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Abused in the Search of a Better Life – The Plight of Smuggled Migrants

Love & Trafficking: Being THAT Friend

Puntarenas, (Costa Rica), 18 February 2022 – Migrants who are smuggled through the dangerous Darien Gap region in Central America are regularly subjected to abuse, violence, and sexual assault, and women and girls are the primary victims.

This week in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, experts from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), trained officials how to identify such offences and take the appropriate protection measures and legal action.

The event is part of the STARSOM project to strengthen criminal justice response to migrant smuggling and protect the rights of migrants across routes leading to North America.

“Officials dealing with complex investigations into migrant smuggling need to be able to recognize the signs of abuse and violence that are associated with this crime but often overlooked,” says Maria Biela, the Regional Adviser for STARSOM in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is one of multiple countries transited by migrants from other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa as they try to reach the USA and Canada.

“We hear about the most horrific forms of abuse happening along migration routes. Torture, rape, sexual violence, murder and the abandonment of pregnant women, children, and elderly migrants,” says Ms. Biela.

Police officers, investigators, border control and coast guards, migration officials, as well as prosecutors from Costa Rica and Honduras took part in the training.

Over the course of four days, the participants gained theoretical and practical skills on the detection, reporting, investigation, and prosecution of cases of migrant smuggling and migrant abuse, learning from real case studies from the Darien Gap.

“Part of our training was to make them aware that when investigating a case of migrant smuggling or interviewing a migrant, they need to consider the possible crimes that have been committed against the migrants,” says UNODC Crime Prevention Officer, Carlos Perez. 

He adds: “This is not just an issue of human rights. If there is proven evidence of aggravated smuggling this could strengthen the case of the prosecution and, if convicted, increase the sentence of the smuggler.”

A UNODC study on abuse and migrant smuggling showed that violence is used as a form of punishment, intimidation or coercion, or often inflicted with no apparent reason.

Women are vulnerable to sexual abuse and can be raped as a form of payment for their journey, which can lead to unwanted pregnancies and abortions or deliveries in poor hygienic and medical conditions.

“This can also be a demonstration of power,” explains Maria Biela. “When a smuggler  abuses a woman, he is sending a message to the other women and men in the group, ‘I will harm you too if you don’t accept my rules.’”

According to UNODC research, there are multiple reasons why abused migrants refrain from reporting cases of abuse.

“Fear plays a role. People who have an irregular status don’t have the papers which allow them to stay legally in the countries they cross, so they mistrust the authorities.
There can also be cultural and language barriers and the need to continue with the journey or face being left behind by the smugglers,” says Ms. Biela.

The international migrant smuggling expert, who organized this week’s event, stressed the importance of the development of measures that allow migrants to report cases of abuse during their journey.

“They need to have access not only to medical care, but also to justice for the abuse they have been subjected to,” she adds.

A further goal of the training was to increase cooperation between authorities in Costa Rica and Honduras to prevent migrant smuggling, assist victims of abuse and pursue joint investigations into the migrant smuggling networks.

“I learnt how cooperation with the relevant institutions at the national and international level is a powerful tool that makes it possible to combat these types of crimes against migrants quicker and in a more adequate manner,” says Wendy Gòmez, Cooperation Analyst, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Honduras.

Police Commissioner, Erika Madriz Chinchilla, Director, Puntarenas Region of Costa Rica, says: “The knowledge acquired will allow us to guide our teams, mainly the frontline responders. When authorities identify the locations where migrant smuggling is taking place, it is important to respond to the cases with due respect to the rights of the migrants.”

STARSOM is funded by the Government of Canada through its Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program (ACCBP).



This “Eyes on Trafficking” story is reprinted from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.


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