By Linda Nwoke
The European Institute for Gender Equality describes sexual exploitation as any attempt or actual abuse of someone’s position of vulnerability, trust, or less power, for sexual purposes, bringing about social, political, or monetary gain by the perpetrator.
Sexual exploitation exists in various forms, including prostitution (window, brothels, and street prostitution), pornography, strip clubs/bars, escort services, massage parlors, and modeling agencies. Most times, women and girls are the victims.
A report by the Pan-American Health Organization, identifies sexual exploitation as one of the reasons for the trafficking of women and children, and central to this act of exploitation by the perpetrators are deception, and greed.
Reasons for Migration
Extreme poverty remains a significant reason for migration. Other factors, including shifting demographic and economic patterns, forces migrant workers in ever-increasing numbers to cross borders in search of work in unfamiliar territories despite the numerous dangers and uncertainties.
The Journey of Exploitation
From their home country, migrants become victims of ‘exploitation’ by recruitment agencies. They overcharge them for their services or misrepresent the journey and the employment waiting for them at the other end. For some, they meet officials who coerce them to pay bribes to continue their journey, get their documents, or exit detention.
There are numerous stories of traffickers, and smugglers, raping, beating, and sometimes holding surviving victims to ransom. Others have shared stories of border officials coercing them to pay bribes to continue their journey in return for their documents or exit from detention.
Most women and girls and sometimes men and boys become compelled to exchange sex for smuggling services or basic needs like food or accommodation throughout the journey.
And in some cases, migrants become victims of ‘debt bondage, which is a fallout from the migration process.
It involves the manipulation of debt for the services of a person, such as a cost incurred as debt by the migrant from receiving smuggling services – forged documentation, transportation, and bribing border officials. Other debts may be incurred, including the cost of food, accommodation, and securing employment opportunities. Sometimes the ‘debts’ become overwhelming, and the migrants cannot pay them off due to their meager wages. Debt bondage remains one of the most commonly used means of keeping people tied to an exploitative situation.
Case Studies – Sexual Assaults by Smugglers and People in Authority
In 2017, Sarah, a 32-year-old mother of two, had just completed the journey from her native Honduras, crossing the Rio Grande before arriving in the city of McAllen along the Texas border. That was when the worst of her nightmares unfolded. The smugglers she paid drugged her, held her captive for weeks in a room, and repeatedly raped her. She reported feeling like she had died. In some cases, the perpetrators are on-duty Border Patrol agents and Customs officers.
Two teenage girls were reportedly sexually assaulted by a Customs and Border Protection officer in West Texas. The officer allegedly molested them and offered them confectioneries and a blanket. The teenagers filed legal claims against the federal government and received $125,000 as a settlement in 2018.
In a 2019 report by The New York Times, Manny Fernandez documented some of the experiences of sexually exploited victims. The report captured the assault of undocumented women along the border in the past two decades, concluding that sexual violence is an inescapable part of the collective migrant journey. Occurring right on America’s soil in the southern border, migrant women and girls become victims of sexual assaults that are underreported and not prosecuted.
The Different Shades of Sexual Exploitation
Experts have confirmed that attacks don’t end at the border. Several women reported an assault in immigration detention facilities. Over a recent four-year period, the federal government has received more than 4,000 complaints about the sexual abuse and exploitation of immigrant children at government-funded detention facilities.
In other instances, migrants become highly vulnerable to exploitation when they become stranded while on transit in a country or a destination country. They become a subject for sexual exploitation due to their compromised immigration status. In conclusion, the central theme to sexual exploitation is the concept of ‘vulnerability,’ precisely economic vulnerability.
Effects of Gender and Sexual Exploitation on the Migrants
Many reports have shown a link between sexual exploitation and mental health issues. In a report by The Times, they interviewed eight sexually assaulted migrant women from Central America between 2013 and 2016.
The women revealed that they struggle with constant nightmares, feelings of depression, and in some cases, suicidal thoughts. Notably, most of the ‘sexually exploited women’ do not report the incident because their attackers threaten to expose their immigration status. The victims report feeling helpless, powerless, and in a state of despair.
Steps to Addressing Sexual Exploitation of Migrants
While some of them get lucky and receive victim-related visas to stay in the United States, many live in fear of deportation. Some find work in factories, restaurants, stores, laundromats, and work as aides, but they struggle with making a living because of language limitations.
Unsurprisingly, migrants do not share their ordeal with family members due to the fear of being judged or rejected.
But the question remains how can we advocate against the sexual exploitation of migrants?
One way of changing the situation is focusing on protection, for example, by ensuring that all migrants, regardless of their legal status, are respected as human beings. Their human rights are protected no matter what by State and non-State actors.
Likewise, raising awareness on the issue of sexual exploitation and mistreatment of migrants, especially in parts of the United States where there are migrants, is critical. Community groups and nonprofit organizations can run educative programs on sexual exploitation.
They can share information on what they can do and where they can report and find help. Lack of information concerning migrants living in irregular situations has remained a challenge in reducing exploitation, and this must be addressed through better data collection and community effort.
Additionally, the fear of arrest and deportation prevents many migrant workers from speaking out about abuses, so they need assurance from the government.
As the U.S economy struggles to reach a ‘new-normal’, there is a need to put safeguards in place to ensure that migrants are afforded equal treatment under the law and clearer pathways for citizenship.