Friday, February 26, 2010

Ex-NBA player wanted for trafficking of minors

By Guillermo Contreras - Express-News

Local and federal authorities are searching for former Spurs player Alvin Robertson, who is wanted in connection with a sex trafficking ring that allegedly forced a 14-year-old girl to have sex with men throughout San Antonio and Corpus Christi.

Authorities announced charges against seven people tied to the ring on Friday morning. Of the seven, Robertson is the only one who hasn't been arrested, said Deputy Ino Badillo, a spokesman for the Bexar County Sheriff's Office.

“We don't know where he is,” Badillo said. “We have ICE (Immigration Custom Enforcement) and other agencies looking for him.”

He said Robertson's girlfriend, Racquel McIntosh, 41, also has been arrested as part of the ring. McIntosh claims she doesn't know where the former Spurs player is, Badillo said.

Robertson, 47, is charged with three offenses: trafficking of persons under 18 for prostitution, sexual assault of a child and sexual performance of a child. McIntosh is charged with sexual performance of a child and trafficking of persons under 18 for prostitution.

The other five people arrested and they charges are:

- Murtuza K. Bhavnagerwala, 36, sexual assault of a child;

- Behzad Mehrinfar, 25, sexual assault of a child;

- Leslie Roy Campbell, 49, trafficking of persons under 18 for prostitution, sexual assault of a child, sexual performance of a child and aggravated kidnapping;

- Marques A. Callaway, 35, aggravated kidnapping; and

- Jack August Zimmerle, 40, sexual assault of a child.

Badillo said investigators believe it was Campbell who kidnapped the girl and held her captive up until the time she escaped in Corpus Christi.

He said the Sheriff's Office Human Trafficking Task Force then began investigating Robertson and the other suspects after the girl came forward to complain she was taken throughout Bexar County to have sex with men in exchange for money. Friday's arrests come after a three-month investigation by the agency.

“The ongoing investigation is an example of the outstanding work that is being done by the Task Force” said Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz in a prepared statement.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Human trafficking in disguise

Why didn't you just run away?

That was a question an audience member, a man, posed to former sex trafficking victim Maria Suarez who spoke last fall in Costa Mesa. It's a question many wonder when they hear of cases where trafficking victims live openly in our midst.

Caroline Le talks to students in an English class she taught at a Taiwan shelter for human trafficking victims.

In Suarez's case, the answer was this: She was held captive for five years in the home of an Azusa man, lured by the promise of a house cleaning job. She came in contact with neighbors and, later, with fellow employees when her captor allowed her to work in a factory. Still, she never ran away.

That dynamic – a victim who stays in a horrific situation even when escape seems possible – is often at play for trafficking victims, whether they're forced to work in a factory in Taiwan or at a brothel in Orange County.

Caroline Le of Garden Grove wanted to know why.

The answers she learned boiled down to this: It's complicated.

About two years ago – while working on her master's degree in global and international studies at UC Santa Barbara – Le flew to Taiwan to intern at a shelter for human trafficking victims. The internship had been created by the Orange County-based Vietnamese Alliance to Combat Trafficking (VietACT) in partnership with a board member, Peter Nguyen Van Hung, who runs the shelter.

To help the women and men she met at the shelter, Le first needed to connect with them as people. They watched soap operas together, played volleyball, made paper lanterns. She taught some of them a little English and how to dance the cha-cha.
But Le went a step further.

With Nguyen Van Hung's blessing, she studied case files and interviewed dozens of victims.

The stories they shared were harrowing. Beyond the forced sex and forced slave labor, the victims often were treated as less-than-human. Several factory workers told Le they were forced to live in a storage container with no ventilation, even during the blistering summer months.

Another trafficking victim, a domestic worker, told Le that she worked nonstop despite suffering from kidney problems. Her diet was primarily the family's table scraps, which usually meant fish bones, something that worsened her condition.

The shelter where Le was working as an intern was primarily for Vietnamese victims, and many who spoke with Le said they came from Vietnam's most impoverished areas. They'd been lured to other parts of Asia by promises of comparatively high-paying jobs in residential homes, factories and nursing homes. What they got instead was debt – their wages often were taken to pay the exorbitant costs charged for passage into Taiwan, sometimes as much as $8,000 (U.S.).

