Putting a dollar value on the human trafficking industry in T&T is difficult because a lot of the trade happens behind closed doors.
But don’t be fooled by that, as an industry it is unfortunately, a burgeoning one here, director of this country’s Counter Trafficking Unit (CTU) Alana Wheeler has said.
Last year the CTU identified and confirmed at least 60 victims of human trafficking in T&T, Wheeler told the Business Guardian. This is the highest number the CTU has ever recorded since its establishment in 2013.
Last year’s figure was a more than 600 per cent increase from 2020 when only nine victims were confirmed.
The highest figure before last year was in 2019 when 41 victims were confirmed.
Wheeler said this increase coincided with the ongoing migrant crisis in neighbouring Venezuela.
“From around 2018 we started to see an increase in the referral and the identification of unaccompanied and separated migrant children,” Wheeler stated.
While it may be challenging to quantify the industry, Wheeler highlighted the income traffickers could make.
“What I would say is that on average a trafficker can make about $18,000 per day if he or she is trafficking ten persons,” she said.
“Prostitution tends to be the easier one to measure because that’s the one that is a little bit more visible than the other types of trafficking like domestic servitude,” she said.
“Let’s say a person has one victim that they are trafficking and sexually exploiting. That one victim may have about six clients a night. On average you may get service for $300 to $500 per client. So let’s say that one person can bring about $1500 to $2000 per night. Just one person,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said since the trafficker has no obligation to pay their victim they pocket the money with minimal expenditure which may include condoms and food.
Wheeler said initially sex trafficking took place in brothels scattered in the Southern, South Western, Central and Northern parts of Trinidad.
“That has changed a lot and you will find that a lot of the trafficking does not take place in the traditional brothels now, they take place in private residences, in rented upscale neighbourhoods, residential areas, upscale apartments and apartment buildings, townhouses and private residences, large properties that are rented where these things take place and of course the hotels,” she said.
“You will find that whereas the advertisements used to be done in one way you will find that the advertisements are now done via social media messaging like WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook so a lot of the advertising is done that way and you book your appointment or you choose your girl from a slate of pictures,” Wheeler said.
And because these activities are taking place in private residences it has become more difficult to detect, Wheeler explained.
“To raid a private residence of course you really have to have some solid intelligence and some solid information to be able to do that,” she said.
Apart from the flesh trade Wheeler said some were also found being exploited for labour.
“We found them at roadside vendors such as burger carts and doubles vendors. We have identified victims being exploited for labour in those businesses, in private security firms, in licensed bars and restaurants, in the modelling industry in private guesthouses and hotels, homes, spas, massage parlours and even the gaming industry,” she said.
Wheeler also told of a situation of domestic servitude that was unearthed in T&T.
“One of the cases we had was a domestic worker, a Latin American female who was in her mid-’40s and she was in a home as a domestic worker and she was being exploited by the family and it was a pretty wealthy, well-off family in a wealthy neighbourhood in T&T where she was being exploited as a domestic worker and that arrangement was made through her pumpkin vine relative who would have arranged for her to come to T&T for that purpose,” Wheeler said.
“These are things happening in T&T I am not talking about anything foreign or alien to our country,” she said.
The woman was rescued after her daughter sought intervention from her country’s embassy here.
While the ongoing pandemic has caused several businesses to suffer, Wheeler said the flesh trade continued.
“Those services that are still in demand which are the vices people have and stuff those services are still in demand and even in more demand because persons are under stressful constraints and so they need to find avenues to relieve that stress,” she said.
With the country’s borders closed last year to help stop the spread of COVID-19 here, Wheeler said the CTU found that there was more smuggling of persons coming in.
In the face of the difficulties including challenges with financial resources, Wheeler said the CTU has been able to do a lot with little.
Last June the unit was congratulated by Interpol for its work in rescuing nine Venezuelan women.
Wheeler, a Foreign Fulbright scholar, has been with the CTU since March 2013.
She has worked in the field of national security for 25 years.
“I love my work and I am very passionate about it and I want to make a difference,” Wheeler said.
“Every decision you make here has a direct impact on other people’s lives whether you choose to go out on an operation and rescue people you change their lives, if you choose not to respond to that information then somebody is left out there,” she said.
Wheeler said one of the challenges is the slow judicial system in victims getting justice on time.