Where are they now?

Yes, right now, this minute – where are they?  Jamaica‘s missing children.

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.


13 thoughts on “Where are they now?

  1. The idea of trafficking came to mind as I read more and more of it lately… The sad part is that not all are for slavery; some are for body parts and yes, how horrific! God help us all.


    1. Yes, we don’t have that body parts problem in Jamaica – at least not yet, and hopefully never. Truly horrible. We don’t seem to have grasped the dreadful issue though… although Jamaicans are descended from slaves, we don’t seem to quite recognize it properly – we seem to think it’s something else…


  2. Emma this is so important and it goes on everywhere in many different forms…
    For years i worked with deeply troubled youths…many were child prostitutes…some as young as 13, in Vancouver, downtown in daylight ~ in full view of people & police..all had been sexually traumatized previously ~ the message to these CHILDREN – society accepts you selling yourself and so then internalize..noone is jumping out to stop this so message is I am useless and that must be WHO I am…. AND acceptable for men to buy you…
    Police kept an eye on things..that was the most horrific part… no outrage, no consistent will of society and it’s institutions to intervene, no official rescue plans, little official notice at all!!! no plastering of every John’s plate on front page when kids got into car… business as usual.

    These children need to be on everyone’s agenda!


    1. Yes, Roslyn – they should be. No, no outrage really except from one or two lobby groups, who are like voices crying in the wilderness I fear. Please tweet my blog post etc and share widely. We need greater awareness… and more outrage … about these issues going on right here and now. Perhaps an international organization has to take up the cause, if local ones refuse to be moved. It’s a quiet tragedy. But it shouldn’t be so quiet…


  3. I’m so glad you wrote about this, and so sorry you had to. It’s been a much bigger issue around the world than people care to admit, and one I’ve written about before. Voices must be raised for those being smuggled/trafficked/traded. Thank you for adding your voice.


    1. Thank you for your comments. It is a shameful and sad business – trafficking in human souls, as someone put it – and I know it’s not just a Jamaican thing, but as I noted for a long time Jamaicans were in denial that it was happening, or could happen. Yes, I’m sorry I had to write about it, too. Warmest wishes for 2012…


  4. Emma,

    This is a great post! Some of these children are often labelled ‘troubled’ or ‘difficult’ and the truth is, many of them are just alone. Congrats on your 200th post…if you’ve not been freshly pressed yet, it is about time.


    1. Iana, thanks so much. Yes, these kids do get labeled, but they need help (often, professional help) – and of course lots of love, too. They may have been abused and I think many are desperate. We need to understand childhood and its mysteries much better. We need to love and understand our children. When I go to the local orphanages and children’s homes, my heart nearly breaks. Thanks for your comment, and do share. Warm wishes for 2012 from Kingston to Georgetown!


  5. heartbreaking. i think that people push this disturbing issue out of their minds because it’s too dark, and they feel too helpless. What can anyone do? Maybe just to commit to care and to act even in small ways when we get an opportunity. The flip side of this is the issue of street kids, who aren’t missing at all – they’re right there in our faces, and they so need help, too.


    1. Yes, it is dark Agape. Sometimes, though, we have to face the darkness. People don’t want to listen, but some will. Thanks and keep reading – and lots of love to you and all the boys!


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