"Venezuelans are escaping in the hope of a better life ... When you are in that situation, you are really prey to any kind of exploitation and abuse" - U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime
By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Jan 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Near the bus station in the Brazilian rainforest city of Boa Vista, groups of migrants from Venezuela stand holding signs saying "I'm looking for a job".
Across the border city, other migrants - both men and women - sleep in tents pitched in public squares and in a sports hall turned overcrowded shelter, while others beg in the streets and wash car windshields.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have crossed the border into neighbouring Brazil in the past year, seeking to escape a collapsed economy with triple-digit inflation.
Many cross just to buy food and medicine and then go back. But others stay, including more than 12,000 Venezuelans who sought asylum last year in Brazil's northern state of Roraima, a five-fold increase from 2016, police figures show.
Desperate to find jobs and earn money to feed their families, it is these Venezuelan migrants who are at high risk of being trafficked into forced labour and prostitution.
"Venezuelans are escaping in the hope of a better life and to get alternatives," said Euridice Marquez, crime prevention and criminal justice officer at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
"When you are in that situation, you are really prey to any kind of exploitation and abuse," she said.
With an influx of vulnerable migrants, Brazil's Amazon border states have become human trafficking hotspots.
The male migrants are exploited as ranch labourers for little pay and the women as sex workers or domestic helps.
"We are having a migratory crisis in the Amazonas and Roraima (states) .. those who are at the border are the most vulnerable ones," said Fernanda Fuentes, a UNODC programme analyst in Brazil.
Supported by the European Union and UNODC, Brazil's public defender's office (DPU) provides free legal assistance to vulnerable people, including Venezuelan migrants.
The DPU has a mobile unit that travels to remote rural areas, which has identified cases of labour exploitation among Venezuelan migrants on big farms since 2015, Fuentes said.
Local ranchers and farmers looking to hire cheap and temporary manual labour exploit Venezuelan migrants, including those from Venezuela's Warao indigenous group, Fuentes said.
Passing by Boa Vista's bus station in trucks, they pick up job-seeking Venezuelans, usually offering a wage of 1,000 reales ($315) per month - higher than the minimum wage, Fuentes said.
Once at the cattle ranches and food crop farms, migrant workers get water from streams and are fed a bowl of rice for lunch and dinner, Fuentes said.
Having completed a month's work, labourers are driven back to Boa Vista but are often paid half of what they were promised.
"They say we have to deduct the food you ate, the water you drank, your living expenses, so it's very different than from what was promised when they got onto the truck," said Fuentes.
Prosecutors face an uphill battle in getting convictions as migrant workers can rarely identify the farm or its owner.
"They get on this truck and they will drive around for six hours not knowing where they are going, they have no idea," Fuentes said.
Venezuelan women are most vulnerable to forced prostitution and being exploited as domestic workers, Fuentes said.
Last May, federal police launched an investigation into the alleged sexual exploitation of 15 Venezuelan women in Roraima state.
"Sometimes recruiters and farmers think that they are actually helping ... giving them something to eat, some work .. it's not recognising that people have rights," Marquez said.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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