On May 28, and for the first time, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and IJM hosted a joint webinar to share experiences and best practices on providing critical assistance like legal representation to victims of human trafficking and ways to continue improving to ensure victims have better and more effective access to justice across the Latin America Region.
Human trafficking affects the lives and physical integrity of thousands of women, men and children across the world. A recent study from the UNODC shows that 75% of the victims in cases from 2018 were women and girls primarily trafficked for sexual exploitation (50%) or forced labor (38%). In Latin America, more than 70% of the victims were women and girls, of which between 60% to 80% were trafficked for sexual exploitation. In Central America, 48% of the victims were children.
Due to diverse vulnerability factors, like poverty, migration status, unstable homes, etc., many victims of trafficking are not able to afford the legal guidance and support that they desperately need. Legal aid has multiple benefits, including the accountability to perpetrators and the reduction of impunity, but, if provided in a holistic way, it can also have a direct impact on the long-term recovery of victims. Justice within the public justice system is fundamental for the recovery of survivors.
“Criminal justice has a transformative effect,” said Carlos Pérez, Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer for UNODC. “Governments have to provide aid, information, ensure participation in the process; safe housing; legal, medical, psychological and educational assistance; security; employment and even the possibility of indemnification.”
UNODC and IJM recognize that access to justice, especially the legal representation of victims, is a central component to ensure victim’s rights are safeguarded and effectively implemented and have spent years supporting governments to provide this service.
With over 300 participants across the region, representatives from NGOs including IJM, the Public Defenders Offices of Brazil and Peru, and UNODC discussed the importance of interinstitutional cooperation to ensure access to legal representation, the need to work with multidisciplinary teams for holistic care, and the need to provide these services with a victim centric approach. Additionally, this space provided an opportunity to share institutional experiences learned from representing victims, challenges and good practices.
“We have to look at the victims and survivors of trafficking with empathy, with care, and in a holistic way. They are the ones who suffer the most with this crime and they cannot be treated simply as evidence,” said Jose Monteiro, IJM’s Country Director in the Dominican Republic.
In addition to legal representation, panelists highlighted that for an effective and holistic approach that will allow survivors of this crime to thrive, it is important to ensure that legal representation is accompanied by psychosocial, social and economic services.
“It is not just about legal aid and judicial representation in the case, the victim also needs assistance in other areas. For example, a victim who has been rescued could have a need for food, or [further] protection in cases involving minors [like safe housing]. This information is also gathered by the public defense to ensure the victim’s needs are met – in coordination with other agencies that can provide for those needs,” emphasized Hernan Álvaro Neyra, from the Peruvian Public Defenders Office.