By Shermain Bique-Charles
Until Antigua and Barbuda successfully convicts someone for human trafficking, the country will most likely remain at tier two on the international ranking system.
Tier two countries are those whose governments do not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance.
Tier one countries’ governments fully comply with the US Act’s minimum standards.
John McKinnon, a member of the local Trafficking in Persons Prevention Committee, said it is very difficult to convict people for human trafficking in Antigua and Barbuda for several reasons – not least the cross-border nature of the crime.
“The investigations are quite protracted…we have to work with similar agencies in the source country and we have to be gathering information,” he explained.
McKinnon was speaking in observance of yesterday’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.
He said most victims are repatriated to their original country.
“We have never had a victim who has elected to remain in Antigua and Barbuda. So, when the case is called, we have to track down that victim and getting them to come back to testify has proven difficult in the past,” he added.
Laws were recently amended to allow virtual court testimonies, a decision that McKinnon said will help “tremendously”.
“We have made a lot of progress but until we have at least one conviction, it is going to be extremely difficult to get to tier one,” he said.
Still, McKinnon believes that the country has made great strides in recent years.
“The population are better at recognising possible human trafficking. We are getting more reports and we are investigating…the public has been coming forward,” he said.
According to the latest Trafficking in Persons Report from the US State Department, a small number of women from Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic are brought to Antigua and Barbuda, specifically for forced prostitution.
To a lesser extent, the report said Antigua and Barbuda is reportedly also a destination country for women subjected to involuntary domestic servitude in private homes.
“Most of the human trafficking victims are women and most of the cases that we have seen here are sexual exploitation. We have had one recent domestic servitude case and that too was a female,” McKinnon said.
The detailed report also claimed that business people from the Dominican Republic, along with Antiguan citizens acting as pimps and brothel owners, subject foreign women to forced prostitution primarily in four illegal brothels that operate in Antigua as well as in private residences that double up as brothels.
Some of these foreign women, according to the report, voluntarily migrate to Antigua to engage in prostitution but are subsequently subjected to force or coercion and become victims of sex trafficking.
And, after their arrival, brothel managers confiscate their passports and threaten the victims with deportation until they repay the brothel owner for travel and other expenses they were not aware they had incurred.
Some other foreign victims of sex trafficking enter the country legally with work permits as “entertainers” then are subsequently forced to engage in prostitution, the report stated.
McKinnon is advising victims of human trafficking to reach out to the authorities who are ready and able to assist them.
“Call any police station. Walk into the station. Dial 911. Once a victim is identified we are responsible for their protection and meeting their needs, whether its food, lodging, counselling, healthcare…we look after everything,” he added.
The theme for this year’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons focused on the first responders to human trafficking, including counsellors and those who seek justice for victims.