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UN expert on human trafficking finalizes country visit to Uruguay

17 September 2010

Following an invitation by the Uruguayan government the Special Rapporteur on human trafficking, especially women and children, Ms. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo conducted a fact finding mission to Uruguay which took place from 13 to 17 September 2010.

The Special Rapporteur would like to thank the government of Uruguay for its openness and cooperation throughout this mission which enabled her to obtain information regarding the situation of human trafficking in the country especially as it relates to the current legislative framework and programmes to combat trafficking in persons.

During her mission the Special Rapporteur met in Montevideo with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minster of Labour, and high government officials of the following ministries: Interior, Tourism, Social Development, Education (including the Director for Human Rights), the National Women’s Institute (Inmujeres) and the National Institute for Children and Adolescents (INAU). Ms. Ezeilo further met with the National Police, including immigration officials, the chief police of Montevideo, the INTERPOL office, the Captain of the Port of Montevideo, parliamentarians, the Supreme Court of Justice, judges and the prosecutor of the specialised court, other members of the judiciary as well as civil society organisations.

Ms. Ezeilo also travelled to the cities of Colonia, Paysandu and Young, where she met with local authorities such as the governors of Colonia and Paysandu, local police forces and port authorities, officials of departmental delegations of the Ministry of Social Development and the INAU, local judges, prosecutors, lawyers and non governmental actors.

Undoubtedly the world is confronted today with a huge human trafficking problem equally driven as in the case of globalization by markets (demand and supply are not in short fall). Women, children and men too are victims of what has become a transnational organized crime. Thus, it has been described as the fastest growing criminal activity in the world. Almost every country of the world is affected either as a source, transit, and/or destination country for women, children, and men trafficked for the purposes of sexual or labour exploitation (domestic servitude and bonded labour). Trafficking occurs within and across national borders, often with one consignment of people crossing many borders to reach their final destination.

In recognition that human trafficking is a grave violation of human rights, in particular the right to liberty, human dignity, and the right not to be held in slavery or involuntary servitude, the Special Rapporteur welcomes some positive measures taken by the government of Uruguay such as the ratification of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and other relevant human rights instruments including the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its two Optional Protocols, and the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

Uruguay has also enacted domestic legislation against human trafficking, including the Immigration Law (Law 18.250/2008) which establishes penalties against both human smuggling (Article 77) and human trafficking (Article 78) and the Law on sexual violence against children, adolescents and the disabled (Law 17.815). These two laws cover the definitions put forward both by the Palermo Protocol and by the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

The Special Rapporteur welcomes the establishment, in 2008 of the Inter-institutional Roundtable to address trafficking of women for sexual exploitation, which is presided by the National Women’s Institute (Ministry of Social Development) and representatives from several Ministries, judges, prosecutors and public defendants, civil society organisations and international organisations. Other efforts carried out by the government include the establishment in 2008 (Law 18.390) of a specialized criminal prosecutors’ office to address the issue of organised crime, including trafficking in persons and the establishment of a National Committee to prevent sexual exploitation of children.  

The Special Rapporteur also welcomes the existence of a law on domestic work (Law 18.065/06), which establishes the rights and regulates the working conditions of domestic workers; and a law on rural work (Law 18.441/09) which establishes, amongst other rights, a working day of 8 hours for rural workers involved in the agricultural sector.

Nevertheless, during her mission the Special Rapporteur encountered the following issues of concern:

  • There is a lack of statistical information to determine the prevalence rate, forms, trends and manifestation of human trafficking in Uruguay. This has caused the phenomenon to remain invisible and unacknowledged amongst the population and the authorities.
  • Although adequate legislation is in place, sexual exploitation of children, especially girls, is extremely common, socially and culturally tolerated in the country. This occurs particularly amongst the most excluded sectors of the population, who resort to prostitution, even child prostitution, as a way to overcome their dire economic situation. Movement or operations of traffickers is clandestine which makes detection difficult. However when communities and families are involved in the human trafficking chain, as found in Uruguay it makes the situation far more complex.
  • Human trafficking is a pervasive phenomenon in the country, yet it remains invisible due to the low number of cases that have been filed through judicial complaints. The nature of human trafficking as an offence is such that it is usually (though not always) committed by organized criminal groups, which obviously increases the likelihood of retaliation against the victim or his or her family members. Consequently, the lack of witness protection adds to the reluctance to report the crime of trafficking by victims and other whistle blowers. Since witnesses are invariably required to secure convictions in trafficking cases and the victims are almost always the principal witnesses in such cases, the need to protect them in the prosecution of trafficking offences is essential.
  • Although special prosecutors have been appointed, there have been very few convictions related to trafficking in persons and, in most of these cases, initial prosecution was carried out to investigate other crimes such as drug trafficking or pimping.
  • There is low awareness, knowledge and skills amongst government authorities to identify cases of trafficking in persons and this institutional weakness has helped conceal the problem. The work that is currently being carried out by government institutions is still at a very preliminary level.
  • Although Law 18.250 penalizes human trafficking, it does not provide for assistance and redress to victims. The lack of adequate services, such as shelters, medical, psychological and legal services, and the right to an effective remedy places victims at an increased risk of falling once again into the prey of traffickers.
  • Trafficking for labour exploitation is an unrecognised phenomenon in the country even though there are increasing reports of exploitation of foreign workers in fishing vessels, citrus fields and the wood industry.
  • There is a prevalence of violence against women and girls and a lack of appropriate shelters for victims of domestic violence and also victims of trafficking, including hotlines and absence of rapid response.

