World Day against Trafficking in Persons – July 30th


Forty million women, girls, children, boys and men are trafficked within and across borders and jurisdictions in a multi-billion-dollar global business. The numbers are staggering, but they are only the tip of the iceberg given the hidden nature of trafficking.

In 2018, of the detected trafficked cases worldwide, 65 per cent were women and girls, 35 per cent were men and boys. The majority of women are relatively young, less than 26 years. Children are mostly 15 to 17 years old but can be young as ten.

While most of the detected cases of trafficking is for sexual exploitation (50%), forced labour accounted for about 38 percent.   Seventy seven percent of women and 72 percent of girls were trafficked for sexual exploitation while 14 per cent of women and 21 percent of girls were trafficked for forced labour.  Contrary to popularly held belief, exploitation by the state or private sector accounts for 78 percent of forced labour. Trafficking was also detected for criminal activity, forced marriage, begging, organ removal and selling of babies.

Sri Lanka is both a source and receiving country. It is a transit point for Nepali women subjected to forced labour in the Middle East. However, internal trafficking is more prevalent than external trafficking. Trafficking for commercial sex is the most common followed by trafficking for labour.   Traffickers exploit Sri Lankan men, women, and children into forced labour in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the United States in the construction, garment, and domestic service sectors and for commercial sexual exploitation.

Statistics are difficult to come by and have to be collated from several sources. During the period 2016 to 2018, 145 suspected traffickers were arrested or cautioned, 73 cases of trafficking were prosecuted while 20 were convicted. In 2018, 55 men and 12 women had been trafficked for forced labour, three women for sexual exploitation and a woman for organ removal. Two children, a girl and a boy had been trafficked for illegal adoption. Suspected number of victims for the period totaled 139. In 2019, the government initiated ten trafficking investigations (four sex trafficking and six forced labour) and 46 prosecutions (35 under the procurement statute), and the government secured seven case convictions of 10 traffickers. Hundred trafficking cases are pending prosecution under Sections 360(C) and 360(A) of the Penal Code.

Traffickers are usually trusted and known people who bring women from rural areas on the promise of a job in Colombo.

That was the case of Samanmali[1] from Galewala. Her uncle brought her to Colombo with the permission of her parents for a job in the city. But she was sold for 25,000 rupees to a man who ran a brothel.

In another case: when a neighbour heard that two sisters, who were still in school, were looking for jobs to help out their parents, he took them to the city saying that he can find work for them in a garment factory. In Colombo, they were looked after by his relatives. Things changed a few days later when the neighbour took them to Katunayake. They ended up in a house, were locked up and asked to do all the housework. They were never allowed to go out.

The overwhelming majority migrate to Gulf states. Migrant domestic and unskilled workers, whether documented or irregular, are at risk of trafficking.  Trafficking can happen during the recruitment process, in transit and at the destination. For instance, due to state-imposed regulatory requirements such as the family background report, women use irregular channels to migrate, making them undocumented workers susceptible to trafficking.

Forced labour comes within the definition of trafficking. Domestic workers who work in private places where labour laws do not apply are subject to exploitative work conditions.  Complaints made to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment show evidence of modern-day slavery-forced labour, non-payment or underpayment of contracted wages, forced prostitution. A common practice is the withholding of the passport and work permit by the employer curtailing movement, one way of sex trafficking. The majority of complaints in the period 2015-2018 were from female domestic workers followed by unskilled workers.

While slave-like conditions are prevalent in West Asian countries, women are trafficked into other countries too.

Kavita met Michael, a tourist, while she was working in a private company. He promised her a job in Singapore for a monthly salary of $300 with all facilities, time off and travel with his family. He paid the airfare and took her to Singapore to his house. But soon, she realized that he had duped her. Michael took her passport as soon as she arrived. She had to work seven days a week, at least 12 hours a day, sometimes more, even when she was sick. Michael paid her only US$100 a month, not the promised amount. She became a virtual prisoner.

Women migrate due to poverty, discrimination, indebtedness, lack of opportunities for upward mobility, problems with the spouse, domestic violence, family welfare and a better life. Traffickers prey on their vulnerability, capitalise on their eagerness to migrate, and ignorance.

Women from Thailand, Nepal, China, the Philippines, India, the former USSR and Russia are trafficked for sexual exploitation. They are usually found in spas, karaoke bars, massage parlours and high-end hotels.

The first prosecution in Sri Lanka on charges of human trafficking under the Penal Code (Amendment) Act, No. 16 of 2006 involves the trafficking of women from Uzebekstan.

Republic of Sri Lanka v. T.T. Banu and others

An Uzbek national married to a Sri Lankan woman had brought two Uzbek women to Sri Lanka promising them employment at a restaurant. On arrival, their passports had been confiscated and subsequently forced into prostitution. They were taken to hotels, houses and brothels by prior arrangement. One of these was a brothel located in a shopping complex in Colombo that was raided by the police. Inquiries by the Immigration Department and police concluded that the victims had been trafficked for prostitution.

The verdict was given in 2011.

Source: UNDOC.

[1]Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identity.

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