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.

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