No country is innocent when it comes to the modern slave trade, reports LYNDAL IRONS.

Abolish slavery … Didn’t William Wilberforce already do that?

Laws have changed but more humans are being sold illegally than ever before and Christians have a role to play — again.

In the 2008 film Taken, Liam Neeson plays a former Central Intelligence Agency Operative whose beautiful teenage daughter is kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers while on holiday in France. He has 96 hours in which to find her before she’s likely forever lost.

Out come the guns, car chases and the best in surveillance technology as Neeson does everything in his power to get his daughter back.

In reality, trafficking is not at all like Neeson would have you believe, said Kilian Moote from not Not For Sale — an international organisation fighting human trafficking.

“Traffickers don’t prey on people who have resources and a network or an ability to protect themselves from abuse,” he said.

Instead they target marginalised cultures and communities with stigma: the lower castes, the illiterate, children, those unlikely to know or exert their rights, those poor enough to sell their children and those willing to make themselves vulnerable for a potentially life-changing work opportunity.

An example from the United Nation’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report is more representative:

Maira was 15 when two well-dressed men driving a nice car approached her and two friends in a small Honduran village. They told the girls they were businessmen and offered to take them to the United Statesto work in a textile factory.

Maira thought it was the perfect opportunity to help her single mother, who struggled to support seven children.

But, upon arriving in Houston, the girls were held captive, beaten, raped and forced to work in cantinas that doubled as brothels.

Men would come to the cantina and choose a beer and a girl, sometimes as young as 12. They would pay for the beer and sit with the girl while she drank it.

If they wanted to have sex with the girl, they would take her to the back and pay cash for a mattress, paper towels and spermicide.

The captors beat the girls daily if they did not make enough money.

After six years, Maira was able to escape the cantina and return to her mother with the help of a kind American family. Her two friends remain missing.

Modern slaves

Human trafficking is modern day slavery — where one person is held in the service of another without the ability to leave.

A trafficked person does not have to move across a border — though often they do — but all are unable to make decisions freely about their lives.

As the property of another, modern slaves are more likely to be constrained through fear, violence, manipulation, threats or a stolen passport than by shackles and chains.

The scale of the issue is difficult to pinpoint but David Batstone, author, journalist and cofounder of Not For Sale, said the commerce of human trafficking sat just behind drug trafficking and illegal arms for the top criminal activity globally.

The FBI and the International Labour Organisation have estimated that the slave trade generates $9.5-$32 billion in revenue every year and former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described defeating the industry as being “the greatest moral calling of our time”.

“Since trafficking and slavery are crimes and operate clandestinely, it is impossible to estimate how many people have been trafficked or enslaved in Australia or indeed around the world,” said Jennifer Burn, Associate Professor with Anti-Slavery Australia, a research centre based at the University of Technology, Sydney, focused on preventing slavery and trafficking.

“We know that many people are not identified as trafficked. This is a global challenge. Figures vary from between 27-30 million (Free the Slaves and Not for Sale) to the International Labour Organisation that estimates that there are 12.45 million people working in forced labour conditions at any one time and that over a million people are trafficked across borders each year.”

Free the Slaves, an anti-slavery organisation run by Dr Kevin Bales (a leading expert on modern slavery), claims there are more people in slavery today than at any time in human history.

It attributes that growth to the population explosion, widespread impoverishment of people and their resulting vulnerability, and government corruption.

Free the Slaves’ alarming figures include every person under the age of 18 working in the sex industry for which consent is legally invalid in regular relationship as well asunder a pimp.

And, in the US, the average age of entry into the sex industry is 13.

But it is not just the sex industry that is responsible for enslaving lives. Traffickers also recruit forced labour for other industries, including agriculture, textiles, hospitality and construction.

And, while it is easy for church-goers to point the finger at “evil” practises in brothels, less are willing to examine the “evil” in the supply chain of the products they purchase and support financially.

Industries like chocolate and coffee are notorious for their implication in forced labour.

Other businesses can be harder to spot but slavery does operate in plain view.

David Batstone’s passion for anti-slavery work began when he read that a local Indian restaurant he frequented in San Francisco utilised slaves.

Two girls who worked there were found by their flatmate, poisoned, following a gas leak. Instead of taking them to the hospital, their employer rolled them in carpets and tried to put them in a van, along with the girl who had found them.

A passing car saw the girl protest and a leg dangling out from a carpet roll and reported it to the police.

“Of those individuals extracted out of impoverished families and across international borders, 80 per cent are female and 50 per cent are children,” writes Mr Batstone in his book, Not For Sale.