"They have this huge debt on their shoulders that's building interest as the days go by," says Le, 25, who is Vietnamese American and spent more than four months in Taiwan. "It's just a horrible situation for them."

In her master's thesis, Le focused on the work of so-called "employment" brokers – the people who bring the victims into Taiwan. The brokers, Le says, are key players in a complex system that she describes as "institutionalized human trafficking."

"It's... human trafficking that's disguised as an employment agency," says Le, whose thesis was approved last month and she hopes to share it with the Taiwanese government.

Still, the answer to the question – why don't victims just run away – isn't simple.
Another Orange County resident who worked as an intern at the Taiwanese shelter, Vanessa Nguyen of Anaheim, suggests the question itself isn't totally fair.

"It's easy for people who have lived in a place with democracy and freedoms... to be equipped with the ability to choose right from wrong, or to choose to do something. But these women, they had no choice in anything," Nguyen says.

"The No. 1 thing I learned is that you can't be judgmental. These women are faced with the toughest decisions of their lives."

Running away or escaping is rarely an option. Not when you have a family to feed, a mortgage to pay, or your life on the line. That's why VietACT's goal is to raise the "drum beat" on human trafficking, so the world doesn't forget that sometimes people don't have a choice.

Contact the writer: at or 714-796-3649 or For more information on VietACT go to

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fake Lawyer for Americans Jailed in Haiti Faces Trafficking Charges

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As the 10 Americans imprisoned in Haiti for trying to remove children from the country awaited a decision on their fate Monday, the legal woes of the man who falsely portrayed himself as the group’s lawyer mounted.

Jorge Puello falsely portrayed himself as a lawyer in Haiti and is now at large.

The one-time legal adviser, who calls himself Jorge Puello, now acknowledges that he faces sex trafficking charges in El Salvador under the name Jorge Anibal Torres Puello. He remained at large on Monday, as Dominican, Salvadoran and American law enforcement officials worked with Interpol to interview his relatives and search border and immigration records to find him.

Mr. Puello is wanted by the police in at least four countries in connection with charges including sex trafficking of girls and women, and making counterfeit documents and violating parole.

The Salvadoran police unveiled a sex trafficking ring last May in which they said Mr. Puello was helping to bring women and girls from Central America and the Caribbean into El Salvador and luring them into prostitution through offers of modeling and office jobs. Nude and semi-nude photographs were taken of women and girls and put on Internet sites, the police said.

The case against Mr. Puello broke open when three under-age Nicaraguan girls escaped from a house where they said they had been held captive for up to ten days by Mr. Puello’s wife, Ana Josefa Galvarina Ramirez Orellana, and another man, according to Jorge Callejas, head of the Salvadoran border police.

The girls had been recruited in Nicaragua by a Nicaraguan man who offered them jobs. Upon arriving in El Salvador, they complained that they were photographed and not allowed to leave the house.

When the police raided the house, they found two other girls from the Dominican Republic. The police arrested the Nicarguan man and Mr. Puello’s wife, who is believed to have managed logistics and fed the girls. Mr. Puello, who was tied to the scene by documents at the house, got away, the police said.

There were suggestions that the ring may have had the protection of government officials. A car parked out front at the time of the raid was registered to Pablo Nasser, who was deputy director of immigration at the time, Mr. Callejas said.

The police also found a letter sent by Mr. Nasser to Dominican immigration authorities requesting approval for two Dominican women to travel to El Salvador for company training. Those two women are believed to be victims in the sex ring, Mr. Callejas said.

Mr. Nasser, who has denied involvement in the ring, told local press that he had sold the car to Ms. Galvarina months before the raid. No charges have been filed against him.

Carlos Velasquez, who was the head of the prosecutor’s office on human trafficking at the time of the raid, told local press that he suspected the letter signed by Mr. Nasser was falsified and closed the case on Mr. Nasser. Mr. Velasquez has since been removed from his post, said Luis Ever, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office.

Mr. Puello, whom Salvadoran police believe fled the country, was a fugitive when he enmeshed himself late last month in the case of the 10 church members from the United States.

