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OPINION: Learning from a brave Colombian who rescues children from sexual exploitation

by Gillian Triggs | UNHCR
Thursday, 1 October 2020 16:32 GMT

UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award Laureate 2020, Mayerlin Vergara (left), in Riohacha, Colombia. Courtesy UNHCR/Nicolo Filippo Rosso

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Coronavirus lockdowns, economic hardship and closed or restricted borders have exacerbated the often-intertwined problems of trafficking and sexual abuse

By Gillian Triggs, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection

The profile of those assisted by this year's United Nations Nansen Award winner, Mayerlín Vergara Pérez, who works for the local non-profit Fundación Renacer in La Guajira - in Colombia’s north, straddling the Venezuelan border - has changed in recent years amid the recent influx of refugees and migrants.

The region has seen a spike in child sexual abuse; increasing numbers of victims are Venezuelans, fleeing shortages of basics, spiraling inflation and insecurity back home.

Renacer - or ‘Rebirth’ - is a national charity that for 30 years has helped youths rebuild lives shattered by sexual violence and exploitation.

Vergara Pérez, a veteran staffer, set up its shelter in Riohacha, La Guajira. Of 40 children in the organization’s new home, around half are Venezuelans. Some were forced into sexual exploitation by extreme poverty; others fell victim to trafficking rings. 

Pérez says those arriving have “no dreams” and shun affection. Slowly, the children adapt to their new environment and - surrounded by supportive adults and other children with similar experiences - they process the past and plan new futures. Some Renacer graduates have gone onto successful careers as chefs, lawyers, doctors and accountants.

From the Venezuelan borders to camps hosting South Sudanese in Uganda, and the sprawling Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, battles against exploitation and trafficking are being fought.

Those forced to flee and unable to cross borders safely and access asylum are often driven - from desperation - to make irregular border crossings facilitated by trafficking or smuggling gangs, illegal armed groups and other criminals. Tragically, women and girls are frequently forced to pay their way through sexual servitude, while others are lured and trapped by promises of lucrative work.

Data on such exploitation are patchy and difficult to obtain, making the true scale of this phenomena unknown. But the field offices of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, receive a steady flow of related reports and allegations. The mobility and canniness of the perpetrators and their ability to exploit the chaos of displacement, coupled with the challenge in identifying cases, make prosecutions hard.

Even with patchy statistics, there is evidence - often anecdotal or from field reports - suggesting that COVID-19’s lockdowns, economic hardship and closed or restricted borders have exacerbated the often-intertwined problems of trafficking and sexual abuse. Movement curbs and restricted services may confine victims, limiting their ability to escape or speak out. Deepening poverty forces some to beg or engage in survival sex to sustain their families.

Parts of Latin America have alarming rates of trafficking and sexual abuse of women and girls; reports of trafficking of Venezuelan refugees and migrants, especially children, are widespread.

Partly linked to the influx, the number of human trafficking victims identified in Colombia, between 2015- 2019, climbed 23%. The majority are young females, with 63% aged 10-30. Colombian authorities also reported an increase of 20% in foreign national victims of trafficking in the first four months of 2020 against the whole of 2019. And in more than half the cases, sexual exploitation was the ultimate objective

Those displaced without legal status mostly live precariously, in the shadows. In Colombia, which hosts the largest numbers of Venezuelans, many lack status despite efforts by authorities. In La Guajira, the percentage of Venezuelans with irregular status is estimated at over 80%.

Their situation hinders legal and social protection and makes them ripe for exploitation. Identification and protection by national authorities and charities is difficult.

While UNHCR and humanitarian partners work daily on prevention and responses, a more robust commitment by states is needed to mitigate risks and ensure accountability. This requires ensuring access to asylum for people seeking safety, regularizing those that are undocumented, and creating additional legal pathways for refugees and migrants to enter host countries.

This year marks 20 years since the world’s first international, legally-binding instrument in this area, the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children – known as the Palermo Protocol.

Other regional and domestic legal instruments and mechanisms have been developed, along with a body of soft law, and the creation of a special rapporteur to shine a light on the issue.

There is much to do, especially gathering and harmonizing data, resourcing victims’ supporters and bolstering transnational legal co-operation to bring perpetrators to justice.

The time is right to urge states to give full backing to the Protocol to recognize the multiple facets of trafficking, promote full respect of victims’ rights and intensify the fight against trafficking.

Back in Riohacha, Perez continues her tireless and dangerous work scouring remote communities to find victims, bring them to safety and conduct therapy, group sessions and educational activities to create the space and support for trauma recovery.

To recognise this contribution -- and the work of countless others across the world fighting trafficking and sexual abuse -- UNHCR is today awarding Mayerlín its annual Nansen Award for the protection of refugees, displaced and stateless people.