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COSTA RICA: (In)human Trafficking

Daniel Zueras

SAN JOSÉ, Apr 15 2010 (IPS) - The rescue in a Costa Rican port of 36 Asians working as slaves in appalling conditions on two fishing boats once again highlighted the need to fight people trafficking in this Central American country.

Costa Rica is a transit point as well as a destination and point of origin for people caught up in trafficking rings, said Ana Hidalgo, head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) regional counter-trafficking unit for Central America and Mexico.

The victims are not only taken to “traditional” destinations like Canada, the United States and Europe, but are also transported within Central America for the purposes of sexual exploitation, she told IPS.

The 36 Asians rescued by the police in the Pacific port of Puntarenas on Apr. 10 were subjected to labour exploitation on two fishing boats.

The 15 Vietnamese, 13 Indonesians, five Filipinos, two Taiwanese and one Chinese national said they were forced to work up to 20 hours a day, and were regularly flogged. They were underfed and had never been paid.

The four individuals arrested in connection with the case, from Taiwan and Costa Rica, are facing charges of human trafficking, which carries a penalty of between eight and 16 years in prison. Their release on bail after less than 48 hours in custody caused a public outcry in Costa Rica.

In the last few months, trafficking networks that send people to Europe, sometimes through Costa Rica, have also been uncovered in Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Human trafficking generates an estimated 32 billion dollars a year in illicit profits, making it the world’s third most lucrative illegal activity after drugs and arms trafficking, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines human trafficking as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 80 percent of the victims, mainly women and girls, are forced into prostitution. The remaining 20 percent, usually men and boys, face forced labour. Worldwide, around 20 percent of victims of human trafficking are minors.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports that at least 2.4 million of an estimated 12.3 million victims of forced labour worldwide had also been subjected to human trafficking.

Police collusion with trafficking rings facilitates such crimes. “The worse enemy of organised crime is an honest police force,” Minister of Public Security Janina del Vecchio remarked to IPS.

For that reason, her work has focused on purging the police in Costa Rica, she said.

Drug trafficking organisations have “diversified their activities,” branching out into human trafficking, because similar routes and mechanisms are used for both, said the IOM’s Hidalgo.

The government of this country known as “the Switzerland of Central America” because of its strong democracy and relatively high standard of living has made efforts to get the situation under control.

In October, it created an office on trafficking in persons and promotion of human development, under the Ministry of Public Security.

Costa Rica also has a victim and witness protection and assistance law and programme. However, victims are rarely allowed to stay in the country.

Although “each time a victim of trafficking seeks asylum, the request is studied carefully,” very few applications are actually approved, due to the country’s lack of funds, del Vecchio said.

For her part, Hidalgo said the government’s policies “have been strengthened, but still fall short.”

Under Costa Rica’s new immigration law that went into effect on Mar. 1, migrant smugglers or “coyotes” face stiffer prison terms.

The aim is to convince immigrants, especially from neighbouring Nicaragua – this country’s main source of migrants – “that it is much easier to come in legally,” and enjoy the right to a minimum wage and social security coverage, del Vecchio said.

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