TRINIDAD: Where Are the Missing People?
When 15-year-old Devika Lalman left her home a few days before Christmas to buy school supplies for the new academic term, her parents had taken all the necessary precautions to ensure her safety.The mother of the Form Three student said she had also given her daughter a cell phone, but all calls to that phone have gone unanswered and the daughter has not been seen since. "We have become like a Little Red Riding Hood country. The child goes to the shop to get sweeties and never returns," prominent attorney Vernon De Lima later told a news conference. Lalman is among a record number of more than 600 people reported missing in this twin-island state last year. Acting Police Commissioner James Philbert insists that there is no evidence "to suggest people are being trafficked". "We are not idly refuting the fact that there is no human trafficking in this country," he said, indicating that the total number of those missing last year, ranging in age from four to 42 years, may be closer to 77 since the majority of those unaccounted for had returned home. But the acting top cop acknowledged that because of the country's high crime rate, the police had implemented a number of initiatives including relaxing the mandatory 24-hour period required before a report is made to the authorities about a missing person. Philbert said as part of the new initiative, both the Anti-Kidnapping Squad and the Homicide Bureau were being contacted immediately whenever a missing person report is received. "We have had reports in the past where police officers told citizens to come back. We have informed police officers that they must accept a report and deal with it immediately, because we have great concerns in that area," Philbert told a news conference. But the newly-formed Missing Persons Association (MPA) said much more needs to be done and has accused the police of "turning a blind eye" to the issue. "People just don't disappear into thin air. We know that human trafficking exists, but the police are probably too embarrassed to come out and say so," said MPA chairman Nathifa Mitchell in a statement to the media. "The evidence is there. If there is no human trafficking, as Philbert suggests, then we have a serial killer on our hands. Where have all these missing persons gone?" Mitchell said, insisting that women, children and men were being lured by human traffickers and shipped to foreign countries, where they worked as sex slaves or were forced into pornography. Mitchell, whose 36-year-old niece, Lena Johnson, was last seen on Nov. 8, 1998, said her organisation is determined to help other families deal with the trauma of missing loved ones and has created a web site to sensitise the public on human trafficking. "We are not going to rest until something is done. The world ought to know the truth," Mitchell said, as she and other executive members, including a pastor, embarked on a media blitz here. "Almost all the women who disappeared left behind a pattern. Their cell phones were switched off. We also heard that they were transported from one house to another before being shipped out." The Sunday Guardian newspaper, which carried out its own investigation, said that the "clandestine local trade, which operates through a well-organised network and is supported by several powerful agencies, is linked to an international human trafficking ring". The paper said that children were being sold for as much as 34,000 dollars and adults for half that amount. "They are mostly used as sex slaves and sometimes for slave labour. Sometimes, they are used to make pay-offs in the drug trade," the paper said, noting that the trafficking also includes young women who were being brought into the country from Venezuela, Colombia and Guyana. Following the publication of the newspaper article, the United States Embassy here said it was watching the matter very closely. "This is definitely an issue we want to follow. The U.S. government has taken note of the report. If one person disappears, it's one too many," said John Cushing, the political chief at the U.S. Embassy, who attended the public meeting of the MPA two days before Christmas. "I went to the meeting because the U.S. government takes human trafficking very seriously. It was tragic, heart-breaking, to see what the families of missing person are going through. It's good they formed this association and can give each other emotional support," he told reporters. Prominent lawyer Anand Ramlogan said that the police were "only now slowly beginning to treat seriously the theory about the abduction of Trinidad and Tobago nationals for human trafficking". "This whole idea of being abducted to supply some organ or limb to save another person is worrying for most of us," he wrote in a newspaper column. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which last year organised two major counter-trafficking events here, said that at the request of the Patrick Manning government, it was embarking on a project for strengthening technical capacity in the oil-rich republic. The U.S. State Department-funded project will bolster the capabilities of the Immigration Division and other law enforcement agencies, providing analysis and advice to ensure adoption of international best practices, migration laws, policies and procedures, as well as contingency planning for sudden mass migration outflows in the Caribbean region. The IOM said that there is also concern that local authorities could be encountering exploitative labour situations that not only break national laws, but also may qualify as cases of trafficking. "This concern is also supported by IOM's Exploratory Assessment of Trafficking in Persons which identified forced labour, domestic servitude, and sexual exploitation as Caribbean regional trends," it said, adding that IOM Washington will publish exploratory research on human trafficking in Trinidad and Tobago and would also assist in the launching of a local counter-trafficking information campaign. The minority opposition Congress of the People (COP) party wants the government to urgently implement legislation to deal with human trafficking. "We recognise that legislation is critically important at this point because without proper legislation, which is really one of the handicaps in the social areas, we could not possibly move forward in terms of consequences for human traffickers," said the party's deputy leader, Dr Sharon Gopaul McNicol, a clinical psychologist. She told a news conference that most of the human trafficking "takes place in small boats where people are drugged and shipped off to other countries, primarily those countries that people don't speak English so there is little chance of the victims being able to get away without much difficulty".