By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Aug 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Migrant women and children fleeing Venezuela's economic collapse are at heightened risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking on their journeys seeking refuge across South America, aid agencies said on Wednesday.
More than 1.6 million Venezuelans have abandoned the oil-rich nation since 2015 to seek better lives in neighboring Colombia and across the region in one of the largest mass migrations in Latin American history, the United Nations says.
Thousands of destitute migrant families are crossing the porous border into Colombia each day.
Desperate for jobs to send money back home to feed their hungry families, migrants make easy prey and are vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers, experts say.
A report issued on Wednesday by Bogota-based think tank, the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP), said sex trafficking of Venezuelan migrants is particularly rife along Colombia's northern borders where criminal gangs and guerrilla groups are active.
"In border areas, the Colombian state has very little control," Juan Carlos Garzon, head of FIP, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It's very difficult for Venezuelan migrants because they come across major illegal groups who take advantage of their vulnerability. We've heard several testimonies of the sexual exploitation and trafficking of women," he said.
Omar Ochoa, a local government human rights official in Colombia's northern city of Bucaramanga, told local media earlier this week he was concerned by reports of girls forced into prostitution as they travel 200 kilometers (124 miles) on foot and by bus from the Colombian border.
Child migrants are being trafficked into forced begging in Colombia, according to children's charity Terre des Hommes that this month surveyed more than 900 people, mostly Venezuelan migrants, along the border.
"People we interviewed have been telling us that Venezuelan children are being rented out to beg on the streets at traffic lights and as domestic workers," said Marion Prats, a child protection specialist at Swiss-based Terre des Hommes.
"Mothers ... are worried about their daughters taking up offers of work and becoming trapped in prostitution."
Colombian authorities rescued 49 women, 23 of whom were Venezuelan, from a sex trafficking ring in the Caribbean port city of Cartagena, @RevistaSemana reported https://t.co/srluOF6oaN— InSight Crime (@InSightCrime) August 21, 2018
See our coverage of how sex trafficking networks are cashing in on the crisis in Venezuela: https://t.co/iOoqQK8qsX
Colombia's child protection agency (ICBF) identified 350 Venezuelan children who were victims of child labour in Colombia from March to June this year.
Tighter entry rules for Venezuelans introduced by Peru and Ecuador this month increase the risk of trafficking, the UN and Norwegian Refugee Council say.
"Of particular concern are the most vulnerable ... people trying to reunite with their families and unaccompanied and separated children," said Olga Sarrado, a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokeswoman.
There are no figures to show how many migrants become victims of sexual and labour exploitation.
Globally, some 25 million people are believed to be victims of labor or sex trafficking, according to the International Labour Organization and other leading groups.
Raids on brothels by Colombian authorities have put the problem in the spotlight.
In July, police busted a sex trafficking ring in Colombia's tourist city of Cartagena, arresting 18 people charged with recruiting and selling more than 250 women and teenage girls into the sex trade. The victims included Venezuelans.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota. Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. ((Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)