Understanding Mental Illness

This article was written by Bess Brookes, a longtime supporter of Oasis Belgium. If you would like to contribute to the Oasis blog on a relevant topic, we would love to hear from you!

Mental health is an important topic for any charity or NGO, and particularly so for organizations like Oasis who work with isolated elderly people and migrants who are experiencing trauma, isolation, and discrimination. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles permeate across barriers of age, nationality, and life experiences. Listening to the stories of others is an important first step in helping them take steps towards healing.

There can be times in life when you feel truly alone.  Even in a context of strong personal relationships, a vibrant social life, a nurturing Christian Church, a meaningful work life, you can still feel truly alone.

These alone moments can happen when you’re ill and need medical treatment; no one else, however much they love you, can volunteer to take your place.  You must take the appropriate medicine or have the painful operation!  It is your body and your experience.   Facing illness of any kind can be so lonely, particularly if you are in a strange country with an unfamiliar medical system.  Clinging on to your faith in the middle of such circumstances can seem almost impossible – especially if you feel isolated within your own Church community, pushed to one side because your illness is not quite “acceptable” in some way.

Perhaps that illness is clinical depression.  Someone suffering from this can experiences enormous social isolation – and, if a Christian, loneliness within their church community too.  This is partly due to the nature of the condition itself but also the potential withdrawal of others in the face of something they don’t understand.

My own journey with clinical depression began around 25 years ago.  There was a huge stigma associated with this illness in England then, even more so than today – people were frequently characterised as weak and unable to cope with normal life.  Doctors put vague descriptions such as “stress” or “exhaustion” on medical notes needed for work, because having something like “depression” on your personnel record could seriously hamper your career. 

In my case, the doctor prescribed some medication and said that he would refer me to a counsellor at the local Mental Health Unit for some talking-therapy.  I can’t describe the impact of those words Mental Health Unit………... The day came for the first appointment and I somehow drove myself to the correct address.  I vividly remember stopping in the car-park and staring at the sign on the side of the building, feeling that I was in some sort of awful film-version of my life – that none of it could be real…….

But, of course, I couldn’t get well by staying inside the car.  I had to get out and walk through the doors of the building and face whatever lay ahead (I still had vague Victorian-type pictures of mental asylums going round in my mind - of people sitting rocking in corners or handcuffed in chains screaming….).  As it turned out, I was treated with the utmost humanity and the waiting room was full of………..people like me!! 

However, outside the confines of a Mental Health Unit or similar, Christians can feel tremendously guilty about suffering from depression, given all the “hope” and “joy” that they are supposed to have.  Someone with clinical depression has to come to terms with a radical change to their self-image.  They no longer feel like the person they thought they were and it is difficult to convey this “loss of identity” to their fellow-believers. 

But surely depressed Christians receive a huge amount of support and encouragement from their local churches?  Unfortunately, I know that this often is not the case. One of the saddest things I have heard in the last few years is a missionary confiding to me that she couldn’t tell her fellow Christian workers that she was on antidepressants because it was “not the sort of medicine that Christians should need”.  Why are some medicines welcomed as part of God’s healing plan while others are shameful?  In my U.K. church all those years ago, my problem was either ignored completely or I received useless advice such as “the only way to deal with depression is to pray more”, without any understanding that depression can severely disrupt your ability to function normally in all areas of your life, including spiritually.

You might think this is a very strange thing to say.  Doesn’t everyone have direct access to God, whatever their state of health, through the life and work of Jesus?  Where exactly is the problem?  The root, I think, lies in some of the characteristics of clinical depression as an illness:  the way in which a sufferer is disabled, especially the innate sense of isolation, of being cut-off from your fellow human beings and often from God. Of course, there is no fundamental change in the relationship between you and the divine; the issue is one of perception and lack of any kind of energy – even the energy to actively rest in Him.  Many people report the feeling of a glass screen between them and the rest of the world – they are totally aware of reality but unable to interact with it normally.   Decision-making can be all but impossible.  Added to this, there are severe difficulties when coping in social situations (e.g Church services) and the fact that the activity of composing and producing speech is exhausting.  It follows that the most ardent believer might be incapable of praying spontaneously in their “normal verbal way”, yet lack the concentration needed to spend time in silent contemplation or be able to decide to do something else (or nothing!).  And all this without your fellow Christians understanding anything that is happening to you and so being able to share any part of the burden.  This works in both directions – a group of friends might be reaching out and genuinely trying to support you but you can’t “feel” or recognise this because of your illness – this can lead to frustrations on both sides and a huge amount of patience and grace is needed.