Two days after they were arrested on Jan. 29 while attempting to take 33 children across the border from Haiti into the Dominican Republic, Mr. Puello called up an Idaho church where five of the 10 Americans attend, offering pro bono legal services. Two relatives called him back and accepted, and Mr. Puello then began acting as the group’s lawyer, even though he lacked a law degree. Since his background has emerged, some of the detainees have sought to distance themselves from the man.

“My clients have never met Mr. Puello and know nothing about him,” said Caleb Stegall, the district attorney of Jefferson County, Kansas, who is representing Drew Culberth, Paul Thompson, Silas Thompson and Steve McMullin. “As far as my clients are concerned, Mr. Puello never spoke on their behalf and as far as I am concerned, Mr. Puello has no involvement in this case now on behalf of my clients.”

Hiram Sasser, who is representing Jim Allen, said his client never authorized Mr. Puello to represent him, either.

When first confronted by The Times about the sex trafficking charge on Thursday, Mr. Puello said he had never stepped foot in El Salvador, portraying the issue as a case of mistaken identity.

Later, his version changed and he acknowledged in a telephone interview with CNN that he was the man charged in El Salvador, but said he was innocent.

He said he spent 18 months in a Canadian jail pending an unsuccessful extradition request by United States authorities. He also said he had served jail time in the United States for handling money related to a drug-trafficking operation, and he was jailed again briefly for violating parole. He denied the drug charge.

Dave Oney, spokesman United States Marshal Service said Monday that several marshals visited Mr. Puello’s parents’ house in Santo Domingo on Monday to question them about his whereabouts. Mr. Oney said that there were multiple warrants for Mr. Puello’s arrest.

On Monday, Bernard Saint-Vil, the Haitian judge who is handling the case of the detained Americans, said he intended to further question Laura Silsby, the group’s leader, about any connection she might have with Mr. Puello.

A decision on release appeared days away. The judge on Monday afternoon was awaiting a written response from the prosecutor, Jean Serge Joseph, who said that because of a power outage at his office he was unable to print the full decision for the judge. Mr. Saint-Vil said he will not be working on Tuesday because of Mardi Gras, making Wednesday the earliest day for a ruling on the Americans’ release.

“The final decision is mine and when I get all the documents I’ll decide,” he said in a telephone interview. “The judge has the last word.”

Marc Lacey reported from Port-au-Prince, and Ian Urbina from Washington. Kitty Bennett contributed reporting in Washington, and Blake Schmidt in Managua, Nicaragua.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Undercover work in Cambodia leads to trafficking bust

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN) -- Aaron Cohen first met Jonty Thern and her older sister, Channy, in 2005 while singing in a karaoke bar in Battambang, Cambodia. He has come back to see them every year since.

The California native often schedules his trips for November, the month when Cambodians celebrate the Bonn Om Teuk water festival, marking the end of the rainy season.

"The whole country comes together for boat races. Hundreds of thousands of people descend on the waterfront and it's filled with colors and flags," said Cohen. "You know my thoughts about the water festival always include Jonty, because she and her sister would get a day pass during the festival."

There was a smile on his face when he started the sentence, but by the time he had finished, it was gone.

Abolishing Slavery

Cohen is a human rights advocate. He founded a charity called last year, but his work freeing victims of human trafficking began more than a decade ago.

At 6 feet, 5 inches (195 centimeters) with long, black hair, he stands out in almost every crowd. But Cohen often goes undercover to obtain the information needed for law enforcement officials to conduct raids and make arrests.

His trips have taken him around the world, from Sudan to Nicaragua to Israel. But, he says, in Southeast Asia the problem is especially bad.

"I would rank Cambodia right up there with India as one of the worst places in the world for sex-trafficking."

A bad problem getting worse

According to the NGO, End Child Prostitution, Abuse and Trafficking (ECPAT), as many as one-third of all sex workers in Cambodia are children. Government entities, including the U.S. State Department, are pressuring countries like Cambodia to do more to stop the modern-day slavery epidemic.

"We are making major strides in the fight against human trafficking. But it is a major problem, we know that," said Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, who leads the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. "You have estimates as to the number of people in servitude worldwide and it's anywhere from 12.3 million on the low end as cited by UN's International Labor Organization -- to as many as 27 million people on the high end. That's a number coming from the research done by (the aid organization) Free the Slaves. But 12.3 million is a baseline number that everybody agrees that there are at least that many people in forced labor, and that's far too many."

