Human trafficking is rising as more and more migrant women flee the political and economic crises in Venezuela, becoming vulnerable to sexual slavery. With a severely depleted job market, migrants are often lured by false promises of paid work and security and taken to countries like Colombia, where their smugglers may physically restrain them. In these largely invisible situations, migrants are forced to work long hours with little to no pay, are indebted to their smugglers who helped them escape Venezuela, and are exposed to physical and psychological violence. Additionally, the smugglers deter these women from escaping by threatening to kill their families.
Around 4,500 Venezuelan sex workers are in Colombia; however, as sex work is legal in Colombia, it is often difficult to determine who entered sex work voluntarily and who was coerced. The Colombian Constitutional Court (CCC) recognized that sex workers are vulnerable and deserve protection without discrimination because they have the same rights as people in other industries. However, Venezuelan migrants, with no work authorization or proper documentation, do not receive these protections and are easy targets for criminal organizations taking advantage of the conditions in Venezuela. As of July 2018, the United Nations estimates that 2.3 million Venezuelans have migrated, with Colombia being the main recipient, which helps these illegal practices flourish. The political and economic crises in Venezuela have resulted in a dire refugee situation where migrants who feel powerless are forced into sex work to provide for their loved ones.
Since 2004, the United States has repeatedly found Venezuela noncompliant with U.S. standards for combatting human trafficking and maintaining victim protection and prevention efforts. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report, Venezuela has not fully met the minimum standards in its efforts to eliminate human trafficking. Although Venezuela has criminalized all forms of trafficking in women and girls, the government has not prosecuted traffickers or identified trafficking victims. As a result of Venezuela’s deteriorating economic situation with no anti-trafficking plan imposed by the government, the report affirms many people from Venezuela have been forced to flee to neighboring countries. While the report stated that Colombia fully meets the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking, it also noted that at least 600,000 Venezuelans migrated to Colombia since February 2018. Additionally, Bogota’s Women’s Secretary interviewed sex workers in Colombia and reported that thirty-five percent of people involved were from Venezuela and seventeen percent were forced into working in the industry. Colombia has struggled to identify and provide services to potential trafficking victims due to the cost and lack of resources to handle the rapid influx of migrants. Given the migrants’ vulnerable situation, sex trafficking is probably underreported.
Both Venezuela and Colombia have international legal obligations they should enforce domestically to address human trafficking. Both have ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children enacted on November 15, 2000, which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. State parties are obligated to adopt legislation that criminalizes trafficking in persons as defined by the Protocol and should provide assistance to protect victims of trafficking through identifying victims, enabling their concerns to be presented, and implementing measures to provide for physical and psychological recovery. Additionally, even though Venezuela denounced the American Convention on Human Rights in 2012, Colombia is still a state party with the legal obligation to prohibit all forms of slavery and trafficking in women, including forced labor that adversely affects the dignity and physical capacity of a person.
Moreover, both countries are parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which state similar rights. The three main legal obligations arising from these international human rights treaties are to criminalize trafficking in persons in domestic legislation; prevent, investigate, and prosecute criminals; and protect victims of trafficking, which both countries have struggled with according to the Trafficking in Persons Report. Additionally, the CCC ruled that Venezuelan sex workers are entitled to work visas by considering the reasons they decide to migrate to Colombia and the circumstances they may face if returned to Venezuela. As a result, Colombia should implement a legal framework that protects sex workers along with regulation to verify that they are not subjected to exploitative conditions, thus distinguishing human trafficking victims.
The political and economic crises in Venezuela are one of the main reasons Venezuelan migrants have fled to neighboring countries where they have been deceived by misleading work opportunities, exposing migrants to sexual slavery. Venezuela needs to work with the surrounding governments, including Colombia, by implementing international human rights treaties, prosecuting these criminal organizations at a local and international level, and encouraging law enforcement to follow the appropriate protocol when responding to human trafficking cases. Unfortunately, this largely invisible problem is disproportionately impacting women, targeting migrants and those vulnerable to sexual and gender based violence. Ultimately, the political and economic crises in Venezuela have to be resolved and more gender-focused legislation should be implemented for Venezuela to address and eliminate the conditions that lead to devastating exploitation of women.