Given the complexities of different illnesses (unless we have personal experience or appropriate medical training) what kind of supportive community can we practically hope to be when faced with fellow Christians suffering from depression?  Although I can list many ways in which Church life can be difficult in this respect, it is the following which have given me encouragement over the years

·       People who take the time to listen and accept that clinical depression is an illness, even if one they don’t understand,

·       People who realise that “standard spiritual advice” is pretty useless if you are not well enough to follow it. 

·       People who give practical help with cooking, cleaning and child-minding, without which my family would not have got through some of the darkest times.

·       People who have courage to stand alongside in the darkness and continually whisper a message of hope

 We as a church community can help people enormously in their struggle to hold on to their faith in times of depression– by unconditional acceptance of people as they are and, by an understanding that at times such people may be completely dependent on our spiritual help.   In evangelical protestant circles, we are so accustomed to the idea of our own personal faith and an individual practice of prayer that we can fail to say the obvious: “Don’t worry if you can’t pray – just rest, and I’ll pray for you”.

Above all, I think, the Christian community is there to hold out a continuous message of hope both expounded in Sunday by Sunday teaching (even if someone isn’t well enough to grasp it at the time) and concretised in practical concern.   For me, the scarred resurrection body of Christ is a continually helpful symbol and takes away our need for pretence in our Christian lives.  We struggle through, and are scarred by, these experiences, whether sufferer or church community.  But, ultimately, there is resurrection and those of us who suffer from clinical depression need our church community to remind us of that.

Merry Christmas!

It’s Christmas time here at Oasis! We’re busy preparing gifts for the children involved in our projects and organizing a Christmas brocante at a local school so parents can buy discounted toys for their children. Sometimes it seems like the work never stops, but our staff and volunteers will take a much needed break to spend time with their families next week.

This year, we’re grateful for all the lives we’ve been able to impact for the better because of the generous hearts and hands of donors and volunteers. We couldn’t do any of this without you!

Please consider donating to Oasis Belgium this holiday season so we can continue to serve isolated elderly people, women who have experienced violence, and children with a migration background in Belgium.

Here’s the impact of your gift:

€20 will provide coffee and a visit from a volunteer for 4 elderly people

€50 will provide the costs of hotlines in two languages for women in crisis for a month

€100 will provide educational materials on their rights for women in exploitative work or relationship situations for one month

€150 will provide accompaniment to services and language interpretation for a woman in crisis from a staff member or volunteer for a week


If you or someone you know is interested in volunteering your time in the new year, please contact us here!

Finding Healing Through Yoga

This blog post was written by Abriel Schieffelers, Empower Project & Communications Manager

In recent blog posts, we’ve discussed the trauma of migration, poverty, and discrimination. These are all traumas we witness in the women we work with, and they show up in the day to day lives of these women.

Trauma changes our bodies, our responses to everyday stressors and stimuli, and our relationships to ourselves and others. People who have experienced trauma often view the world as a dark and evil place, where everyone is out to get them and they can’t trust anyone. If they have been living in situations of poverty and deprivation, they are constantly focused on survival. 

For women who have experienced intimate partner violence, trauma often takes root in their relationships and in their bodies. Many women are physically and emotionally numb after years of abuse, a coping mechanism they used to protect themselves from the abuse. Many women who have been abused have a negative relationship with their bodies, as it was the epicenter of the violence done against again. Indeed, survivors of trauma often develop autoimmune disorders or chronic pain as a result of their body being on “high alert,” and ready for fight or flight for so long, often even after the threat of harm is long gone. 

How do we address trauma that is rooted so deeply in the body?

Traditional talk therapy is of course helpful in addressing the damage that has been done, but many women are unable to put words to their experience and may experience cultural barriers that prevent them from being able to process their experience verbally.

