Raising awareness of the dangers of human trafficking and irregular migration

Date Publish: 
Guatemala / America

by Danilo Valladares, IOM Guatemala dvalladares@iom.int

“I didn’t know I had to pay USD 20,000 to reach the United States. This wasn't my plan. How can I repay this and feed my family back home?" recounted a shocked indigenous woman victim of human trafficking to her trafficker, a US farm owner who had paid a network of criminals to take her from her village in Guatemala to his strawberry farm in order to exploit her labor.

Happily, the indigenous woman and the farm owner were participating in a role play exercise during a recent IOM workshop focused on the prevention of human trafficking and irregular migration, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Some 125 community mayors and other local authorities walked from miles around to participate in the workshop, held on a warm morning in the indigenous Mam town of Comitancillo, in western Guatemala.

Ramiro Coronado, municipal mayor of Comitancillo, and one of the participants, said to the crowd: “This training is very important for us because it allows mayors and community development councils to know what can happen to migrants on their way to the United States.”

On their way to Mexico and the United States, Guatemalan and Central American migrants are often victims of kidnapping, extortion, assault and trafficking. Despite the risks, thousands of people, many from border towns, travel north each day.

Situated on the Mexican border, San Marcos is one of the departments with the largest outward migration flows. It is also the department that receives 11 per cent of the country’s total remittances. Only the department of Guatemala, which includes the capital, receives more with 18 per cent.

Coronado emphasized the importance of the event taking place following last November’s earthquake which has put increased pressure on the residents of San Marcos to migrate to Mexico and the United States in search of employment to rebuild their destroyed or damaged homes.

The workshop is part of an ongoing series of events aimed at raising awareness in the department of San Marcos of the risks of human trafficking and irregular migration.

“IOM has carried out workshops on the dangers of trafficking in persons and irregular migration with authorities of eight municipalities and 499 communities of the department of San Marcos,” said Philip Burns, IOM Project Assistant in San Marcos.

San Marcos is also a major transit point for hundreds of Central Americans who transit daily through the porous border that link Guatemala with the Mexican state of Chiapas.

“Our goal is to inform the high-risk population of the dangers present in irregular migration, specifically the danger of human trafficking, to which indigenous populations, persons with low levels of education, children and women are particularly vulnerable,” added Burns.

Participants have told IOM how much they have learned in these sessions about topics that are not frequently discussed in these remote communities.

In fact, Delfino Pérez, a community mayor and participant in this most recent workshop, admitted that this was the first time he had heard about trafficking in persons. “This is very important because migrants always run into attackers on their journey, and sometimes have accidents,” Pérez said.

Pérez added: “Guatemala is a very poor country and so people are forced to seek out opportunities in the United States to improve their living conditions.”

“Local authorities and community leaders have a central role to play in preventing and combating human trafficking, so it is essential for IOM to continue raising awareness on these issues,” said Burns.

These are not the only activities that IOM is developing in this western department. The Organization worked on the reintegration of 239 vulnerable children and adolescent migrants in the municipality of Concepción Tutuapa.

Children are particularly at risk for trafficking in persons, sexual exploitation and labor exploitation as farm workers or street vendors in the city of Tapachula, in Mexico, and surrounding areas.

In the period 2010-2011, IOM provided scholarships and 63 productive projects to 139 children aged between 10 and 17.

“Sixty per cent were children who had migrated more than twice to Tapachula and other cities in Mexico and the remaining 40 per cent were children who were at risk of migrating because their siblings had already gone,” said Walter Arreaga, of IOM Guatemala.

The participating children were provided with chickens, pigs and sheep to help them support their families and seeds for planting potatoes, radish and other vegetables for their own consumption. In addition, they received psychosocial support and were made aware of the risks of irregular migration and human trafficking.

Arreaga added: “We monitored the educational progress of children with two teachers, and 100 per cent passed their classes. We also involved parents and local authorities in raising awareness of the risks of migration and trafficking. As a result, 95 per cent of children we assisted have not re-migrated.”

In 2012, another 100 children benefitted from the IOM project with the same results, and last October IOM expanded the project to include scholarships for children in Tacana and Tajumulco, two other municipalities with high levels of child migration.

Children are particularly at risk for trafficking in persons, sexual exploitation and labor exploitation as street vendors in the city of Tapachula, Mexico, and as farm workers in surrounding areas. © IOM 2012 (Photo by Niurka Pineiro)
Children are particularly at risk for trafficking in persons, sexual exploitation and labor exploitation as street vendors in the city of Tapachula, Mexico, and as farm workers in surrounding areas. © IOM 2012 (Photo by Niurka Pineiro)