Ricky Martin

Trafficked children in our cities: Protecting the exploited in the Americas

There are an estimated 2.5 million people worldwide who have been trafficked into forced labour. Some 22 to 50 per cent of trafficking victims are children. The precise magnitude of the problem is difficult to ascertain because definitions vary and trafficking is a clandestine business. We do know that children are usually trafficked from rural to urban areas and that the forms of exploitation to which they are subjected – domestic servitude, sexual exploitation linked to tourism, and drug running, to name a few – are most common in highly populated places and on the streets.

For the most part, trafficking is denied or ignored – even if, by some estimates, it is a global industry with US$32 billion in annual profits from forced labour. Trafficked children toil behind the walls of private homes, hotel rooms and sweatshops – obscure places from which most never come forward for fear of prosecution or, for those who were taken across borders, deportation.

I was moved to join the fight against trafficking when I visited India in 2002. In 2006 I launched Llama y Vive (Call and Live), a campaign that established and promoted prevention and victim-protection hotlines. A first for the region when it was launched, the campaign has taken root in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru as well as in in the Hispanic community of Washington, D.C.

In my homeland of Puerto Rico, I collaborated with the University of Puerto Rico and the Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University on the first study of trafficking in the territory. Among other things, we learned that although the United States passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, there are no comprehensive local laws to combat this crime in Puerto Rico.

The testimonies we collected were heartbreaking but ultimately enabled us to recommend ways to end this noxious threat to our children and communities. One consequence of these recommendations will be the construction of a safe haven for children and young people in the coastal town of Loiza, where the incidence of trafficking is high.

To effectively address this scourge, we must begin by establishing a universal definition of trafficking. Child trafficking must be distinguished from human smuggling and the activities of organized crime. Doing so will help generate more specific data on which to base policies designed to protect children. Better information will also help ensure that people in general, and policymakers in particular, see all aspects of the problem – a key to mobilizing political support for adequate anti-trafficking legislation and enforcement.

Effective anti-trafficking laws must be passed in conjunction with work done by local protection offices. In order to do this, we urgently need governments, non-governmental organizations and multilateral agencies to work in concert to raise awareness, implement holistic training and guidance programmes for enforcement agencies and build effective systems to protect children and prosecute and punish perpetrators.

Finally, it is our responsibility to support survivors of trafficking. We must endeavour to create a safe environment that allows survivors to come forward despite the inherent difficulties. Policies must be revised to exempt identified victims of trafficking from persecution or deportation, and assistance must be provided to help their reintegration, including tracing families where appropriate. Some of these actions have already been initiated at the state and international levels.

It is easy to forget the silent and invisible – especially when they are lost among the masses in congested cities. For this reason, we must reinforce and develop effective solutions to put child trafficking at the top of the agenda. Taking action now can help address the root causes of trafficking, safeguarding children and defending their right to protection and social development.

Multiple Grammy winner, renowned international artist and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2003, Ricky Martin established the Ricky Martin Foundation to advocate for the well-being of children around the globe.

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