There has been a lot of research done that has shown that body-based therapy, such as yoga, can be helpful for directly addressing the symptoms of PTSD and trauma that survivors experience. These symptoms can include flashbacks, dissociation, trouble sleeping, and more. 

Many of the women Oasis works with cannot access traditional talk therapy due to the the language or cultural barrier or due to their legal status. We understand that in the process of helping women access social services, apply for asylum, and provide for their children, we often risk re-traumatizing them by having them tell their stories over and over. We want to allow them to reclaim their bodies and their stories in a space where they have control, where they can be empowered to take time for themselves by breathing deeply, grounding themselves in the present moment, and gently re-learning to feel their bodies. 

We are excited to announce that we will soon be starting a project focused on yoga as a tool for dealing with post-trauma recovery in partnership with other Oasis hubs around the world!

The Empower project will work with women already served through the Welkom and Bienvenue projects with Thai and North African women. It will also focus on children with a migration background, many of which have also experienced violence in the family. 

If you’d like to support this project as it starts, please visit oasisbe.org/give and specify “Empower Project” in the description. If you are a yoga teacher in Brussels are are interested in volunteering your time and talents, please send an email to abriel.schieffelers@oasisbe.org

The Trauma of Migration

There is still a long way to go before our society understands, supports and de-stigmatise people with mental health problems. The church should be at the forefront of allowing people to be open and honest about depression and other mental health issues, without judgement, impatience or even questioning of the level of people’s faith. The lack of understanding and care in society at large, in the work place and in church is incomprehensible in the twenty-first century. Yet, if it is bad in wider society, our lack of understanding of depression and post-traumatic stress amongst migrants is even worse.

If you consider that a refugee has fled terror, atrocities and threats, then its understandable that they would continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress. However it isn’t only refugees, but also economic migrants, who have risked everything for a better life who struggle with trauma and depression on a large scale. One man we have supported for years told of how he had arrived on a migrant boat from North Africa, which sunk off the coast of Italy in a storm. Those who managed to swim to some rocks only survived if they had climbed high enough, as others were crushed by the boat as it was repeatedly swept onto them. He managed to survive, and has entered Europe as an economic migrant, a category that is often reviled by the press, and yet he has suffered a great deal in search of a better life. The chance of depression in this situation is very high.

Many of the women we work with have come to Europe on a marriage visa, only to find that they face violence at home and exploitation if they are recruited to work in “massage parlours”. One woman we work with has now spent years in psychiatric hospitals because of the abuse she has suffered.

These are not the only causes of mental illness that we encounter. In many ways migration is loss, and people experience grief. The western press gives the impression that it’s easy to migrate, and people do it from greed to get benefits and an easy life. Migration may be many things, but it most certainly isn’t easy. To lose your culture, the support of family and the ability to understand easily what is happening around you are major blows to a person’s mental state and can lead to depression. If you are rejected and isolated, and your high expectations of what life may be like when you arrive in the new country in comparison with the reality may make you feel like a failure, demotivate you and often make you feel suicidal. If your circumstances are such that you can’t go home (for example you now have a child with a partner in your new country and they won’t let you take the child with you), its a recipe for mental illness.

You may ask, if migration is that difficult, why on earth would they come in the first place? Perhaps by asking this question, we begin to see how hopeless the situation at home may have been, or how much pressure has been put on a young person to go and earn money abroad to help the family out of poverty, or support brothers (or more rarely sisters) through school. It also points to an ongoing myth about how much better it is in developed countries, a myth perpetuated by people smugglers.

What can be done to reduce the suffering that migrants suffer?

One way is simply to welcome them. When people find themselves surrounded by positive community, life becomes much easier to cope with.

Secondly, be interested in their culture. We all know that when you move to another country, you have to adapt to a new way of living, but that doesn’t have to mean that your home culture needs to be rejected and vilified. By being interested in an immigrant’s home culture, we actually pave the way for them to be able to cope with the adjustment to a new way of life.

Thirdly, we must understand, that when trauma and feelings of loss have happened, healing and adjustment take time. Let’s not harshly reject people as they struggle to understand their new context, let’s instead take the long view and walk kindly with them for the long-term.