In its comprehensive 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report, the State Department put Cambodia on its Tier 2 Watch List. The ranking means the Cambodian government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making an effort to do so.

"[In Cambodia] the number of victims is increasing and the number of prosecutions has gone down from the previous year," says CdeBaca. "The report shows that despite the overall effort, the government has not shown enough progress in convicting and punishing human trafficking offenders or protecting trafficking victims."

Cambodia is categorized as a destination country for foreign child sex tourists, with increasing reports of Asian men traveling to Cambodia to have sex with underage virgin girls. The State Department report states a significant proportion of trafficking victims in Cambodia are ethnic Vietnamese women and girls who are forced into prostitution in brothels and karaoke bars.

A chance encounter

Jonty Thern's short life could be a case study for that assessment. Jonty's family immigrated to Cambodia from Vietnam shortly after the Vietnam War.

Faced with gripping poverty and a debt, Jonty's mother sold her daughter, who was 10 years old at the time, to a person on Cambodia's border with Thailand.

That person told her mother Jonty would be selling flowers and candy to customers in bars and nightclubs. It was only later, the mother says, that she learned while there, Jonty would be repeatedly raped and beaten.

After three years of physical and sexual abuse, Jonty was released by her captors and allowed to return home to Battambang. Soon after, she and her sister willingly went to work at a karaoke bar to help the family pay off their debt, according to her parents.

The scenario in which Cohen describes meeting Jonty Thern, then 13-years-old, is as appalling as it is prevalent.

"I was working as an undercover sex vice," Cohen said. "I was posing as a sex tourist, going from karaoke bar to karaoke bar, massage parlor to massage parlor, looking for underage workers, to see if I could get them on camera soliciting me for sex."

As evidenced in the State Department report, it is a poorly-kept secret in Cambodia that many of these establishments are also operating brothels.

"I went to a number of karaokes and about my second or third karaoke of the night and I immediately notice this one really young looking girl. I requested Jonty and her sister and a group of other girls," Cohen said.

"In these bars, the girls are told to drink as much as they can, because they'll charge you for the beers. So this girl comes in and I noticed, man, she downed that beer in like two seconds. She seemed to be having a good time, she didn't seem unhappy or anything. But here she is nonetheless, a 13-year-old girl in a brothel drinking 10 beers in the time that I drank two," he added.

He said he invited several friends who work at a nearby victims' shelter to come join him. They posed as partiers as well, until Cohen felt comfortable to ask the manager an important question.

"After the girls began to dance and sing, I asked the mamasan what more can I get besides karaoke and so then she says 'well, for sex it's $50.'"

Cohen used the solicitation video from that night, recorded on a cell phone camera, to provide police with the information they needed to raid the karaoke brothel.

More than a dozen girls, including Jonty and her sister, Channy, were freed that night and sent to live in a victim's shelter, where they received counseling, care and an education.

Final Respects

Cohen's most recent trip to see Jonty and Channy in Cambodia was not a happy reunion. It was a trip planned so that he could say goodbye to one of them.

Three days before arriving in Phnom Penh for the water festival, Cohen and Channy, along with Channy's mother, spent the morning in an 8th century pagoda in Siem Reap, watching as monks conducted an ancient funeral ceremony. They were transferring Jonty Thern's ashes into a marble urn.

Jonty died of liver failure at age 17. Her family claims it was the result of years of alcohol and drug abuse she was subjected to while working first in the nightclubs as a 10-year-old, and then later in the karaoke bars.

"The ashes of my goddaughter are the symbol of why we have to do this. This doesn't have to happen. These girls do not have to be enslaved," Cohen said.

"We tried our best with Jonty and we failed because we lost her. But if there's meaning in her death, the meaning is that there is more work to be done. When I'm in that karaoke now, or when I'm in that massage parlor, she's my little angel. She's watching over me and she's protecting me," he added.

That evening, after watching the festival's fireworks display and saying goodnight to Channy, Cohen strapped an undercover watch camera to his wrist, and went to a karaoke bar.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Protecting Haiti's children from human trafficking

The heart-rending images of injured and frightened children after Haiti's devastating earthquake last month no doubt stirred the compassion of many Americans, including the Baptist evangelicals from Idaho now being held on suspicion of human trafficking in Port-au-Prince.

