• Tim Howe | Senior Regional Protection Specialist - IOM San Jose

Each year on 30 July, we commemorate World Day against Trafficking in Persons. This day serves as a reminder to all of us of the continued impact this heinous crime has on its victims and on societies at large. At its core, trafficking is a crime against persons involving extreme exploitation and traumatic levels of violence. Migrants have shown to be particularly at risk, including as traffickers take advantage of those migrants who are vulnerable due to their irregular status. Data collected by IOM and partners in the CTDC further show that in the Americas women and girls are disproportionately affected (80% of all victims identified in 2022) - especially for the purpose of sexual exploitation. 

This year´s theme “Reach every victim of trafficking, leave no one behind” is a clear call to action to all of us to double efforts to place victims at the core of all our actions.  Since the mid-1990s, IOM and its partners have provided protection and assistance to over 100,000 men, women and children, including those at risk of violence, exploitation and abuse. With important advances having been made over the years, the question remains: how can we better reach and protect victims, including in our region?  

1. Leveraging global and regional frameworks for a better response  

23 years after the adoption of the so-called Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in Persons, it is a remarkable achievement that most countries in our region have integrated the global trafficking definition in national legislation. In fact, many countries in North America, Central America and the Caribbean have taken additional steps to meet their obligations, for example through the adoption of ambitious national action plans that aim to address all aspects of counter-trafficking ranging from prevention and prosecution to protection. For Central America, Mexico and Dominican Republic, the Regional Coalition against Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants (CORETT, for its acronym in Spanish) stands out as a regional government mechanism to have adopted a Regional Action Plan addressing directly the cross-border realities of both, trafficking and smuggling.   

In the Americas, there is crucial momentum to step up the fight against trafficking of persons in the context of irregular migration with key global and regional frameworks adopted over the past years serving as great reference points in this regard. The Sustainable Development Goals make a direct reference to trafficking in their targets 5.2, 8.7, and 16.2 while the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration  (GCM) dedicates objective 10 to it, but also references trafficking in several other objectives – reflecting the need for a 360 degree response to address the crime.  

At regional level, the Regional Conference on Migration has over the years made the fight against both crimes a key tenant within its comprehensive collaboration. The LA Declaration on Migration and Protection likewise mentions both crimes as priorities with a clear commitment to respect the rights of all migrants and specifically of victims of trafficking.  

2. Focus on identification and referral  

In the annual Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage, the International Labour Organization (ILO), Walk Free and IOM found that at least 50 million people had been living in situations of modern slavery in 2022 with 28 million trapped in forced labour and 22 million in forced marriage. The report further notes that this number has risen significantly in between 2016-2021. As the report only looks at two specific forms of trafficking, these numbers are indeed an estimate regarding the actual (likely much higher) number of victims in the world.  

Problematically, numbers of reported actually identified victims are much lower compared to even the most conservative estimates: the annual 2023 US TIP report , for example, notes that in 2022 only 115,324 victims were identified by Governments across the globe. The statistic is even more concerning when looking at the few convictions of traffickers reported (5,577).   

To ensure that no victim is left behind, we need to increase public awareness on the crime, including how we can all act upon signs of it around us. At the same time, there is need for targeted training for those most frequently in direct contact with victims such as border guards, law enforcement officials, labour inspectors, health providers and social workers.  

However, we cannot stop there: it is key to build national collaboration systems, so that once identified victims can be referred to safety and protection. Victims of trafficking will frequently require medical and psychosocial support due to the violence and trauma they have been enduring. They will require protection from their traffickers, a safe space and legal services and ultimately will need to be supported to reintegrate into society. This requires linking different sectors in a common framework that centers on victims and follows recognized protection principles and standards.  

3. Extending our focus: new partnerships   

Finally, we need to look beyond traditional actors, including by promoting a stronger lead from within communities on countertrafficking. Trafficking directly links to social norms and community practices, including with respect to gender norms and child protection.  Empowering communities to develop targeted campaigns such as the Piénsalo 2 Veces campaign  which identify contextual root causes of trafficking and employ user-friendly language have shown greater impact than traditional mass campaigns. 

Similarly, the private sector has proven to be a crucial ally in the fight against trafficking as ethical recruitment and regular employment situations serve as firewalls against exploitation. IOM´s Corporate Responsibility in Eliminating Slavery and Trafficking (CREST) initiative is an example for support to businesses in upholding the human and labour rights of migrant workers in key sectors. We should continue building inclusive partnerships that complement and reinforce initiatives directly implemented by Governments.   

Finally, we need to remember that survivors themselves are the best voices to share on the realities and impact of trafficking, but can also be an inspiration through their resilience and commitment to disrupt and end the business of human traffickers and thereby prevent the crime all together. Only when we learn to listen to survivors of trafficking, we can live up to the central promise of the SDGs: to leave no one behind.