Oasis Belgium works with migrant women who have experienced violence and exploitation. If you would  like to support our work (which would be wonderful!), you can do so here: https://oasisbe.com/give/

We All Have a Role to Play in Stopping Human Trafficking

This post was written by Phil Lane, director of Oasis Belgium.

As I write this, I’m in Taizé, a famous Christian community where during the course of one year, more than 75,000 people gather from all over Europe to worship, meditate and reflect on God. I would say that they come here for peace and quiet, but this is the Youth week, and so there isn’t quite so much quiet, despite people roaming the site with signs saying “Silence”! Perhaps thousands of young people weren’t designed to be silent.
I’m here to speak alongside the CEO of Stop the Traffik, Ruth Dearnley, about how to stop human trafficking. There is a role for all of us to play. We must, on the one hand, make sure that those who have been trafficked can find a way to safety, but we must also try to make people less vulnerable to exploitation in the first place and that means that we have to engage with all sorts of activities, from the helpline we run at Oasis Belgium for women who are experiencing violence at home, which, in the case of the Thai women we work with, is often a precursor to being trafficked into the sex trade, to welcoming immigrants into our community, so that nobody is left without support. It also means making sure that we ask questions about the products we buy to ensure that there is pressure on producers to keep exploitation out of the factories they source from.
More than that, and this is the focus of Stop The Traffik, we must share the information we have about human trafficking. That may mean things we see as we walk to work, or on holiday. It might mean all the information we know from the many cases we work on at Oasis Belgium. You might be in a job, as a taxi driver, or a cleaner at an airport, which means you see things that others might miss. You can call your local police, a local NGO and also download the Stop The Traffik app (https://www.stopthetraffik.org), which helps to collect data so that we can see a bigger picture of what’s going on.
We all have a role to play. The biggest response today came when we spoke about the importance of women’s rights and zero tolerance towards violence against women. Hundreds of young people sitting in the sweltering heat of France today, from all over Europe were completely committed to women’s rights. Times are changing and we need to be at the vanguard of bringing equality to all. There are many things in the news which are depressing and might make us feel like giving up, but at the grass roots level, there is a new wave of activism coming and the old attitudes of misogyny and xenophobia are being challenged. Populist politicians may have the upper hand right now, but this isn’t the end.

If you would like to donate to the work we do to prevent exploitation and help people to freedom, please go to https://oasisbe.com/give/

The Truth About Women Migrants

This post was written by Phil Lane, director of Oasis Belgium.

I first encountered Esther in a flat to the north of Brussels. She and her four children were huddled into a space that was meant for one person. Her distress was palpable and her children were nervous and unhappy. Only the baby seemed to be unaware of what was happening, smiling broadly from his make-shift cot. Esther had come from Thailand in search of a new life, had married a Belgian man with high hopes of finding work and being able to support her family and send money home too. She had two daughters from a previous marriage and then had two with her new husband, but then everything seemed to go wrong. The man’s family hated her and resented this foreigner in their midst. They tried to take the younger children from her, and then the husband became abusive and violent. She started to work in a Thai massage parlour to get money, but the pain and abuse there made her run from both the exploitation and her violent partner.

When we hear stories of women like Esther, it’s perhaps easy to draw the conclusion that female migration is a bad idea, full of risk and misery. In fact, some countries have gone as far as limiting the right of migration for women and requiring them to get the permission of a male in their family before they can travel. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. When women migrate, there are benefits to everyone. In fact, recent studies have shown that if women migrate from countries where there is severe gender inequality to countries where there are more rights and opportunities, it not only benefits the women and the country where they have chosen to live, but it also helps with the journey towards equality in their home country. Studies even show that female migration can have the effect of increasing the number of women sitting in their country’s parliaments! Women who migrate send a greater proportion of their income home (although they are paid less than male migrants), and the exposure to more rights, more opportunities and a louder voice in society spreads into their home cultures as they aspire for the same rights for their daughters. The host countries benefit from hard working and engaged women with a vision for their lives, and their home country sees the effect of empowered women within their culture. If we want to encourage women’s rights in all countries around the world, then part of that is to welcome and encourage women who have been brave enough to come and live here.

