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Who are the victims of human trafficking?

“The other girls and I were arrested over and over for prostitution. Never did the police or prosecutors ask us if we were trafficked. Never did they offer us help and protection.”

Human rights Chief Navi Pillay hosts a special event on human trafficking - © UN Photo/ Evan SchneiderThese were the words of Kikka Cerpa, speaking at the United Nations in New York, as she told the harrowing story of how she survived being a victim of human trafficking.

“I am telling my story to help other trafficking victims around the world,” she said. “We need to train police officers and prosecutors so they can identify and protect victims.”

“When I asked the policeman to help me, he told me my ‘boyfriend’ would give me a ride home,” said Rachel Lloyd. This was despite the fact that she was nowhere near home but in another country entirely, with no shoes, no passport, no money and no way to escape from her ‘boyfriend’ who was in fact forcing her into prostitution.

Rachel and Kikka were not only victims of trafficking but were also denied the protection and assistance they needed because they were not seen as victims. “Who’s going to believe a whore?” asked Kikka rhetorically, pointing to the paradox of their situation.

They, together with other victims who were trafficked for sexual and labour exploitation, were testifying at the special UN event “Giving Voice to the Victims and Survivors of Human Trafficking” in the hope that governments will do more to prevent human trafficking and to help the survivors.

But governments are not paying adequate attention to the need for properly identifying victims, according to Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons. This is despite the ready existence of toolkits and training manuals that could be utilized to train law enforcement and other officials.

“The first step in providing trafficked victims with protection and assistance is their proper identification,” the Special Rapporteur told the UN General Assembly. “Failure to do so leaves the victims open to being charged or prosecuted for their activities.”

Unfortunately, “in some cases, victims are simply treated as criminals and arrested and deported with no opportunity to be identified and provided with the necessary assistance,” she said. In addition, “screening procedures sometimes woefully fail to respect the rights of the victims to privacy and confidentiality.”

Trafficking itself violates the most fundamental of our human rights: “the right to life, to equality, dignity and security; the right to health; the right to freedom of movement, freedom from violence and abuse; and the right to be recognized as a person before the law,” said High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.

“These are rights to which every human being is entitled, without discrimination.” Speaking at the special UN event organized by her Office featuring the testimony of four survivors of human trafficking, Pillay said that trafficking involves practices prohibited in every country including slavery, debt bondage, forced labor and sexual exploitation.

“Trafficking in persons has reached devastating dimensions worldwide,” said Ruchira Gupta, journalist and anti-trafficking activist, who moderated the special event. “In the last 10 years the nature and scale of trafficking has undergone a dramatic change.”

“Although available statistics are limited and contested, the existing data has served to highlight that the numbers of trafficked individuals have gone up and the ages of the trafficked have come down.” Worldwide, about 20% of trafficked victims are children and the majority of those trafficked are women and girls. It is estimated that the number of enslaved persons as a result of trafficking at any given time in the world today is 12.3 million. This is more than the number of people held in slavery in the 19th century, Gupta observed.

“One of the main reasons for the spurt in trafficking in this decade is the demand for trafficked people,” she said, “from end-users to those who make a profit from the trade. End-users are buyers of trafficked people and traffickers - those who make a profit from selling people - pimps, recruiters, sweat shop and brothel owners.”

“We need to address the ‘root causes’ of trafficking,” said the High Commissioner. “Likewise, we must shed light on the ‘demand’ side of trafficking, particularly on those social, political and economic forces that develop and sustain a market for trafficking.”

“Any serious attempt by the international community to respond to trafficking must acknowledge that this practice is the hidden, shameful part of a broader global market in which all of us are, in some way, involved,” she said.

5 November 2009