We reserve judgment on the group's claim that they were motivated only by the best of intentions when they tried to spirit more than 30 youngsters across the border into the neighboring Dominican Republic without proper documents. But we can well understand why Haitian officials are insisting they knew what they were doing was illegal and are calling for the Americans to be prosecuted for kidnapping and trafficking in child victims of the tragedy.

In the chaotic situation after the quake, thousands of children were separated from their parents or caregivers. Even before that catastrophe, Haiti had more than 300,000 orphaned or abandoned children vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers masquerading as relief organizations or aid workers, and the country's notoriously corrupt government too often turned a blind eye to the trade in human lives. Trafficking victims ended up as sex slaves or unpaid household domestics far from home, condemned to miserable lives of perpetual involuntary servitude.

The Idaho Baptists may not have known this tragic history of exploitation when they set out for Haiti, but once they got there they had a responsibility to make sure the children they wished to help really were orphans -- it turns out most were not -- and to follow the legal requirements for taking them out of the country. That they did neither suggests they had no intention of trying to abide by either U.S. or Haitian adoption laws.

What the group clearly did understand was that some Haitian parents were so anxious for their children's safety that they were willing to turn them over to total strangers on the promise of a better life in America. Under such circumstances, the parents can't have given anything resembling informed consent. And the missionaries knowingly took advantage of that desperation when they tried to spirit the children out of the country, bypassing the formal legal process set up to protect vulnerable youngsters.

Even if the group's members ultimately intended to place the children in loving adoptive homes, their actions were virtually indistinguishable from those of the worst traffickers in the global slave trade.

Some may wish to continue characterizing what these Americans did as an unselfish act of charity motivated by religious belief. But we think human trafficking under any guise is still a crime against humanity.

*This article was an opinion article written by the Baltimore Sun. For the original article, please see

Friday, February 5, 2010

Volunteers hope to prevent child trafficking at the Super Bowl


Two dozen volunteers from around the country gathered inside a Miami conference room earlier this week to prepare for the Super Bowl.
They're not here for the game, though. They will spend several days fanning out through the city to rescue underage girls who have been trafficked to South Florida as sex workers.

``The Super Bowl is obviously a really big deal for prostitution,'' Sandy Skelaney, a program manager at Kristi House, a program for sexually abused children, told the group.

``We have a bunch of girls being brought down by pimps.''

Just as police, hoteliers, restaurateurs and retailers have prepared for the big game, so too have children's advocates. For weeks, volunteers have printed fliers, prepared scripts and organized outreach teams in an effort to identify -- and, with luck, rescue -- girls who are being forced into prostitution.

Last year, when the Super Bowl was held in Tampa, the state Department of Children & Families took in 24 children who were brought to the city to serve as sex workers, said Regina Bernadin, DCF's statewide human-trafficking coordinator.

``Miami is known as a destination city for human trafficking, and sporting events are generally recognized by the experts as magnets for prostitution,'' said Trudy Novicki, who heads Kristi House.


Under normal circumstances, Florida -- and Miami in particular -- draws more than its share of underaged sex workers, lured by large numbers of transient men, the glitz of South Beach and a steady stream of conventions, authorities say.

The Super Bowl is expected to generate as much traffic for prostitutes as it does for bartenders and bookies.

And though the girls on South Beach and in Downtown Miami may seem to be there voluntarily, authorities say they almost certainly are former runaways or foster kids who fell prey to human trafficking. Some are barely out of puberty.

Ernie Allen, who heads the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said girls typically enter prostitution at age 11 or 12.

``This is truly an example of supply and demand,'' Allen said. ``They use these kids as commodities for sale or trade, and go to where demand is the greatest, and where they can make the most money. That's why they follow events like the Super Bowl.''

Allen called child prostitutes ``21st-century slaves.''

Throughout the year, Miami-Dade police hold between 15 and 20 operations targeting underage prostitution. For major events, such as the Super Bowl, the department works with the FBI's Innocence Lost Task Force.

``At large events such as this, we increase our presence . . . with the ultimate goal being that no children are sexually exploited,'' Maj. Raul Ubieta, who works with the department's Strategic and Specialized Investigations Bureau, said through a spokesman.