“They are taken to unfamiliar destinations where, in the absence of legal protections and family networks, they can be kept in slavery. The consistency of this storyline in fact suggests the overarching mechanisms of a global industry.”

In Australia

Though Australia enjoys a Tier 1 rating from the TIP report (meaning it is a country whose government fully complies with the Trafficking Protections Act’s minimum standards), no country is innocent.

Australian men travel to countries notorious for underage sex tourism. Australian people daily buy products created by slaves.

Though the numbers pale in comparison to countries like India and Africa, both human traffickers and their victims exist in Australia.

To date there have been nine successful prosecutions for slavery, trafficking and debt bondage offences on our shores, three of which were prosecuted in New South Wales.

But such statistics only represent a small portion of trafficked people.

Trafficking cases are difficult to investigate and prosecute, can involve multiple locations in Australia and engage Australian Federal Police officers overseas.

Between July 2005 and February 2006, the Melbourne AFP spent 2,976 hours in one investigation which required AFP officers to go through 27,000 telephone intercepts, many of which were in a foreign language.

Giving evidence in a police investigation is also challenging for witnesses, who are often traumatised and sometimes groomed into drug dependence.

“In some cases, many years may have passed since the witness was trafficked, making memory difficult,” said Professor Burn.

“Additionally, people who are in trauma have difficulty remembering events and names of people. The process of giving evidence may itself be a traumatic or even dangerous experience.

“In Australia we can use available official statistics to give an indication but, since we know that many people are not identified as trafficked, this is of limited assistance.

“We know that less than 200 people have been identified by the Australian Federal Police as suspected victims of trafficking. Some of these people have been able to continue to assist the police in investigations and some have presented evidence at trials.”

And while Australia has a comparatively good record, some of its neighbours don’t fare so well in the TIP Report.

In 2010, the 427 cases were prosecuted in the East Asia and Pacific region, 177 of which were convicted, identifying 2,597 trafficking victims.

Australia is one of only four Tier 1 nations in the area, with others only attempting, partially complying or making no effort to comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards.

What can be done?

For the general public without professional skills in law enforcement, one of the most important things the public can do is educate themselves on the issues surrounding trafficking and then raise awareness in their community.

If citizens see something they believe to be indicative of trafficking they should report it to the Australian Federal Police immediately on 1800 333 000 or via a specific online form on the AFP website.

After suspicions have been reported, trafficking cases become the work of trained authorities. But church people and NGOs play a significant role in the aftercare of victims and are heavily relied on by government and legal agencies that deal with victims.

World Vision, the Salvation Army and UnitingWorld actively respond to trafficking by working with partner churches internationally and by providing services and care to victims within Australia.

“Eighty per cent of those rescued will go back because they have nowhere else to go,” said Dennis Mark, an investigator with Not For Sale.

“They have a bond with their trafficker, they feel they can no longer return to their family or village, often because it was their family that sold them in the first place.

“A lot of women coming out of sexual servitude don’t see themselves as victims and sometimes even look upon their traffickers with affection. There are close parallels with domestic abuse.”

NGOs work with victims to ensure they do have an alternative and time to reclaim their freedom, with access to emotional and practical assistance.

Some church groups have begun regularly visiting local brothels and strip clubs to deliver care items for the women working there and create opportunities to learn about their lives.

At the same time, they are taking note of whether there is anyone obviously underage or being held against their will.

In July 2011, Leichhardt Uniting Church hosted a Not For Sale Backyard Abolitionist Academy which attracted people from churches and the community to learn about trafficking and become equipped to fight it in their context.

At the academy, Kilian Moote reminded participants that all work to empower disadvantaged people was potentially work to prevent slavery.

“If you are fighting poverty, exploitation or illiteracy, you are fighting trafficking,” he said.

Public opinion

Though the problem is in some ways bigger than ever, Kevin Bale, author of Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves, believes the modern abolitionist movement has many distinct advantages that make it a realistic goal to end slavery in this lifetime.

“The moral argument is already won,” he writes.

“No government or organised interest group is pressing the case that slavery is desirable or even acceptable. No minister is standing in the pulpit and giving biblical justifications for slavery.

“The second advantage is that the monetary value of slavery in the world economy is very small, so the end of slavery threatens no country’s livelihood. No country can say, ‘We would like to end slavery, but we just can’t afford it.’

“The third advantage is that, for the most part, the laws needed to end slavery are already on the books.

“Given these advantages, bringing an end to slavery requires the political will to enforce law, not campaigns to make new laws.

“But political will (in most countries) is directly proportional to public awareness and concern. Until slavery reaches the public agenda, slaves will continue to suffer.”

Lyndal Irons


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