Esther is now settled in Belgium, works hard and lives a peaceful life. Although she has been through a lot, she is making real progress. We need to welcome people like Esther and make sure that they don’t have to go through the same nightmare in order to fulfill the potential they have, a potential that benefits everyone.

You can read more about the benefits to everyone when women migrate and the impact on gender equality in their home countries here.

Please do support our work, as we help to transform the lives of people like Esther. You can give here.

The Hidden Side of Brussels

This post was written by Phil Lane, director of Oasis Belgium

When we think of Brussels, what picture comes to mind? Perhaps we think of the European Union institutions, luxurious offices and wide meeting chambers. Perhaps we think of chocolate shops and bars that sell hundreds of varieties of beer. We might even think of the Atomium, that strange, futuristic structure that dominates part of the Brussels skyline (if you haven’t seen it, google it, it’s quite amazing.). We might think of art deco-houses and terrible traffic, and we will probably all think of a modern, wealthy capital city, not too large, but big enough to be a tourist destination and a desirable place to live.


Yet, like any major European capital, Brussels has many different sides. There are the huge mansions of the embassies, and the sprawling suburban streets. There is also a hidden network of illegal, unsafe and depressing apartments, where the undocumented migrants live. Brussels might be a major European capital, but ten percent of its population lives without the legal right to work or stay. More than 100,000 people struggle each day to survive and stay off the streets. There are thousands of apartments that nobody would want to live in unless they really had to.

One family that Oasis works with had been evicted from a dirty, violent squat and for a while lived in decent social housing, but then, when they failed to pay the rent, they and their two children were evicted. They managed to find a place to squat in an empty apartment in the same block of flats, but were in constant fear that the police would knock on the door. On the occasions that the police did arrive, everyone froze and made no noise, hoping that the officers would go away, which they eventually did. Finally, they found an illegal flat that they could afford. It was a converted cellar, with so little air circulating that they couldn’t have a front door, and had to be content with bars keeping the world out. Next to the kitchen was the gas supply for the whole block of apartments. They worked hard and made a home out of it, and their children thrived in the local school.

It’s a testimony to the power and resilience of a loving family, but imagine this story told thousands of times over in one relatively small city. Think of the danger from fire, the health risks, the misery and depression that hangs over people struggling to live in these conditions. If this is what’s happening in Brussels, what about your city? What can be done to make sure that all people can be safe and thrive? Surely, whatever we feel about immigration at the highest levels, the well being of children living in our cities transcends all politics.

Every city has its public face, its prosperity and pride, and that’s good, but there is also always a hidden city, where the poor, the unrecognised and the marginalised struggle. We have to see both, and find solutions, so that nobody is left in misery.

We're starting an initiative to make the hidden parts of Brussels visible.

We're hosting a tour with the theme of Migration and Trafficking that will take tourists places they wouldn't usually go, places that prove that Brussels is a truly international city that bears the scars of the poverty and discrimination experienced by countless migrants. Making a difference in Brussels means more than bringing vulnerable people into community, it involves bringing long-time residents, visitors, and those who have only heard or read about the migration crisis in the news to see and experience the lived experiences of so many people. 

Learn more about our tour here. You can help us out by joining our tour, sharing with friends who are visiting, or simply sharing on your Facebook page. 

What We Can Learn From Racism in Football

This blog post was written by Phil Lane, director of Oasis Belgium.

This week the headlines have been full of Mesut Ozil quitting the German team because of the racism he’s suffered after their early exit from the world cup. When he was playing well, he was seen as German, when things fell apart he was “that Turkish player”. Despite giving his all year after year for his national team, when it came down to it, because of where his family was from, he wasn’t accepted. The same thing was echoed in an extraordinary piece written by the Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku before the world cup started. He tells of growing up in Antwerp, Liege and Brussels in poverty so bad that they couldn’t afford food for the week. Rats ran loose in his parents’ apartment and he had holes in his shoes. It was then that he vowed that by the time he was sixteen, he would be playing professionally for Anderlecht. Despite the racism of watching parents in various youth teams, he made his dream come true, but even now, like Ozil, if things are going badly, the press don’t talk about him as Belgian, but rather “The Belgian player of Congolese descent.” We are happy when immigrants are doing well for us, but when we lose, the reality surfaces again.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this is what we are seeing in football, because it’s only a reflection of attitudes in wider society. Although we’ve come a long way since the slavery and colonialism of previous centuries, those events have left deep marks on European and American society, and there is still an underlying racism which effects many millions of people. As a privileged, white man, its would be easy to ignore the reality and tell everyone that we are “all equal now.”. The problem is that I see the opposite every day. At Oasis we work to help Thai women who have been trafficked or are experiencing violence from their boyfriend or husband. In one case recently, a man had gone as a sex tourist to Thailand and had deceived a woman into marrying him, when all he really wanted was sex, someone to clean his house and to cook Thai food just like he ate at the restaurants in Pattaya. When it became apparent that the woman wasn’t a good cook, he started to attack her, pulling chunks of hair out of her head. This is a mixture of extreme misogyny and racism. Western men often see Asian women as objects for exotic sex and service. There is a picture of a type of slavery in their minds that excites them and ruins the lives of thousands of women.

We also work with women from North Africa. Like Lukaku, they live in poverty, struggling to find the money for their next meal, mice running through the apartment and being rejected at every turn. One woman who we have been helping for years, recently parked her pushchair outside a play area for children, and while they were in there, someone smeared dog excrement on the handle. When you are living under the constant shadow of poverty, how do you deal with racist attacks as well?

Sometimes we help Roma families, and of all people living in Belgium, these people perhaps suffer the most racism. Even children on the streets will be vilified, and on one occasion when we were taking a group of Roma children to a playground, locals set the dogs on them.

These are not isolated incidents, they are part of every day life for thousands of people.

So, when we see the racism that is aimed at football players, we can’t simply say that football has a problem, we all have a problem. You can’t say that it’s a problem of immigration either. I’m an immigrant and I’ve very rarely experienced problems or prejudice. I’m white and so people don’t notice me, or object to me. This is a problem of racism. Whether people living in poverty in Belgium grow up to be successful footballers, or continue to struggle, they deserve respect and dignity as our fellow human beings.

Please help us continue our work with migrants in Belgium as we help them break down the barriers of poverty and discrimination. You can donate to our work here.

Human Trafficking is More Than a Number

This blog post was written by Phil Lane, director of Oasis Belgium

In the UK newspaper The Guardian today, there’s an article about the shocking new statistics on modern slavery. The Global Slavery Index reports that there are now no fewer than 40.3 million people living in slavery around the world and even in a developed country like the US, there are at least 400,000 people living in conditions of slavery. I’ve worked against human trafficking for many years. It’s a complex and difficult subject, ranging from women held in in servitude as they work as maids in ordinary homes, to children sold into Asian brothels, to men picking fruit on farms in Italy, to children forced by their own families to beg on the streets. It involves abuse, the manipulation of relationships by the very people who should offer the most protection, sometimes international gangs of criminals transferring people across borders, and at other times local criminals picking up on the vulnerability of migrants or local residents in their own communities. It’s complicated and it’s very difficult to measure. It’s like asking the related question, how many women have suffered domestic violence in your country? We can only go on the numbers of women who have spoken up and testified. Violence against women is difficult to collect data on, because there is a level of male violence in every society which people are blind to, because it’s still a part of the accepted cultural scenery. Counting the number of people who have been trafficked is even more difficult, because of the wide range of experiences that trafficking applies to, and because of the fact that not only do survivors often not want to talk about it, often they don’t even recognise that they’ve been trafficked. For them, it’s often just a continuation of the violence, abuse and manipulation that have long been part of life. It can take a long, patient work of explaining their rights to them, before they are able to see what’s actually happened.

So, collecting statistics about how many people have been trafficked or are being held in conditions of slavery is important, but it’s also a mountainous task. After working against human trafficking for nearly twenty years, I know that most of the statistics are still educated guesses, and rely on very undefined data. Although the work being done to document those exploited and trying to map the problem is vital, it’s still in its infancy and we can’t rely on the reports produced.

Yet still, whenever I speak about human trafficking, people always want to know the numbers. I once spoke at an event in South Africa, and when they asked me for statistics, I told them that the numbers were unreliable. Figures are stated on the internet, taken up, shared and eventually end up on official reports, circulating for years with an increasing sense of certainty. I sat down at the end of my talk and a member of the organising committee stood up, she said she was very unhappy with me and proceeded to quote all the numbers I had questioned as if they were absolute certainties! People seem to need numbers, the larger the better. That seemed to be the only thing they were interested in.

In the same meeting, a survivor of human trafficking, a Zimbabwean immigrant, bravely told her story, yet it didn’t seem to make an impact at all. She told of her dangerous journey across the border, and the rape she suffered on the way to Johannesburg. Finally, she told about her life in the brothels of the city. It was a brave thing to do, and I’m not sure how good it was for her own well-being, but there wasn’t much interest. People who wanted to be shocked and horrified by huge global figures on human trafficking, weren’t much moved by a story of someone in their own community. In our modern world, it’s often easier to be moved by a global tragedy, than to look up from our smart phones and see the abuse in our own community. They all had opinions about Zimbabwean immigrants, perhaps they saw them in a negative light and thought she should have stayed at home anyway. The media and NGO communication about human trafficking is so often about evil traffickers who exploit totally innocent victims. When we look closer, we realise that people who have been trafficked are ordinary, complicated, compromised individuals most of the time and when we really look at human trafficking, we have to take seriously the issues of violence against women, poverty, immigration and the disempowerment of huge sections of our societies. This isn’t comfortable and is far less exciting than the plot lines of films like “Taken”. So, we like to look at the big picture, we make up the best numbers we can and we hope governments will act. We’ve managed to perfect the art of making people aware of the problem whilst at the same time giving them every tool to deflect the reality that’s going on around them.

So, what should we do? Certainly, the task of trying to collect the data on how big this problem is and which countries specifically are not doing enough to combat human trafficking has to go on. However, our role is to do much more than just throw our hands up in the air at the scale and the horror of it all, our job is to see what is happening locally and to help to deal with the roots of this complex and widespread evil. When I speak in schools, I’m always asked, “what can we do to fight human trafficking?” and I always given an answer that they don’t expect and probably don’t want. They probably expect to be told to sign a petition, send a postcard or meet their local political representative. All these things are important, but underlying it all are deeper issues. I usually say that there are three things everyone can do. Firstly, make sure that everyone is included, supported and has friends. Don’t let anyone, no matter how unpopular they are, be pushed out onto the margins. Being cut off from social support is a way to become vulnerable to trafficking. Secondly, specifically welcome and include immigrants in your country. Whatever you think about the big issue of immigration, people who are there in your neighbourhood or your city should not be left lonely, isolated and without hope; surely, we can all agree on that! I guarantee you that once you actually get to know people who have come as refugees or economic migrants from some of the poorer countries in the world, you will change your opinion on the big issue of immigration, but that’s another matter. Finally, be an advocate for women’s rights. Don’t stand for women being treated as second class, or treated as objects. Don’t just quietly disagree with violence against women, or sexism in our society, be an active and vocal advocate for women’s rights. If you do these three things, then you will be reducing the vulnerability to trafficking in your city. It isn’t the complete answer to the problem, there are many specific actions and services that need to be developed, but you will begin to cut off some of its roots. To cut another root we should refuse to accept cheap goods and a better lifestyle at the expense of workers being exploited to keep the costs down. These things are difficult though. It requires setting aside our preconceptions and opening our eyes to the nuance, the difficulty, the complexity of human trafficking and what is coming to be called “modern slavery”.

I remember a Thai woman we met once in a seedy brothel to the north of Brussels. The place was shuttered and barred, with security cameras on the door. She had been raped and sold in Thailand, and had finally been brought to Belgium by a man who promised her a better life. She knew that she would probably be in the sex trade, as that was all she had known for years. Yet, when she got here, she was exploited in a brothel, given drugs and was often violently attacked. At one point she was sold between brothels for €30. On the day we met her, she was recovering from being deliberately burned by a client. We slowly got to know her, befriended her and finally helped her out of exploitation and into a better life. It took many months, but we were able to help her.

Imagine if both in Thailand and in Belgium, there was no tolerance of violence against women, and imagine she had known her rights from the start and had known where to report her suffering without shame, in the knowledge that the police wouldn’t doubt her and would have taken action. Imagine if, when she arrived in Belgium, instead of nobody speaking to her, she had been befriended and welcomed. Imagine if the norm was to make sure nobody was left alone to fend for themselves and that if someone was being kept hidden in a house, the authorities would always be informed. If we had stood against violence against women, and had made sure our communities welcomed immigrants, wouldn’t her vulnerability have been reduced and the length of time it took for her to get free cut to a fraction? Of course it would. These are things that would make the traffickers’ job much more difficult. Numbers are very important, particularly if they are well researched (which they rarely are in anti-human trafficking work), but they are nothing compared to working together to ensure that everyone is treated as a human being.

More information: http://www.antitraffickingreview.org/index.php/atrjournal/article/view/228/216

If you'd like to give towards the vital work Oasis does helping women who have experienced or are vulnerable to trafficking and gender-based violence, please do so here


This post was written by Phil Lane, director of Oasis Belgium

Recently, I had the privilege of reading the school reports of two small boys to them and their father. They had all been through a great deal; poverty, discrimination, living in a squat, violent expulsion by the police and the disintegration of all they ever new when their Mum left them in the middle of all that chaos. Even now, they live in very precarious circumstances and are never far from hunger and the streets. What I want to underline here though, is not the hardship of their lives, but their bravery. Two boys, aged seven and nine years old, north africans living in Belgium, trying to come to grips with French, and all the pressures that come with school these days. The older boy struggles with school and is often angry, as he copes with his trauma. Yet still, there he is, doing well in maths even if his hand-writing needs work. Reading through a school report, I have always believed that you should emphasise the positive, the successes and victories, before encouraging the child to work on the subjects that have seen struggle and failure. As I read the report out, you could see his face start to light up, as I picked out positive after positive. His younger brother had a glowing report and was obviously a joy to be with in class. He smiled a shy smile, it was obviously something that the teachers had told him before. What bravery from these immigrant boys, doing their best despite the trauma and poverty of their lives! What bravery from the teachers who with few resources are transforming the hopes of immigrant children into realities. Oasis has supported these children for years, and it was good to see that they were making progress.

It reminded my of another young immigrant child who we helped while we were working for Oasis in India. He was eight years old, skinny and strong willed. His Mum and Dad had brought him and his younger sister to Mumbai from Orissa in the hope of working and living on construction sites. So, they lived in a tent or a lean-to shack in the shells of luxury apartments they could never afford to live in. They were Indian, but this far from their home state and language, they were in effect immigrants to the city. Soon after they arrived, the boy found our drop-in centre and wandered in. From the beginning it was obvious how intelligent he was. He couldn’t get enough of our teaching, learning to hold a pen, to form his letters, and finally to read and write. Somehow this brave young boy could sense that this was the door out of the endless poverty of his life. Learning was exhilarating, like exploring a new universe. Then came the inevitable; the father announced that their building work was over and they were moving to another part of the city. The boy was devastated and shouted at his parents that he would run away from home and sleep outside the drop-in centre because he had to keep learning. Imagine the determination and courage of this extraordinary eight-year-old. A new city, a new language and yet he was determined to learn. I will never forget my colleague squatting in the dirt and asking the boy’s Dad what his own father had done “he worked like this” was the answer. And his grandfather? “the same”. “So, how will your son get a better life, if not through education?” There was silence as the truth dawned. At last he could glimpse what his son had already seen. So, we agreed to fetch him and bring him each day to the centre and eventually we were able to get him a place at a boarding school. Change was possible because of his bravery.

The answer to immigration is not increasing exclusion and isolation, but providing opportunity and education. Next time you see an immigrant child, think just how brave they are, and just how far they’ve come for the opportunities that we take for granted.


If you would like to donate to the work of Oasis Belgium, bringing dignity, respect and hope to the exploited and the marginalised, thank you. You can donate here.