I am sitting here, sober after some of the sweetness of Christmas has fallen away, as the garden grows dark. It is when it grows dark that you miss people the most; or at least that is what I have found. It is the time of day when, as a child, I felt secure at home with my family, eating supper, doing my homework, listening to music. I did not want to be in the company of strangers, or alone wandering the streets. What a terrifying thought. And at this quiet and comforting time of day, Jamaican children should be making their way home, or playing in the yard, or watching television, or maybe chatting with a boyfriend on the phone, or at their gate. More likely a boyfriend, because I believe most of these young missing Jamaicans are teenage girls.
And this year alone, there are over 500 Jamaican children who are somewhere else. Lost.
A few days before Christmas, and at the height of the chaotic election campaign, a child rights group called Hear the Children Cry held a press conference in Kingston. Probably not the best time to try and attract attention to a serious issue which, at the best of times, is brushed aside as if it is nothing of great importance. They are just “bad” kids who have run away; they will come back home. But at the moment Jamaicans seem more obsessed with who is and who isn’t gay, and whether gays should be allowed to have any rights at all (according to certain politicians they probably don’t have any, but that’s another story), and whether they should run for office. Ridiculous.
What is happening to our children? That’s not half as interesting or titillating a topic as rampant homosexuality taking over Jamaica, brimstone and fire upon them, etc… And so once again, children’s rights activists had to struggle to make their pleas heard above the raucous crowd. Their comments raised barely a frisson in the local media. The Jamaican lobby group reported at the press briefing that 1,808 children were reported missing between January 1 and November 13 this year (a frighteningly high figure, even if one takes repeat runaways into account) and that 526 of these had not returned home.
This, of course, raises the issue of human trafficking. Several years ago, the Petchary attended one or two workshops on the topic organized by the International Organization on Migration in Kingston. At the time, the majority of Jamaicans responded with a “what’s that?” and perhaps a few years after that, they might have thought it was just something that went on in “foreign” – girls from Eastern Europe or children from South East Asia. Or boatloads, truckloads of people (no – that is human smuggling, an entirely separate activity).
But in Jamaica, human trafficking? Not a problem, was the general view. Then a story surfaced about a corner of rural Jamaica (Culloden, in Westmoreland) where young women were “bought and sold” to the owners of “go go bars” and nightclubs. Since then, there has been a growing awareness that poor, under-educated rural women (some under-age) are “internally trafficked” to urban areas, where they end up as sex workers, deprived of their humanity and often of their free will.
But – hold on. What if there was a “foreign connection” in all of this, after all? Just days before Hear the Children Cry held their press briefing, a woman was arrested at the U.S. Embassy in Kingston. She is now on a forgery charge for documents related to a sixteen-year-old girl whom she “adopted.” Although human trafficking charges are still pending, police suspect she is responsible for at least seventeen other children who were sent illegally to the United States (and these children are now being sought) – and a newspaper report noted that she was paid thousands of dollars for each child trafficked.
Human trafficking has been called “modern-day slavery” – and it is. It is people – in many cases as in Jamaica, children – being treated as a commodity, like drugs, or a sack of soy beans or coffee, as in the commodity markets. A human being is an object, and a valuable commodity. One wants to keep them alive and reasonably healthy, but they must serve the purpose for which they have been bought and sold. It is dark, grim and cold. It is inhuman.
And how many of those 526 missing Jamaican children are suffering now? How many are crying, screaming, walking on cold streets? How many are alone, hopeless, despairing, struggling? We don’t know, because they are gone, they are faceless – and so, how many Jamaicans are really concerned? Human rights activists in Jamaica are asking for stop orders to be placed at Jamaica’s ports for missing children; and for a concerted effort by the police (who are fully aware of the problem, but of course greatly under-resourced), public officials and communities at the grassroots level to look out for warning signs, to prevent and of course to catch the perpetrators and rescue the victims. We are still not taking this seriously enough.
Whenever I watch the feature at the end of every evening newscast on local television, the faces of these lost children float up on the screen. Girls of thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, smiling eagerly in their best party clothes, or striking a pose, or soberly staring at the camera in their school uniform. Blurry, creased and perhaps not very recent photographs provided by anxious parents, who hope we will recognize them. I stare hard at the faces, trying to remember, in case the child should pass me on the street one day. But there are too many, different photos on the television screen every night – all accompanied by some rather mawkish music like an old film soundtrack, complete with an angelic choir. Somehow the music makes it all the more disturbing – it gives me the feeling they will never come back.
We are just a few days away from 2012. Let us turn our thoughts to the missing children of 2011. Let us not forget them.
- [VIDEO] – One candle for each missing child (expatica.com)
- Groups battle sex trafficking in Atlanta (ajc.com)
- Something Rotten (petchary.wordpress.com)
- Give Thanks (petchary.wordpress.com)