Dec 12, Colombo: The United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka Michele Sison Wednesday opened a shelter for victims of trafficking in Sri Lanka made possible by a US$300,000 donation from the United States Department of State.
Opening the first government-run shelter for trafficking victims, Ambassador Sison said the shelter is an example of how the two governments - Sri Lankan and US, non-governmental organizations, and the international community can work together to share expertise and best-practices and marshal resources to improve lives of people in Sri Lanka.
The partnership of United States with the Sri Lankan government to establish the shelter also included the National Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force and the UN's International Organization for Migration.
Sison also commended Sri Lankan government's commitment and steps taken to combat human trafficking and to help victims.
Pointing out the difference between human smuggling and trafficking, the Ambassador said the there is nothing voluntary about being trafficked and the society and media need to be clear that anyone who is compelled into service, whether through physical or psychological means, is a victim.
She highlighted that Sri Lanka last year made progress to prevent trafficking, both internally and externally, by convicting labor recruitment agents involved in fraudulent recruitment.
The government also has increased inter-ministerial coordination through monthly meetings of the National Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force.
The yearly Trafficking in Persons report prepared by the State Department has recognized Sri Lanka's developments and removed the country from the Watchlist to the Tier 2 status in the recent report.
Despite the country's improved status, Sri Lanka must be vigilant, the Ambassador emphasized, as too many Sri Lankans - especially women - are finding themselves in conditions of forced labor through practices such as restrictions on movement, withholding of passports, threats, physical or sexual abuse, and threats of detention and deportation.
She called on Sri Lankan embassies around the region to create short-term shelters to support victims of abuse abroad.
The Ambassador also stressed on the importance of punishing the traffickers with severe criminal penalties to stop human trafficking.
Sentences should be commensurate with other grave criminal offenses such as rape, kidnapping, and murder, she said pointing out that in many cases the offenders get away with less or no punishment.
"We not only have a duty to punish the trafficker, but to offer assistance and restore the victim," she noted.
Sison said recognizing that there is a gap between the resources available and the resources that are needed to improve counter-trafficking measures, the U.S. State Departmentís Trafficking in Persons office awards grants to local organizations to support the local efforts to combat trafficking and provide shelter for victims.
In total the U.S. State Department has given almost US$1.3 million dollars through IOM to assist the Sri Lankan government on trafficking issues, the Ambassador said. This includes a $450,000 grant announced in September that will help support the operation of this shelter as well as other programs that combat trafficking and aid victims, she added.