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BOGOTA, Sept 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A boom in illegal gold mining in Colombia and Peru is fuelling human trafficking and forced labor in and around mines but there have been few convictions for the crime, researchers say.
In Peru, the world’s fifth biggest gold producer and exporter, sexual exploitation and forced labour in some mining areas is a growing concern, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says.
“Human trafficking in both illegal mining areas and small-scale mining is an increasing problem in Peru,” said Jeremy MacGillivray, IOM’s project development officer in Peru.
Poor, uneducated and unemployed women and girls are vulnerable to recruiters’ false promises of work as cooks, cleaners and waitresses in mining towns but are often forced into commercial sex work.
“Around mines, small towns sprout up providing services for miners, including restaurants, bars and brothels, where many of the victims of sexual exploitation are. They often come from the poorest areas of Peru looking for work,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
Forced labour, also known as slavery, is a problem in Peru’s small mines, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.
“Peruvians working in artisanal gold mines experience forced labor, including through deceptive recruitment, debt bondage, restricted freedom of movement or inability to leave, withholding of or nonpayment of wages, and threats and use of physical violence,” the report said.
But many miners, as well as men and teenagers hired to clear trees, operate pumps and carry rocks around mines, are often not aware they have been trafficked.
“When you speak to people who work in the mines they don’t seem themselves as victims of human trafficking, as people who are being exploited. They think working in difficult and poor conditions is part of being a miner,” said MacGillivray.
Nearly 3,000 cases of human trafficking have been reported across Peru since 2009, including in mining, with most cases involving the sexual exploitation of women and girls, he said.
“In the past five years, there have been few convictions for human trafficking in Peru, just around a few dozen,” MacGillivray said.
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The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates the worldwide forced labour industry is worth $150 billion a year.
“We’ve seen that more and more policies and laws on human trafficking have been passed around the world but there are still very few cases of successful prosecutions compared to the size of the problem. It’s shocking,” said Houtan Homayounpour, operations officer for ILO’s programme to combat forced labour.
One reason for the low conviction rates for human trafficking in the illegal mining sector is because mines are often located in isolated areas that are hard to reach.
“Around the world human trafficking, forced labour, in and around informal mining is a concern because of the lack of rule of law, few labour inspectors and police in rural remote areas,” said Homayounpour.
In Colombia, illegal gold and silver mines, particularly in the western rainforest province of Choco and other jungle regions, are known as human trafficking hotspots.
“Groups of women are bused in at the weekends by organised crime networks to serve miners, while men and boys are victims of forced labour,” said Carlos Perez, a project coordinator at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Colombia, which works on human trafficking.
Illegal gold mining now yields profits five times as big as the returns from cocaine, making it the main source of revenue for many organised crime groups and the FARC rebels, police say.
The governments of both Peru and Colombia say they are clamping down on illegal mining, confiscating machinery, and shutting down hundreds of mines operating without a government licence every year.
In July, Peruvian police razed dozens of illegal gold mining camps in Madre de Dios, a vast and remote province in Peru’s Amazon jungle and a centre of illegal gold mining, and detained six people suspected of human trafficking.
Verite, a U.S.-based charity that campaigns on labour issues, said in a report on Peru in 2012 that women were sold in Madre de Dios for sex work, including virgin girls who were auctioned to miners.
“When they arrive at the mining camps, they are told that they have to provide sexual services or pay immediately for the clothing, transportation, and lodging that they thought was provided free of charge,” the Verite report said.
“Interviews indicated that new arrivals at the camps, especially virgins, were auctioned off to the highest bidder the first Friday or Saturday after they arrive at the camps.”