A decades-long advocate against the trafficking and exploitation of children is finally getting the recognition that she deserves.
Mayerlín Vergara Pérez, Caribbean regional coordinator for the Colombian nonprofit Renacer Foundation, received the 2020 Nansen Refugee Award on Thursday, according to a news release. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) honored her for “outstanding service to forcibly displaced people,” during a virtual ceremony.
As the 2020 recipient, Vergara Pérez joins more than 82 other Nansen Refugee Award laureates since it was established in 1954. She will now lead a team to work closely with the child protection group Colombian Family Welfare Institute.
Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, applauded Vergara Pérez’s bravery and selflessness.
“She embodies the essence of this award,” said Grandi, according to the release. “Her unwavering dedication has saved the lives of hundreds of refugee children and restored their hopes for a better future.”
The Renacer Foundation has helped more than 22,000 children and adolescents that have survived gender-based and sexual violence, as well as sexual exploitation since launching in 1988. Vergara Pérez has dedicated more than 20 years to rescuing exploited and trafficked children in Colombia. She has put her safety at risk and walked through rural areas in north-east Colombia where trafficking and smuggling are rampant.
“Their bodies have been so maltreated, so abused, so exploited that they feel alienated from those bodies, as if they don’t belong to them,” said Vergara Pérez, according to the release.
Trafficking can have short- and long-term negative impacts on children’s mental, emotional, and physical health and access to education.
Vergara Pérez also helped pass two landmark laws in Colombia in 2009 that require a 14-year minimum prison sentence for anyone found guilty of assisting in child sexual exploitation and hold business owners accountable if they allow child trafficking on their premises.
Child trafficking and sexual exploitation are especially common in Colombia’s tourist cities and illegal gold mining areas, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Between 2013 and 2018, 7,500 children were reported to be sexual exploitation victims, but the actual rate is likely higher. Most cases go unpunished, with only 19 people convicted of human trafficking in 2018, putting even more children and women at risk.
Migrant women and children who are fleeing Venezuela’s humanitarian crises are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking while seeking refuge in Colombia. Tighter border restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have also pushed many migrants to use illegal crossings.
Vergara Pérez’s win is in tandem with the 20th anniversary of the Palermo Protocol, the first international agreement to help stop human trafficking.
“This is an opportunity for us to renew our commitment to eradicating this heinous crime,” said Grandi, according to the release.
He warned that protecting children against trafficking and exploitation requires a global collaborative response.