Indigenous Peoples and the Anti-Trafficking Sector’s Blind Spot
The United Nations estimates that there are 370 million indigenous people around the world. Today, indigenous peoples are counted among the populations made most vulnerable to human trafficking. Yet, the factors that contribute to some indigenous communities’ overrepresentation in trafficking statistics, such as in Canada, and the necessary measures to ensure indigenous communities are more resilient to trafficking, are insufficiently interrogated. In other contexts, such as Mexico, indigenous communities are overlooked in forced labour and trafficking statistics due to problematic definitions of trafficking coupled with the usually remote living arrangements of indigenous communities and their relationships with State authorities.
Vulnerability to trafficking is systematically constructed by gaps in legislation and policy that drive inequalities and disempower impacted communities from rejecting exploitation. In the case of indigenous communities there are several factors that contribute to the vulnerability of these populations to trafficking including: lack of access to educational institutions; cultural barriers to education, employment and support services; poverty; denial of rights to traditional lands/land dispossession; racism.
A key issue highlighted in our report also draws attention to being aware of inflated trafficking statistics being misattributed to indigenous communities, particularly women and girls, due to the legal status and criminalization of sex work and the equating of sex work with trafficking. The overall result is that hard figures capturing an accurate scale of the issue, as well as appropriate prevention measures tailored to these indigenous populations, are scarce.
Indigenous peoples continue to be subjected to trafficking and forced labour. To make matters worse, the needs of these communities are often overlooked by global anti-trafficking efforts. In our report, we break down how some of the world’s indigenous communities are impacted by trafficking:
Nepal was the first country in Asia to ratify the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (C169) of the International Labour Organization. Over 35 per cent of the Nepalese population is indigenous. Despite this, indigenous persons are routinely marginalized, disenfranchised and left out of the decision-making processes that affect their quality of life.
In Jharkhand State in India, more than 25 per cent of the population belongs to an indigenous group, known as “Adivasi, literally meaning ‘indigenous people’ or ‘original inhabitants’”. These indigenous communities are overwhelmingly economically dependent on mining mica, a natural mineral that gives make-up and electronics their glittery shine. But many people whose livelihoods depend on small-scale mica mining in Jharkhand State — one of the world’s top mica producers — are trapped in cycles of poverty and bonded labour.
Indigenous peoples make up just over 9 per cent of Guyana’s overall population but are perceived to be the majority of the country’s trafficked population. In fact, many have seen trafficking as an indigenous problem with little State intervention to prevent sex trafficking and domestic servitude of numerous women and girls.
Guyana’s indigenous population has settled mostly in the hinterland regions of the country, where many companies have set up mining operations and are the main sites of reported trafficking. Advocates have reported forced labour of mainly women and girls in brothels near mining sites in addition to being trafficked to nearby countries such as Barbados, Suriname and Venezuela.
Due to their remote location, there is a lack of access to equivalent services available on the coast, including education and law enforcement. Many traditional lands that were taken over by first the colonial authorities and then the independent State have been sold to gold mining companies as concessions, and employment opportunities are scarce.
Interlinking systemic discrimination constructs vulnerability to trafficking for indigenous communities in Mexico. Furthermore, the oversight from local and federal authorities further marginalizes these groups and impedes accurate assessments of the true scale and impact of trafficking within these communities. A recent report by El Pacto por Los Derechos Humanos outlines how trafficking data on separate indigenous groups isn’t sufficiently recorded or recognized, “creating a blind spot for authorities”.
Indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States continue to be disproportionately represented in recorded numbers of trafficking survivors. The long-term impacts of colonization, displacement, racism, discrimination and barriers to education that have led to higher instances of poverty and homelessness are some of the contributing factors to increased instances of abuse and violence facing indigenous communities.
At the intersection of these vulnerabilities, the risk of trafficking increases. A 2018 report by the Native Women’s Association of Canada found that indigenous women are overrepresented in national trafficking cases in Canada making up a staggering 50 per cent of identified trafficking victims, but only 4 per cent of the population.
The legacy of colonization continues to harm indigenous communities around the world and drives structural inequalities that construct vulnerability to trafficking. Indigenous communities must be empowered to lead the charge in developing policies and processes that hold structural change and holistic systems of trauma-informed healing at their centre in order to build sustainable resilience of these communities to modern slavery and trafficking. But first, they must be seen.
This article has been prepared by Krysta Bisnauth and Miriam Karmali as contributors to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.