“Traffickers are waiting for them across the border”

By: Salomé Fernandes

The follow-up provided to children who are victims of human trafficking must change, stated Juliana Devoy, Director of the Good Shepherd Centre, referring to the short time the victims stay in Macau as well as the loss of any contact once they leave the territory.

Regarding cases of human trafficking, the MSAR Government provides victims with free medical care, drug treatment, legal advice and economic support, while also covering all transport costs when they are returned to their places of origin. They are also provided, through private institutions, with shelter services and psychological counselling, explained IAS.

In order to provide these services to the victims IAS collaborates with three private institutions: the Good Shepherd Centre, the Macao Women’s General Association and the International Organization for Migration.

“We have an agreement with the government, for 10 years now, where we receive the minors. Since then, we’ve had over 50 girls here. But, we had 29 in 2013, 16 in 2012, three in 2016, and two in 2017. The number has fluctuated a lot, for at the beginning there were many more. It is very hard, though, to find the reason for this – but in my opinion the traffickers are just getting smarter,” Devoy told JTM.

Nonetheless, even with the monitoring provided and the apparent decline in the number of human trafficking it is not certain that such practice is decreasing.

“Does this mean there are indeed fewer cases? We have no idea. There may in fact be more cases but they do not know of them. It’s difficult to ascertain”, she said. “Under the age of 18 years old, the United Nations considers the victims as children; they must have protection, and for that reason the police can stop them in the street or anywhere else, check their documents to confirm their age, and, if they are minors, they are taken into custody. But, those who are older than 18 – and considering prostitution is not a crime in Macau – the victim has to be the one to ask for help.”

There is a pattern to the victims found, points out Juliana Devoy. The minors found are always female from more remote areas of Mainland China who have abandoned school and are unhappy at home, making them more vulnerable to traffickers. “These are good children,” believes the Director of the Centre, who regrets their fate.

“It breaks my heart because they could develop, learn (. . .). One of the girls was making a cup of noodles for herself and made one for me, too. Some are quite nice, lovely. So, it’s a shame that it’s so hard to do something for them, as they never co-operate with the police; they won’t tell on who brought them to Macau”.

The difficulty in building up a criminal case stems from lack of evidence and testimony from the victims. “The girls won’t testify. They are very much controlled by the traffickers,” laments Devoy.

Debbie Lau & Juliana Devoy

Threats and promises

To the threats to which they are subjected by the men they call ‘uncles’ add the promise of money, said Debbie Lau, an helper at the Good Shepherd Centre. So, whenever minors are found during raids on nightclubs, or when distributing cards in the vicinity of the casinos, they remain silent.

“The trafficker keeps the money they get from customers for a month or two, and only after that will they start giving some of it to the girls. As such, if during that time the girls happen to be picked up by the police they will want to leave quickly to find the traffickers and get the money back”, explained Lau.

Sister Juliana Devoy emphasised that point. “Traffickers are waiting for them across the border, and [the girls] are very much under their control, especially with the promise of money”. When they return to their country of origin, bearing in mind all the cases managed by the Centre pertain to Chinese citizens, the traffickers provide them with a new phone number and all contact is lost.

The solution goes through two different mechanisms. The head of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) suggests the victims are allowed to remain in Macau longer in addition to a more thorough follow-up once the girls are repatriated.

“The government’s position has been that they cannot force them to stay here because it would go against their fundamental human rights. I oppose this position because I find it inconsistent, not logical at all.”

According to Juliana Devoy, if the fact they are children equates to the need to offer them protection then the same principle justifies that if the victims are from another country they will not be immediately sent back.

“They would be given a period of reflection and recovery, which makes sense because going through such an experience is traumatic regardless of the amount [of money] that may come from it. I’m still trying to convince the government to think about it and I think they may be ready to do it,” she noted.

This change in demeanour in government’s actions noted by the Centre’s director is due to the fact that last year, and for the very first time, one of the minors was escorted home instead of travelling by plane alone. In 2018, this procedure was repeated with a new victim, making it easier to maintain contact in the future.

There is also, upon their return home, a lack of support system from local associations which may allow them to study or learn a trade so that their lives can change. “We must face reality: the reason they are easy prey for traffickers is because they are unhappy at home. Maybe there are exceptions, but as a rule sending them home will not solve the problem. So I am looking for resources in Mainland China that may follow these cases. They need to be in a structured environment,” she affirmed.

And there is also the possibility of setting up a programme in Macau. Although the period of stay can be extended, as a rule, if the young women do not co-operate with the police the case is closed and they are repatriated within a few days.

“If there is a longer period, our team has a greater opportunity for establishing a connection with the girls. It is not possible to create a rapport in two or three days”, she believes. A stay of several months is something that can encourage not only their co-operation but their capacity to imagine a different future.

*Exclusive JTM/Macau Business