of the Costa Rican Migration Service, Mario Zamora, told IPS.

The person with that surname willing to take the least money would be paid, and would come forward to pick up the trafficked child, posing as the child’s father. The trafficked under-age worker would then work a given number of years free for the organised crime group running the scam.

The ringleaders of the trafficking network were arrested in China, while in Costa Rica a former Foreign Ministry official is facing prosecution.

Thanks to this operation and another one carried out in 2007, for which the trial verdict is still awaited, "we have been able to find out how these networks operate," said Zamora. Based on available evidence, the Chinese immigrants were probably going to be used as forced labour, he said.

But Zamora said it was difficult to prove crimes related to trafficking in court, because both the accused and the victims remained silent. The victims' families back in China were the "guarantee" that they would not talk.

According to Zamora, trafficking is organised by international organisations that carry out "criminal activities behind a legitimate front. They transform themselves into corporations."

The attempted trafficking that was interrupted in 2007, when the alleged criminals tried to pay Zamora 5,000 dollars for each of 500 visas they applied for, is being tried only on the charge of bribery, "because bringing in human trafficking would complicate the case," said the head of the Migration Service.

He complained that although penalties for such crimes have recently been stiffened, to bring them closer into line with the Palermo Protocol, this is still not enough to successfully combat the traffickers.

In his view, "the crime of human trafficking has been typified as a socio-political concept, but from the judicial point of view it is an extremely complex matter to prove unequivocally in court."

According to Zamora, the Palermo Protocol is inadequate, because it is necessary to demonstrate international linkages, and the judges are faced with witnesses who refuse to talk.

Trafficking exists in the context of the economic dynamics of supply and demand, and the networks establish the connections between one and the other.

"As long as there are asymmetric labour dynamics, conditions will be ripe for (human) trafficking and slavery," Hidalgo concluded. To put an end to these practices, the OIM regional official called for migration policies that recognise different economic realities, and regulate the entry of foreigners under conditions that are "legal, decent and safe."


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