Human trafficking and sex racketeering in Fiji

  • 23rd October 2020
  • 2020
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Two recently published reports reveal a shocking picture of the existence of a well organized racket in Fiji that commercially exploit women and children in sexual activities ranging from prostitution, pornography and sex trafficking.         

The first, is a US Government State Department 2020 Report on human trafficking in Fiji which came out in June.

Sex trafficking in Fiji is so widespread it involves family members, taxi drivers, middlemen and madams, foreign tourists, businessmen, crew on foreign fishing vessels among others, says the US report.

The second, is a submission made this week to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence by an official of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Ms Momoko Namura.

“Fiji is a source country for children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour with child victims of trafficking being exploited in illegal brothels, local hotels and private homes,” Ms Nomura told the parliamentary committee.

The US report adds Chinese massage parlours and brothels to the list: “Fijian and Chinese women and children are exploited in Chinese-owned massage parlors and brothels, particularly in Suva.” It noted that websites and cell phone applications were used to advertise victims for commercial sex.

The report claims that the racket extends to China, Thailand and other South East Asian countries.  Chinese victims are brought into Fiji on small boats, thereby avoiding ports.

Sexual exploitation of children

Taxi drivers are known to have transported Fijian child sex victims to hotels in popular tourist areas at the request of foreign tourists, adds the US report.

Regrettably, the tourism industry appears to have become a major player, serving foreign tourists. Both the reports claim that sexual exploitation and abuse of children was prevalent in Fiji.

In its concluding observations on the 2014 report, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child noted ‘with deepest concern’ that “sexual exploitation and abuse of children is prevalent in the State party (Fiji), including through organized child prostitution networks and brothels.

“A 2010 study conducted by ILO found that, of the 500 working children surveyed, one in five (109) were engaged in commercial sexual exploitation, with some starting sex work as early as 10 years old.”

The ILO Report noted that ‘Sex tourists reportedly travel to the South Pacific, including Fiji, to engage in the commercial sexual exploitation of children.”

Fiji has also been identified as a source destination and transit country for men, women and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour. Fijian women and children are reportedly subjected to sex trafficking and domestic servitude abroad or in Fijian cities.”

Official complicity?

This is an absolutely shocking state of affairs! If it is so widely accepted in diplomatic circles as a way of life in Fiji, why is it that the authorities here have not mounted a vigorous campaign to stamp out this outrageous criminal activity before Fiji gets tagged as the Bangkok or Manila of the South Pacific, if it isn’t already.

One reason could be the claim by the US State Dept report that official complicity in Fiji has been an impediment to anti-trafficking efforts: “…low-level official complicity impeded anti-trafficking efforts, including by preventing the investigation of trafficking in Chinese-operated brothels.

The report says Fiji narrowly missed being further downgraded to Tier 3 under the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act because “the government has at least formalized a written plan, which, if implemented, would meet the minimum standards required to counter trafficking. Fiji has been on the US Tier 2 Watch List for three years now.

But in practice, Fiji still fails to meet minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. While it had increased manpower in the area, there was a lack of proper training for Labour, Immigration and Customs officials on trafficking.

Absence of up to date data

The fight against human trafficking is hampered by an appalling absence of current empirical data. Both the organisations mentioned above have used as their base a UNICEF commissioned independent report on the Rights of the Child released in 2014 and a comprehensive survey on child trafficking compiled by the International Labour Organisation in 2010.

Both these studies present a shocking picture of the state of the crime as it existed 6 or 10 years ago. How much more alarming is the situation likely to be today?

The fear, as Ms Nomura stated in her submission to the Parliamentary committee, is that the current COVID-19 crisis with its consequent rise in poverty, has increased the danger of sexual exploitation of children, in particular. Restrictions in movement imposed by COVID-19 could see an increase in online sexual exploitation of children because of restrictions in movement, she said. (FT 6 Oct).

If we are serious about halting this evil and stopping it from embedding itself even deeper in our society, the State, and even relevant NGOs must, as a first priority, undertake regular surveys to keep track of the situation.

 How it works?

The ILO study found that women operating as pimps searched for children ‘victims’ and provided them to clients. It established that some 43% of the kids had “spots” were they waited to be picked up or dropped off. Or they were on call or had personal contacts at hotels.

It was revealed that children travel from Suva to Nadi, the Coral Coast and Sigatoka to “work” when tourist demand is high.

They take the reverse route to Suva during the Hibiscus Festival or when national sports competitions are being staged to meet the demand.

Forced Labour

The US report also referred to the forced labour of migrant workers in the construction industry in Fiji: “Labour traffickers exploit workers from South and East Asian countries in small, informal farms and factories, and in construction.”

And noted that “…the government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in trafficking offences.”

“Nor did it report if it had investigated any of the cases, or labour violations involving migrant workers, for indicators of forced labour. In addition, observers reported authorities did not adequately monitor the labour conditions of worksites, including construction sites, of companies with foreign owners or that had connections to foreign investors.”

Fiji’s image has already been tarnished by the disgrace brought on us by the Grace Road saga when the founder of the religious cult, Madam Shin Ok Joo was convicted in Seoul in July 2019 on charges of practising slavery in Fiji and sentenced to six years imprisonment.

The sect moved to Fiji to avoid investigations in South Korea and quickly came under the patronage of the Fiji government obtaining a number of government jobs and contracts under questionable circumstances before landing the multi-million dollar contracts to renovate the Government House and the Prime Minister’s official residence.

The question I asked at the time was: “How was it possible for government to enter into commercial contracts with a group that was under investigation in South Korea and only came to Fiji to escape inquiries at home?

The US 2020 report refers to the company as having allegedly “confiscated the passports of its members who worked without pay in various companies owned by the Church”.

But shockingly, the Police and Immigration officials remained silent on the issue leading to all sorts of speculation by overseas media on the illegal activities of the group.

Then there is the recent case of the owner of the iconic Wakaya Island Resort, Clare Bronfman who was sentenced by a US Court last week to 7 years jail for her involvement in a New York self-help organisation that US federal prosecutors say engaged in forced labour, extortion and sex trafficking.

Wakaya is an exclusive resort catering to the very wealthy. Who knows what happens within its confines? Ms Bronfman was charged in 2018 and pleaded guilty to the charges in 2019. Have the authorities here investigated that no such activitity – ‘forced labour, extortion or sex trafficking – went on at Wakaya Island?

Are our laws deficient?

We need to ask how or why was the situation allowed to deteriorate to such a horrifying level? Are our laws deficient in dealing with issues of trafficking or are the authorities turning a blind eye because of complicity as claimed in the US Report?

If sexual exploitation is linked to poverty, then we need to be mindful that with the social deprivation caused by the COVID-19 crisis, the situation is likely to worsen. We know that children have already been hit hard.

Do we have the necessary specialized services needed to deal with children who face crisis situations? The OHCHR has urged Fiji to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography.

“The ratification would send a strong message nationally, regionally and internationally in terms of Fiji’s commitment to protect children from the most egregious types of harm, namely, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse,” said Ms Namura .

We witnessed this week the launch of a special song dedicated to the Children of Fiji to mark our 50th anniversary of independence as a nation.

Our children are our future. We need to pause and think whether we are taking adequate measures to protect them and to secure their future against exploitation by sex perverts and their accomplices…