THE latest US Trafficking in Persons Report has noted experts' concerns about excessive pre-trial detention due to criminal justice system delays, preventing even the most serious criminal cases from advancing in a timely manner due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lack of judges and prosecutors in the country contributed to significant backlogs in all cases, the 2022 report noted, in addition to courts easily granting bail - due in part to prison overcrowding - even to persons accused of violent crimes, and law enforcement not having the resources to fully uphold the law were among the issues with the judicial system.
Immigration officials may have also solicited Haitian migrants for bribes to prevent detention, the report went on to say.
It is also possible that some of a group of 50 Cuban medical professionals who were sourced to assist in the public healthcare system during the pandemic may have been forced to work by the Cuban government, the report said.
The workers entered the system back in January at a time when 116 Bahamian nurses were inactive due to COVID-19 exposure.
According to the 2022 State Department Report on Trafficking In Persons (TIP), The Bahamas maintained Tier 1 Status.
This despite the government failing to initiate any new prosecutions, identifying fewer victims and not having a comprehensive implementation of the country’s victim identification protocol, especially among at risk groups, including Haitian migrants.
“The government of The Bahamas fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” according to yesterday’s report. “The government continued to demonstrate serious and sustained efforts during the reporting period considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore The Bahamas remained on Tier 1.
“These efforts included convicting a trafficker, providing support for victims repatriated abroad, making efforts to provide compensation to a victim, increasing funding for victim services, and coordinating with governments in the region on a virtual forum to share challenges and best practices on prosecuting trafficking and improving inter-agency collaboration."
The report also said there was a slight decrease in law enforcement efforts.
“The government initiated investigation of one sex trafficking case involving two suspects, compared with 13 cases (11 for sex trafficking and two for labour trafficking) in 2020 and 16 investigations in 2019. The government did not initiate any new prosecutions, compared with two prosecutions initiated in both 2020 and 2019.
“The government continued prosecution of one alleged sex trafficker from a previous reporting period and reported another seven suspected traffickers awaited the start of their trials. The government convicted one Bahamian female trafficker in December 2021 for the sex trafficking of two girl victims under the TIP Act and other laws, the same number as in 2020 and compared with no convictions in 2019.
“The Chief Magistrate sentenced the trafficker to penalties consistent with a plea agreement, including nine months and three days in prison for each of 12 counts, with concurrent sentences; three years of probation and a $5,000 fine; and 12 months of counseling; and it required the trafficker to give evidence in a related trafficker prosecution. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions or convictions of government officials complicit in trafficking crimes.”
Meanwhile the lengthy report zeroed in on how the COVID-19 pandemic affected trials.
“Pandemic-related lockdowns in 2020 exacerbated criminal trial delays, but the judiciary continued modernization efforts to address the backlog, including the digitization of records. While the government did not assign any courts specifically to handle trafficking cases, prosecutors brought all trafficking cases before the Magistrate’s and Supreme Courts.
“Experts reported concerns about excessive pretrial detention due to criminal justice system delays, preventing even the most serious criminal cases from advancing in a timely manner. Observers noted the lack of judges and prosecutors in the country contributed to significant backlogs in all cases; courts easily granted bail (due in part to prison overcrowding), even to defendants accused of violent crimes, and law enforcement did not have the resources to fully uphold the law.
“Immigration officials may have solicited Haitian migrants for bribes to prevent detention. The government provided training to defence officials and law enforcement on case reporting, victim and perpetrator profiles, methods, victim identification and elements of trafficking. Due to the pandemic, the government conducted most anti-trafficking training virtually. The anti-trafficking committee participated in numerous international meetings on trafficking, both in person and virtually, which resulted in new networks for collaboration and potential future MOUs.”
While there was a slight increase in efforts to protect victims of trafficking, it was asserted that “observers reported authorities did not use formal protocols to screen all migrants and continued to abuse migrants — particularly those of Haitian descent. Authorities reported screening individuals for trafficking indicators during routine checks of nightclubs. The government did not report screening Cuban medical workers for trafficking indicators.”
It again echoed a concern that unaccompanied migrant children, individuals lured for employment, those involved in commercial sex and exotic dancing, irregular migrants, stateless persons, LGBTQI+ individuals (particularly from poor communities), and migrants displaced by Hurricane Dorian have been trafficking victims or are particularly vulnerable to trafficking.
“In particular, irregular migrants living in informal settlements on the Hurricane Dorian-ravaged islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, as well as those who fled to New Providence after the storm, exist in what observers call ‘dark spaces,’ which deter reporting abuse.
"In January 2022, the government signed an official agreement with the Cuban government to temporarily host 50 nurses to provide medical care during the pandemic. Cuban medical professionals may have been forced to work by the Cuban government. The high unemployment rate — reported to have exceeded 40 percent — resulting from the pandemic may have increased vulnerabilities for potential victims.”
The report recommended increase efforts to investigate, prosecute and convict traffickers, including officials complicit in sex or labour trafficking, and to impose sufficient sentences.
Other suggestions included: “Improve efforts to identify victims and refer them to services, particularly among vulnerable groups, including underserved stateless persons, migrants and asylum-seekers from Haiti and Venezuela, LGBTQI+ individuals, and Cuban nationals working on government-sponsored programmes.
“Reduce delays in court proceedings.
“Train labour inspectors on trafficking, victim identification and referral to services. Raise awareness of trafficking risks among vulnerable groups in partnership with NGOs and provide migrants with information on trafficking and workers’ rights.
“Remove a requirement for migrants switching jobs to obtain a letter of release from their employer; take steps to eliminate recruitment fees charged to workers by labour recruiters and ban employee-paid recruitment fees; provide a dedicated shelter for trafficking victims; improve regular data collection and record keeping, including prosecution statistics, provide victims an alternative to speaking with law enforcement; provide vulnerable individuals with trauma-informed assistance and interpretation in their language prior to, during, and after screening for trafficking, including through the hotline and develop, execute, and publish a robust monitoring and evaluation framework for anti-trafficking policies and efforts.”