At Kristi House Wednesday night, where the volunteers gathered, fliers sat on a desk with pictures of four missing girls, ages 14 to 17.

``What we're trying to do tonight is plant a seed of hope for someone,'' said Brad Dennis, a director with the Klaas Kids Foundation.

``Last year during the Tampa Super Bowl, the largest number of tips came in from hotel owners,'' he said.

The outreach workers are organized into eight teams, divvying up the Spanish-speakers and trying to have one man each. In teams of two, three or four, the volunteers -- who came from as far as New York City and Alabama -- spread out across Miami-Dade -- from South Beach to Hialeah to Downtown Miami.

The goal is to look for missing girls and underaged sex workers. When they find a promising candidate, they hand out a card with a rescue hotline number on it.

The volunteers have a script: ``I'm a volunteer that works with kids who are in the life. I know you may not have a lot of time, but this is our card in case you or someone you know needs help. It has a hotline number discreetly listed. This is so no one knows. Is there anything you need tonight?''

And general rules: Try not to approach big groups of girls. Don't walk up to anyone near a pimp.

Outreach workers carry a small, glossy pamphlet filled with the pictures of missing teenagers.

They are black, white and Hispanic, blonde, auburn and braided. The booklet includes a short introduction from the family of Amber Dubois, a 15-year-old Escondido, Calif. girl who vanished on Feb. 13, 2009, a short distance from her high school: ``I am a football fan, but this Super Bowl, the champions will not be the Colts or the Saints for me. It will be your search team. For every girl you find and rescue, it will be a game-winning touchdown all over again.''

The message was written by 70-year-old Sheila Welch, Amber's grandmother.

``To think that something that is supposed to be all-American, the sport of our country, actually has an underground of sex trafficking is horrible,'' Welch told The Miami Herald.

The girls pictured in the handbook ``all look like babies,'' Welch said. ``But they are not babies anymore. They lost their childhood.''

For the volunteers, reaching their targets is not an easy job. Novicki calls them ``a tough crowd.''

Said volunteer Eddy Ameen, the executive director of StandUp For Kids -- Miami: ``We are not seen as saviors.''

The girls the group encounters are streetwise, distrustful, hardened and fearful of strangers -- who can get them beaten if the girl's pimp feels threatened.

Some girls view their pimps as family: someone who fed them, clothed them, loved them when no one else would.

``Nobody is saying, `Thank goodness you came and saved me,' '' Novicki said. But on a good day, a girl may take the group's card and hang onto it. Some time later, she said -- maybe after a beating or a night of particularly rough sex -- a girl may find the card and use it.


The National Center estimates there are between 100,000 and 150,000 underaged sex workers who generate billions of dollars in revenue for their pimps. The girls can travel around the country in ``circuits.''

In May, DCF began identifying through the agency's hotline children who fell victim to human trafficking. To date, they have recovered almost 85 children -- the largest number, 17, last month, said DCF spokesman Joe Follick.

Shared Hope International, a research and rescue group, reported in May 2009 that during a five-year period of servitude, an underaged prostitute might be ``raped'' by 6,000 men -- assuming a five-night-a-week schedule.

And if the everyday job description of a child prostitute is bad enough, times of ``peak'' demand, such as a sporting event, are particularly disturbing.

``Children exploited through prostitution typically are given a quota by their trafficker/pimp of 10-15 buyers per night,'' the Shared Hope report says, adding, ``though some service providers report girls having been sold to as many as 45 buyers in a night at peak demand times, such as a sporting event or convention.''

For Carrie McGonigle, Amber Dubois' mother, finding her daughter as a sex worker would be a blessing, because all the other possibilities are arguably worse. ``It would be good news,'' McGonigle said. ``I've already dealt with what that would mean if we find her.''

Miami Herald staff writer Jared Goyette contributed to this report.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Ghana to create human trafficking database

Accra — A 17-member national steering committee that will oversee the implementation of the national intervention data base project for combating human trafficking in Ghana has been inaugurated in Accra. The initiative which seeks to demonstrate Ghana's commitment to fighting the menace comes in the wake of the release of the ninth annual Trafficking in Persons report (TIP) published in 2009 by the US Department of State and which sheds light on the faces on modern-day slavery and on new facets of this global problem.

