“That figure is alarming because human trafficking is hidden – you can assume the problem is much bigger. We have found some terrifying cases of children aged 10 brought from Venezuela to Colombia to be shut in a house where traffickers abuse them.”
In 2009, the foundation helped to usher into law two landmark pieces of legislation. One established a mandatory minimum sentence of at least 14 years in prison for those convicted of aiding and abetting the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. The other targeted the owners of establishments that allow the sexual exploitation of children on their premises.
“Fleeing their houses, families, friends, and then being sexually abused too – it’s too much for those small bodies,” Ms Perez said. “We really need to listen to these children; they need us, and need to know there are other adults that are taking care of them.”
The outbreak of Covid-19 has increased the vulnerability of the children, too. Tight border restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus has made crossing at official border points near-impossible, meaning the most desperate people are opting for methods which increases their risk of sex trafficking. Disruptions to education and separation from caregivers who fall sick often leave children unattended.
The drive to keep people indoors has meant children have been trapped with their abusers inside, making them hard to reach.
“Because the children are spending more time on the internet, human trafficking networks are using it to reach out to children, asking them to send naked pictures. We have seen cases where abusers are trying to reach children through video games,” she added.
Ms Pérez, who has spent over 20 years of her life helping victims, acknowledged that the work is emotionally, physically and spiritually draining. “But when you see a girl arrive full of hatred and pain and anger, and you see her transforming into joy and happiness, that takes away the frustration,” she added.
Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said: “People like Maya represent the best of us. Her bravery and selfless pursuit to rescue and protect some of the world’s most vulnerable children is nothing short of heroic. Her unwavering dedication has saved the lives of hundreds of refugee children and restored their hopes for a better future.”
On winning the award, Ms Pérez said: “For me, the prize represents an opportunity for the girls and boys, and at the same time of course it’s an honour and a privilege to have been chosen.
“I see it as an opportunity to shine a light on the victims and show how important the rehabilitation process is.”
Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security