Human Trafficking in Panama
Panama, among other countries in Central America, is “a path to displacement for South American and extra-continental migrants,” says the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC). According to the U.S. Department of State’s trafficking profile of Panama, human traffickers exploit both domestic and foreign victims 

 What to Know About Human Trafficking

Each year, the Department of State issues trafficking persons reports for each country. The U.S. Department of State makes it clear that human traffickers prey on all ages, genders, nationalities and backgrounds for profit. Homeland Security defines human trafficking as the “use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” The International Labor Organization (ILO) released Global Estimates of Modern Day Slavery in September 2022. The Global Estimates of Modern Day Slavery estimated 27.6 million victims worldwide at any given time in 2021.

It is important to know that two main categories fall under human trafficking including forced labor and sex trafficking. Within each category, there are three elements including acts, means and purpose that are essential in forming a human trafficking violation. It embodies an array of activities that involve coercion, fraud or force to exploit labor. Domestic servitude falls under forced labor in which a victim is working in a private residence. Under this umbrella is also forced child labor, where children are compelled to work under traffickers’ forced labor schemes.

Similar to labor trafficking, children fall victim to sex trafficking. Sex trafficking occurs when one uses force, fraud or coercion to pressure one into commercial sex acts. In cases where the individual is under 18, the means element is extraneous regardless of evidence of force, fraud or coercion, prohibiting the use of children in commercial sex acts in the U.S. and many other countries.

Human Trafficking in Panama

While most cases involve women from South and Central America, this does not exclude men, children and other individuals. Panama’s National Anti-Trafficking Commission reported 16 confirmed trafficking victims in 2021. Of the 16 victims, seven were sex trafficking victims and the other nine were labor trafficking victims.

Panama’s government indicated that more than two-thirds of Panama’s traffickers are foreign nationals from the People’s Republic of China, Columbia and Venezuela. Of the traffickers in Panama, about half are men. In the trafficking profile, it mentioned that children tend to be exploited by traffickers into domestic servitude and sex trafficking in Panama.

The government slightly decreased prosecution efforts for human trafficking in Panama. One can see the decrease in prosecution in three articles. Article 456 of the penal code does not criminalize all forms of sex and labor trafficking because there needs to be movement to initiate a trafficking offense. Trafficking offenses involving adults resulted in 15 to 20 years imprisonment, while offenses involving children are 20 to 30 years. This article conflicts with international law because it relies on fraud, force and coercion rather than the three essential elements.

Article 180 criminalizes commercial sex exploitations with seven to nine years imprisonment with a fine of 5,200 balboas. Article 186 criminalizes commercial sex acts from a child with a five to eight-year sentence. These two articles offer a lighter sentence for sex traffickers by charging them with non-trafficking offenses.

Solving Human Trafficking in Panama

Different projects and campaigns are launching to solve the human trafficking problem in Panama. UNDOC launched a campaign to make September the month against human trafficking in Panama. In doing so, UNDOC and the Ministry of Security (MINSEG) joined forces in a joint project to establish a shelter for human trafficking victims, develop a booklet for shelter for victims and develop and implement a Master Training Plan that covers different areas in the public and private sectors.

UNDOC also founded the Blue Heart Prevention Campaign in four Central American countries including Panama, Guatemala, Costa Rica and El Salvador). The campaign’s objective is to raise awareness across the world about human trafficking as well as its effects on people and society through the stories of its victims. The Blue Heart Prevention Campaign is trying to prevent further cases while encouraging entities from the government, civil society and corporate sector to help.

The Blue Heart Prevention Campaign donates all proceeds to the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking Persons. This provides vital assistance and protection to victims of human trafficking.

In 2014, Panama joined the Blue Heart Prevention Campaign and is making small strides toward solving human trafficking in Panama. The campaign hosted the Blue Heart Gala Concert where music held great power in bringing individuals together in the fight against human trafficking. More than 600 people attended the concert where the country’s National Symphony Orchestra and the Nemeth Quartet from Turkey performed.

Looking Ahead

Supporters across the globe continue to raise money and awareness for victims of human trafficking in Panama, but it still is not enough. Panama has a ways to go to meet the required standards for the elimination of human trafficking. With more focus returned to the prosecution of traffickers, it is possible that Panama can reach the required standards that the U.S. Department of State.

Brianna Green
Photo: Flickr

Human Trafficking in Bangkok
According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Thailand is a “top destination for victims of human trafficking.” The majority of Thailand’s trafficking victims are voluntary economic migrants from countries like Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and China. They come only for the promise of a good job.

Without documentation, knowledge of Thailand or understanding of its language, they are vulnerable to traffickers. For the same reasons, it is nearly impossible for them to escape. Many are trapped in Thailand’s bustling capital of Bangkok, famous for its rich history, stunning architecture and thriving sex tourism industry.

Operation Graceland began with a tip-off by an Uzbek woman trafficked into prostitution at Bangkok’s Grace Hotel and desperate to return home. What followed was a police raid, the holding of 19 women and an investigation of all involved. In the end, only two of the detainees admitted to being trafficked. They identified their abusive ‘manager’ amongst the group, but after receiving word that their families had been threatened, they spoke favorably of her in court. She was released.

In 2002, there were an estimated 200,000 sex workers in Bangkok and the trade has grown. It is a lucrative job: women and men from poor families earn money to support their relatives, finance future aspirations or live a life of previously unknown affluence.

Though many are forced by circumstance, involvement in the sex industry is considered voluntary. Because there are so many willing sex workers in Bangkok, it is difficult to identify victims of trafficking. Officers are being trained to recognize trafficked workers. Do they work excessive hours? Do they have documentation? Are they of age?

But even if they manage a rescue, it is difficult to convict the perpetrators. Gangs threaten those rescued and their families, warning them against speaking out. Some victims hope that, by cooperating with their captors, they will be released with a small share of their earnings, all of which typically go to their slavers. Still others are undocumented migrants, who fear legal retribution for involving themselves in any legal affair.

In any case, testifying is risky, since many prosecutors base their arguments entirely on hearsay and the victim’s statements. Slavers are often released and the case against them deemed unsubstantial.

The prevalence of trafficking in Thailand and the legal support for victims have not improved enough for international recognition. In June, the United States dropped Thailand from tier two to tier three on the 2014
Trafficking in Persons report.

But the Thai government is making headway. In 2013, the number of trafficking cases investigated was double that of 2012. Nearly 750 victims received some form of assistance from the Thai government: most were referred to one of nine shelters run by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Thousands of public officers were trained on new anti-trafficking laws; ideally, they will offer victims the legal support they need and give them hope of a life once again in freedom.

-Olivia Kostreva

Sources: Bangkok Post, Time, UNIAP
Photo: Laura Leigh Parker