Young girls in Trinidad and Tobago are being lured by human traffickers with promises of a better life and many children are being exploited for sex.
So said Alana Wheeler, Director of the Counter Trafficking Unit at the Ministry of National Security, as she called for sensitisation and raising awareness in the fight against human trafficking and saving the lives of young people.
Wheeler was speaking at a workshop on Friday to mark Human Trafficking Awareness month hosted by the CHOICE (Creating a Holistic Option for the Intervention of Child Exploitation) Foundation at the Scarborough library.
“No young girl would say she wanted to be a prostitute or sex worker when she grows up,” Wheeler said, to an audience of secondary school students, guidance counsellors, social workers and caregivers,
She said two challenges in the fight against human trafficking were lack of awareness and fear.
“People need to be aware of predators - and the predators can be sex predators or paedophiles - and really be aware of things happening in their environment by people who would try to recruit them or coerce them or even lure them into engaging in activities that may lead to their exploitation.
“That exploitation may not necessarily be trafficking, it can be sexual abuse, it can be engaging in child pornography, it can be engaging in any type of illegal activities like transporting an illegal item including drugs and weapons,” she said.
“We need to look out. We need to be aware and what to look out for that would raise those red flags. There is always room to raise awareness,” she added.
Wheeler urged parents and guardians to pay attention to their children, noting that they can be recruited anytime - during school, after school, online and even on the weekends. With the use of several videos, Wheeler showed her audience scenarios of sexual grooming and cyberstalking.
“Children are often targeted on social media… Traffickers target teens who are having trouble at home or with friends. Vulnerable children are particularly susceptible to sex trafficking as they feel disenchanted with their family and so become easy targets for predators.
“Look out for young people who are vulnerable. Their vulnerability can be not just in terms of money, vulnerability can be in terms of there is a need in their life so they need attention, they need a fatherly figure or fatherly love, supplies for school, they may be neglected by the parent or by the home or they may just need friendship or companionship,” she said.
Presiding Officer o the Tobago House of Assembly’s Legislature, Dr Denise Tsoifatt-Angus, in an address at the event, said she was appalled at the number of cases of human trafficking worldwide, nationally and in Tobago, both from the perspective of victims and facilitators of the crime.
Commending CHOICE for hosting the workshop and putting the matter of human trafficking at the forefront of their 2019 agenda, Tsoiafatt Angus said “one person missing is one too many and one perpetrator living amongst us is definitely one too many.”
Friday’s workshop was the second day of a two-day programme by CHOICE whose members has the day before visited primary schools across the island to help develop awareness.
CHOICE’s Chief Executive Officer, Cavelle Mills, said she was hopeful the initiative would create an avenue for young people to be more aware of their surroundings, general safety and being more vocal on the issue.
“Our intention is to bring awareness to these students and teachers on the topic. This will also aid in the reduction of exploited and missing children in Tobago,” Mills said.