According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), human trafficking is the “third most lucrative business for organized crime,” and the 2021 Global Organized Crime Index has shown that Central America has become a hub for the world’s “most profitable criminal economies.” However, Panama is one of the countries in the region working towards fighting human trafficking, In 2019, there were 61 detected cases of human trafficking compared with 46 in the previous year. These are four essential facts to know about human trafficking in Panama.
4 Facts about Human Trafficking in Panama
- The Darien Gap – The Darien Gap is the uninhabitable rainforest region separating Colombia and Panama. Every year, thousands of migrants attempt to reach the United States and North America in hopes of fleeing civil unrest and violence. According to UNICEF’s 2022 records, around 32,500 children have walked through this region, with half being younger than 5 years old. The hostile terrain and lack of infrastructure have made the journey one of the most dangerous routes where lawlessness is rife. Additionally, this has been a route for human trafficking since 2010.
- Targeted Demographic – According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are roughly 13,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Panama, which leaves thousands at risk of being exploited. Venezuelans (as of October 2022, there are approximately 145,9000 living in Panama) and Haitians fleeing civil unrest (who accounted for 80% of those trying to cross the Darien Gap in 2021) make up a substantial portion. The agency is committed to protecting their rights and helping those at risk. In 2022, for example, more than 2,300 refugees received multipurpose cash vouchers which helped meet basic needs. Many victims of human trafficking in Central America were women and girls experiencing sexual exploitation. A submarket has been identified in Panama where women are “trafficked from far afield to cater for wealthier interests.”
- Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) – The TVPA is a U.S. law that gives the government resources to “mount a comprehensive and coordinated campaign to eliminate modern forms of slavery domestically and internationally.” Panama currently has a Tier 2 which means that the government is not meeting the minimum requirements to eradicate human trafficking in the country but is making significant improvements.
- The ‘3 P’s’ Framework: Protection, prosecution and prevention are TVPA assessment criteria. The U.S. Department of State publishes a report annually, an assessment of the country’s attempts to reduce human trafficking. The report also outlines example methods for each section of the framework. Panama has the most success under the prevention section. These actions included: raising awareness in 2020 through seminars, television and radio channels, a public phone hotline (311) for people to report cases, and increased coordination meetings.
TVPA is just one example of an essential piece of legislation currently in place to tackle human trafficking in Panama. Governments and global organizations are coming together to raise awareness and actively change rates of human trafficking. Below are two examples of campaigns working within Panama to do so.
- The International Organization for Migration (IOM) – The IOM is a United Nations organization with operations in Panama. Its purpose is to execute projects that prevent human trafficking and improve security. For example, in June 2021, training sessions were organized to raise awareness for government officials and officers at entry points. Over 100 civil servants in different regions in Panama were trained. Idiam Osorio (an IOM Senior Project Assistant based in Panama) has spoken out in favor of educating and training officials, especially as it is ‘’one of the great challenges in the fight again human trafficking.’’ Health, legal support, emergency, and post-crisis support are other areas in which the IOM supports vulnerable communities.
- The Blue Heart Campaign against Human Trafficking – Panama joined this campaign in 2014 to raise awareness against human trafficking, becoming one of 30 countries officially supporting this program. The Blue Heart Campaign is the leading advocacy campaign of UNODC. The method of raising awareness is through sharing stories and testimonies of victims. Mobilization of key organizations (such as governments, NGOs and the media) is another significant aim of the movement to combat human trafficking in Panama. For example, Rodolfo Aguilera (Minister of Public Security) and Aldo Lale-Demoz (UNODC Deputy Executive Director Aldo Lale-Dermoz) launched this campaign together with other officials present in Panama. President Juan Carlos Varela signed the Blue Heart Pact to symbolize his administration’s pledge to tackle trafficking. The logo is also important to note because it represents solidarity with victims and the cold-heartedness of criminals. The U.N.’s brand color is blue, again showing the U.N.’s dedication to the campaign.
Current actions toward change seem promising. Hopefully, in the future, human trafficking in Panama will be eradicated and meet all the criteria of Tier 1 of TVPA by implementing systems that will prevent future cases for good.
– Taran Dhillon