Some preliminary recommendations to the Government of Uruguay include:

  1. There is need for in-depth research on the subject and government should strive to enhance its data collection capacities working in collaboration with UN agencies, as well as encourage the systematic collection of age and gender disaggregated information on trafficking in persons and the related subject of migration.
  2. Widespread campaigns should be launched to raise public awareness on this issue using media, ICT and other channels of communication in order to send a strong message against the cultural acceptance of both human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. Government prevention strategies must also address demand as a root cause and ensure that its interventions address the factors that increase vulnerability to trafficking, including inequality, poverty and all forms of discrimination and prejudice.
  3. Government is urged as a matter of urgency to take decisive action to eradicate child prostitution and exploitation with regards to the rights and best interests of the child as adumbrated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Pornography.
  • A comprehensive, holistic and integrative national plan of action on combating trafficking in persons should be designed, which clearly sets out strategic objectives, allows the cooperation among state authorities and between them and civil society organisations, and produces measurable indicators as well as monitoring and evaluation tools.
  • The government should consider the establishment of a national agency to address human trafficking which will enhance coordination, not only amongst governmental institutions, but also between them and authorities at departmental levels.
  1. Training and capacity building should be continually provided to all State authorities particularly law enforcement officials, including the police, judiciary, prosecutors, immigration, and labour inspectors. There should also be training for Consular officials, especially in Spain and Italy and other main countries of destination of victims of trafficking, to enhance their capacity to detect, identify and make necessary referrals.
  2. The government should increase the number of personnel of the specialized court on organized crime, which is also in charge of dealing with trafficking cases, and scale up the resources, including training, required to enhance its effectiveness throughout the country.
  3. The judiciary should establish adequate mechanisms for witness protection and access to justice for victims, their families and civil society actors who might be assisting them.
  4. The government should strengthen its efforts to tackle the root causes that make potential victims more vulnerable to human trafficking such as social exclusion and discrimination of adolescents, high rates of school dropouts and adolescent work in unregulated and exploitative conditions. Importantly the government should create alternatives including employment, educational and training opportunities for livelihood sustainability.
  5. More stringent inspection of brothels and other businesses should be guaranteed to ensure that absolutely no person under the age of 18 is engaged in prostitution and that trafficking victims are not sexually exploited in the sex industry.
  6. The Ministry of Tourism should monitor the compliance by hotels, agencies and other tourist operators of the agreements it has signed with them regarding the prohibition of Child Sex Tourism.
  7. Direct assistance to victims of trafficking requires resources and where the government is not providing such services (including shelter, compensation to victims as part of access to justice and right to effective remedy) it should fund the non-governmental organizations that provide them. Overall adequate resources should be allocated to enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of governmental anti-trafficking initiatives.

In conclusion the Special Rapporteur wishes to state that Uruguay is a source, transit and destination country and the government needs to recognize this in order to develop a comprehensive and effective response towards combating trafficking. Its citizens (Uruguayans) are trafficked to Europe mainly Spain and Italy for commercial sexual exploitation and there is also indication of trafficking in boys for sporting activities. Uruguay has become a transit country for smugglers and traffickers seeking to transport their victims to Europe and the Americas. Furthermore, as a destination country Uruguay is linked also to trafficking for labour exploitation usually in the agricultural sector, which includes fishery. Internal trafficking for exploitation of children especially girls is on the increase and unfortunately there appears to be an unacceptable cultural tolerance for this type of sexual exploitation, which usually involves families living on the margin of the society, socially and economically excluded. The Special Rapporteur has found that there are prevailing social, cultural, economic, legal and developmental dynamics that shape the demand and facilitate the trafficking process in Uruguay.

Trafficking in persons is intertwined with other criminal activities such as smuggling, drugs and arms trafficking. Uruguay like many countries within the Latin American region has to confront organized crime. The Mecorsur, of which Uruguay is a member State has also provided a unique opportunity for fighting trafficking and other organized crime that also heighten human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Currently Uruguayan borders are too porous and may encourage traffickers and other organized criminals. Therefore, the Uruguayan government should strengthen its border control using new technologies to aid efforts at combating trafficking.

Finally, Uruguay is urged to promote international cooperation including public-private partnerships to combat all forms of trafficking in persons, especially women and children.
A full report on the findings of this mission will be submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2011.


Ms. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo assumed her functions as Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially in women and children on 1 August 2008. Ms. Ezeilo is a human rights lawyer and professor at the University of Nigeria. She has also served in various governmental capacities, including as Honourable Commissioner for Ministry of Women Affairs & Social Development in Enugu State and as a Delegate to the National Political Reform Conference. She has consulted for various international organisations and is also involved in several NGOs, particularly working on women’s rights. She has published extensively on a variety of topics, including human rights, women’s rights, and Sharia law.  Ms Ezeilo was conferred with a national honour (Officer of the Order of Nigeria, OON) in 2006 by Mr. President Olusegun Obasanjo (GCFR) for her work as a human right defender.

Learn more about the mandate and activities of the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children: