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Guyana explores building shelters for trafficked people in interior regions

by Samuel Sukhnandan

Although Guyana has managed to maintain a Tier 1 ranking in the United States (US) State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) 2020 report for a fourth consecutive year, recommendations have been made to set up shelters in outlying areas, outside of the densely populated coastal region.

On Thursday, stakeholder representatives from various government ministries and agencies, including the Guyana Police Force took part in a discussion that looked at how the government can go about building these shelters that cater to the needs of trafficked victims, especially in the hinterland regions of Guyana.

In recognising the need for such shelters as recommended by the US State Department, Indigenous People’s Affairs Senior Social Workers Ms. Pauline Howard told the virtual forum that several important factors must be taken into account before these facilities are established.

She noted that Regions One, Seven, Eight and Nine are home to a majority of Guyana’s indigenous people and therefore any policy decision to establish a shelter in any one of these regions, must be done in consultation with the people in these communities.

Ms. Howard explained that the Amerindian Act of 2006 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), of which Guyana is a signatory, provides for this.

“The goal of the Act and the UN declaration is to encourage consultation. And the legislation and declaration provides for what we call prior and informed consent (FPIC) so that they are consulted with regards to anything that can have an impact on their way of life or their community,” she added.

The Ministry official said the Act also provides for consultation with toshaos, district councils and the National Toshaos Council.

But aside from that, Ms. Howard is of the view that victims should also be consulted on these plans. “They should also be consulted because in setting up a shelter, it is not for us or government or international partners, but a provision of service to a particular set of persons and these persons are our victims and alleged victims. These persons would have already been abused, exploited, victimised, have their basic human rights stripped from them, and therefore they should also be consulted in this whole conversation, when we are thinking about moving along these lines.”

Another important point to consider, according to the senior social worker, is the location of these shelters. Howard said it is important that if and when these shelters are established, victims will have access to certain important services such as: medical, education, and psychosocial support. Also of important consideration, would be to have the shelter in a location where food and supplies could be easily transported, like a town, but within a secured area.

However, Social Protection Ministry’s Director of Services, Wentworth Tanner expressed concerns over calls for widespread consultation saying that this could lend to security risks, because in building these shelters, the aim is to provide maximum security for these victims in an undisclosed location.

He questioned whether it would be safe to have a TIP shelter in a town or large community. “…having them in a central area where services are accessible could also mean that the security of victims are compromised. It will bring security risks, and we need to ensure that they are protected. Putting them in villages will defeat the purpose!” he added.

In response, Ms. Howard explained that regardless of the security risks, consultation will have to take place, maybe not in the context of disclosing fine details such as the location, but ensuring that the village leaders and the general community have their input and are aware that these services would be available.

“Consultation doesn’t have to be disclosing the location. It is not necessarily important but the by in from the villagers is important,” she asserted.

Assistant Superintendent Dellon Fraser highlighted the importance of having the shelters near police stations or government buildings in preventing witness tampering or threats by people traffickers and guaranteeing their security and confidentiality. “In order to have them secured, then they must be removed from this area where they feel threatened to give the information to the officers. If we are to build these shelters, it must have an impact that they must be able to be removed from the eyes or even the influence of their traffickers which is very important,” he said.

In providing TIP statistics covering the past four years (2014-2019), Mr. Fraser reiterated that TIP has no bounds and this transcends age, sex, colour and nationality. He revealed that 632 people, 51 males and 581 females between ages 12 to over 60, have been trafficked in Guyana during that period. These persons also came from countries like Suriname, Antigua, Trinidad, Barbados, Cuba and Venezuela.

Guyana currently has four TIP shelters, three of which are in Region four and one in Region two.