World Vision: Combating Human Trafficking in the Dominican Republic

Posted on July 19, 2012, by Jessica Bousquette, World Vision

Upon arriving at the courthouse in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, we walked up four flights of stairs and into a sparse, yet lively courtroom.  We took our seats on the wooden benches and listened as a pastor from a local church translated the defense attorney’s remarks from Spanish into Creole for three young men. Before I had a chance to digest the scene I became cognizant that I was witnessing my first human trafficking trial, and the Dominican Republic’s first forced child begging case. It took me a few minutes to fully process the scene in the courtroom. The three young men standing stoically at the front of the room looked to be not much older than 25. The room was sprinkled with people, some representing other organizations; others were companions of the men standing trial. The three men stood accused of trafficking young children from their homes in Haiti, where they had told their parents that the children would have better opportunities in Santo Domingo or Miami. Once in Santo Domingo the children were forced to beg every day, beginning at 5 a.m. If they did not bring back 300 pesos (almost $8 USD) the children were beaten. When they were not on the streets the children were crowded into a one room apartment with no kitchen and no bathroom, forced to sleep under the table and under the bed.  Last year, three brave young boys approached a woman on the street and told her their story. The woman took them straight to the National Children’s Council and an investigation led to freedom and reunification for 25 children. Two of the men were convicted of human trafficking, forced labor, and physical abuse of children. The third was acquitted.  Inside the court room, a jumble of emotions bubbled up as I strained to understand what was transpiring: anger, sadness, confusion, and hope.

Children in the Dominican Republic (Photo Courtesy World Vision) 

Earlier this month Jesse Eaves, the senior policy adviser for child protection, and I traveled to the Dominican Republic to research how the U.S. government could continue to partner with the Dominican government to address modern-day slavery. Over the course of our interviews and witnessing the work of World Vision and our partners I felt an overwhelming thankfulness. Thankfulness for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the largest piece of human rights legislation to ever pass Congress that allows the U.S. to be a global leader in protecting survivors of modern-day slavery, prosecuting traffickers, and strengthening prevention efforts to protect vulnerable men, women, and children. Thankfulness for those who have worked tirelessly over the last twelve years to ensure the law is implemented fully, is strengthened every three years, and those who work on the front-lines with the dream of the abolition of modern-day slavery and restoration of survivors. And thankfulness for advocates, like Women of Vision, who with persistence and passion have demanded for the last year that the United States maintain their global leadership in the fight against human trafficking, that Congress put aside their political games and prioritize the over 20 million slaves in the world today and countless number of men, women, and children who are vulnerable to trafficking. I was thankful because I saw the impact of these efforts in motion in the Dominican Republic.

In 2010 the Dominican Republic was placed on Tier 3 of the Trafficking in Persons Report, the list of countries not meeting the minimum standards for combatting human trafficking by the U.S. Department of State. The Dominican government had challenges in carrying investigations through to conviction, supporting victims, and responding to complicity in human trafficking by government officials. Being placed on Tier 3 of the Trafficking in Persons report (a report mandated by the TVPA), was a wakeup call for the government. The next year after working to come into compliance with the minimum standards set out in the TVPA, they were moved to the Tier 2 Watch List (one step up and a bit closer to showing significant progress). This past week when the 2012 Trafficking in Persons report was released, the Dominican Republic was moved to Tier 2, meaning the government did show significant progress in addressing human trafficking last year. This improvement in the government response, including the forced child begging case, can be traced back to the TVPRA. The report is one of the diplomatic tools the U.S. government uses to work with governments, like the Dominican Republic, to strengthen the response to human trafficking. The work of the dedicated staff at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, who have worked collaboratively and diligently with the Dominican government, is possible because of the framework and mandate of the TVPRA. Increased awareness of government officials and prosecutors, increased support to organizations to deliver services to victims, and awareness and prevention campaigns, all of this progress is a result of the legislative framework of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The Dominican government has many challenges ahead in the fight against modern-day slavery but with tools like the TVPA and the amazing individuals we met in the U.S. Embassy, Dominican government, non-profit organizations, communities, and youth movements, I have hope that these challenges can be overcome. All of this work and forward momentum is threatened by the failure of Congress to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

So with an election fast approaching and summer recess barreling towards us, where does this leave us and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011? In a hurry, but a hopeful hurry. Before the Women of Vision Lobby Day in March, the TVPRA had 32 cosponsors. At the time of our last update in April we had 39 cosponsors on S. 1301; we now have 46! (The original sponsor + 45 cosponsors) For a bill that wasn’t moving in March of an election year, this is amazing and a result of the persistence of Women of Vision advocates. Recently we received news that Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson would cosponsor the TVPRA. This is HUGE and a direct result of the work of WOV Texas. The hard work, all the phone calls, emails, letters, meetings, and prayers, paid off.

Today marks a year since the TVPRA was introduced in the Senate, a year marked by congressional inaction and partisanship. Thankfully, many senators, like Senator Hutchinson, have heard your message loud and clear, “Enough is enough already, pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of Act, S. 1301." Now it’s about making sure they follow through. Keep up the pressure. Your calls, emails, tweets, letters, Facebook posts and meetings ARE working, you are being heard and making an impact. Not sure if your senator has cosponsor yet? Use our call form to determine if your senators have already cosponsored, look up their numbers and log your call. We also provide the call script in this tool. Is your senator one of the 46? Call them, thank them, and then ask them to bring a Republican and a Democratic colleague on as a cosponsor. A call takes about two minutes and makes a difference! If you are looking for more ways to engage your senator’s office please do not hesitate to contact me:

Thank you all for your persistence and prayers! Keep up the amazing work!