The report named Ghana as a source, transit, and destination country for children and women trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation.

Mrs. Sylvia Hinson-Ekong, Executive Director of Rescue Foundation Ghana (RSG) told journalists in Accra that, the outputs of the project will include capacity building, generation of a first national report on human trafficking in Ghana and dissemination of the report among others. "The database will serve as a source of information on human trafficking for planning and implementation of projects in the sector. It should encourage more players to work in the sector and attract more donors to the sector. I hope this partnership example between government and civil society will be replicated in other sectors to accelerate national development."

Outgoing minister for MOWAC, Ms Akua Sena Dansua noted that the lack of a national database affects effective planning and programming for making interventions in trafficking in persons in Ghana. She was hopeful the project will also promote effective advocacy, decision making, planning, programming as well as adopting innovative mechanisms in combating human trafficking in Ghana.

The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Trans-national Organized Crime (2000) states that, "Trafficking in persons" shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, engaging others in prostitution or forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered "trafficking persons".

Reports say trafficking in persons is a global phenomenon and that the trend is going upward. Last year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said global human trafficking yielded between 7 and 12 billion US dollars, the third most profitable form of trafficking after arms and narcotics. Yet, whereas those who deal in drugs and guns can expect stiff penalties, if caught, penalties for traffickers in many countries seem less severe.

Ghana passed the Human Trafficking Act, Act 694 in 2005, to help deal effectively with the issue.

The TIP report stated that trafficking within the country is more prevalent than transnational trafficking and the majority of victims are children. Both boys and girls are trafficked within Ghana for forced labor in agriculture and the fishing industry, for street hawking, forced begging by religious instructors, as porters, and possibly for forced kente weaving.

Over 30,000 children are believed to be working as porters, or Kayayei, in Accra alone. Annually, the IOM reports numerous deaths of boys trafficked for forced labor in the Lake Volta fishing communities. Girls are trafficked within the country for domestic servitude and sexual exploitation.

The TIP stated that trans-nationally, children are trafficked between Ghana and other West African countries, primarily Cote d'Ivoire, Togo, Nigeria, the Gambia, Burkina Faso, and Gabon for the same purposes listed above. Girls are trafficked for sexual exploitation from Ghana to Western Europe, from Nigeria through Ghana to Western Europe, and from Burkina Faso through Ghana to Cote d'Ivoire.

Last year, Chinese women were trafficked to Ghana for sexual exploitation and a Ghanaian woman was also trafficked to Kuwait for forced labour. According to the report, Ghana does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking although it is making significant efforts to do so, despite limited resources. During the year, Ghanaian police intercepted a greater number of trafficking victims than the preceding year.

Despite these achievements, the government demonstrated weak efforts in prosecuting and punishing trafficking offenders or ensuring that victims received adequate care; therefore, Ghana is placed on Tier 2 Watch List.

The TIP report recommends that Ghana increases efforts to prosecute and convict trafficking offenders, including those who subject children to forced labour in the Lake Volta fishing industry and those who force Ghanaian children and foreign women into prostitution. It further recommends to Ghana to establish additional victim shelters, particularly for sex trafficking victims; continue to apply Trafficking Victim Fund monies to victim care; and train officials to identify trafficking victims among women in prostitution and to respect victims' rights.

The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MOWAC) has the mandate to coordinate activities on human trafficking. Trafficking units are established in both the Police and the Ghana Immigration Service while several NGOs and stakeholders have projects to combat human trafficking. However, all these are scattered and uncoordinated.

It is for this reason that MOWAC is collaborating with Rescue Foundation Ghana (RFG) with support from the British High Commission to develop a national database on stakeholders and interventions being undertaken to combat trafficking of persons in Ghana.

First Secretary, Migration Policy (West Africa) of the British High Commission, Mr. Andrew Fleming, bemoaned that most victims of human trafficking often come from the poorest and most vulnerable sections and that the duty of all and sundry should be to help them spiritually and ethically.

"Help is not just about preventing trafficking and the rescue of victims. It is equally critical that cross sector partnerships work together to rehabilitate these victims."

He commended Ghana for her attempts to ensure good practice on rehabilitation but said more victims need to benefit from this.