While most migrants in the illicit human trafficking trade enter Trinidad and Tobago via plane through Piarco International Airport or through the south-west peninsula via boats from Venezuela, the majority of human trafficking activities in the country take place in central Trinidad.
This was revealed to the Sunday Guardian by Counter Trafficking Unit (CTU) sources.
But while central Trinidad was identified as the number one hotspot, sources said there were large numbers of reports of trafficking in places like Port-of-Spain, Tobago, east Trinidad, namely Arima, as well as other areas in south-east and south-west Trinidad.
According to the CTU sources, originally most human trafficking operations seemed to have taken place in establishments in Central that fronted as bars but were brothels, but now it is mostly perpetuated by people who use small businesses as fronts.
They said the information gathered suggests that those involved in the illicit trade range from the highest to the lowest members of society, as T&T has an increasing and seemingly insatiable appetite for commercial sex.
However, despite the thriving illicit trade, not a single person has been convicted of human trafficking offences since the implementation of the Trafficking in Persons Act in 2011.
“It’s Central where the most reports come from. Cunupia, and in different parts of Central. It’s mostly people who have small businesses. So they are running a spa or bar or a nightclub.
“You will do intel and you will collect different types of intel that you could do. Sometimes you get a report coming in and the report could come in through one of the police stations or something, or sometimes you may get relatives who are outside of the country trying to get contact through Interpol or the embassy and stuff to say they have this relative who is in that situation,” a Counter-Trafficking Unit source said.
According to CTU sources, the latest available data on the issue from the unit was made available in 2020 in the 18th Report of the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights, Equality and Diversity on Inquiry into the Treatment of Migrants with a specific focus on Rights to Education, Employment and Protection from Sexual Exploitation.
Between 2013 and 2019, the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service received 484 reports of human trafficking. Of those reports, a little more than half, 256, were investigated.
119 people were confirmed to be human trafficking victims, while 57 people were charged with human trafficking offences.
Only nine of the 57 people charged between 2013 and 2019 were committed to stand trial. That represented just 16 per cent of those charged.
“The CTU was of the view that the lack of convictions for human trafficking was not a true reflection of the current reality in Trinidad and Tobago,” an excerpt of the report stated.
“They attributed the zero conviction rate for the years 2016-2019 to the following challenges: The progress of human trafficking matters in courts; The Judiciary decides when and how all court matters are to be heard; Victims were often unwilling or unavailable to wait years for the start and completion of court matters; and more judges and magistrates needed to be sensitised on how to treat with human trafficking cases and victims in court.”
Migration and human trafficking expert Dr Justine Pierre, who led a team conducting the Cariforum/Caricom Human Trafficking research project in 2019, said that nobody from the Government had contacted his team to discuss the human trafficking findings after it was released.
The report lists places where human trafficking occurred, the number of people involved in the trade, and the known human trafficking routes in the massive human trafficking ring.
More recently, the US Department of State’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report found that while the Government is making significant efforts, it does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.
As a result, the country was placed on the Tier 2 Watch list, meaning that as a jurisdiction T&T was not fully compliant, but making “significant efforts” to be compliant.
The report found that official complicity remained a significant concern.
23 new trafficking cases were investigated in 2021, including nine for sex trafficking and five for labour trafficking.
The prosecution of 15 suspected sex traffickers, including three police officers, was initiated in 2021. In 2020, two alleged traffickers were prosecuted.
“The Government has never convicted a trafficker under its 2011 anti-trafficking law. Corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action, and the Government did not take action against senior government officials alleged in 2020 to be involved in human trafficking.”
CTU was not given enough resources by Govt
According to the 2022 report, “The CTU was responsible for trafficking investigations in all jurisdictions but lacked sufficient funding, staffing resources, and expertise to adequately fulfil its mandate.”
The findings that the CTU lacked sufficient resources were corroborated by the former director of the unit, Alana Wheeler.
She said in the last two years as director—2021 and 2022—the unit received $2 million in funding per annum. In a previous year, she received $6 million.
Wheeler said while all government departments want more resources, the Counter Trafficking Unit is too small and understaffed to deal with such a large problem as human trafficking.
“You have commercial sex that is so rampant in Trinidad. So once you have commercial sex, and it’s rampant, and a high demand for commercial sex, you will have trafficking…They really need to put more energy and effort into it. You had a Counter Trafficking Unit without a director for eight months. What does that say?
“I will say for sure that the unit that was established was never really equipped with all the resources it required, in terms of staffing, human resources, and also the finances and funding to really provide an adequate response at the government level…At a government level, the unit set-up was not provided with the resources in terms of human resources and staffing,” Wheeler said in a phone interview with the Sunday Guardian.
The former CTU director said the plan of action put forward by the unit during her tenure took two years to be approved by the Government, while it took three years to open a shelter for migrant children.
And as a result of insufficient resources during her tenure, she said, they did not have basic things like specialist shelters or adequate psychological services available for victims.
“The politicians are the ones who allocate resources and prioritise what is important at the national level. So if the priority is given to climate change, that’s where the resources will go. If priority is given to disaster management, that’s where it will go. So they are the ones really prioritising the budget; the national budget.
“So I think I know funds were allocated to the last plan of action. I’m not sure how much funds were allocated, but it was Cabinet approved and they did allocate funds. So, you want to see that. And at the policing level too, you want to see more efforts from the law enforcement perspective. Not just the police but you have immigration that is working on this issue because we are dealing with migrants, a lot of migrants as victims. But then you have complicity. So you don’t know how much of that is really affecting that push,” she said.
Wheeler served as CTU director from 2016 to July 2022. For six years, she functioned as both the deputy director and director of the unit. The unit remained without a director for eight months after she left, Wheeler said.
In January, Dr Samantha Chaitram was appointed as the CTU’s new director.
History of trafficking charges
• ↓In January 2015, Anthony Smith of Tunapuna was charged with human trafficking after police raided a house in Arouca.
• ↓In 2015, Sandy Bedase-Andrews and Eli Sylvester, who allegedly worked at a once well-known establishment in Chase Village, Chaguanas, were charged with human trafficking.