We need to talk about human trafficking

When I was a child my mum became a member of Friends of the Earth and was their Liverpool coordinator for a time. I have very fond memories of those years. I remember going along to protests at B&Q, watching my mum’s weird mates holding handmade wooden placards shouting at customers for buying wood from Brazil. I remember once sitting on a big green sack filled with leaflets and pamphlets at the back of a white tented stall in the middle of Church Street while my mum and her mates would give curious kids and lippy teens a badge of a big beaked bird with the words ‘you toucan save the rainforest’ emblazoned across. I loved that badge. I remember overhearing a lot of talk about how it was absolutely necessary to only buy dolphin-friendly tuna, which we never did because ours was, naturally, a vegetarian home.

Sometimes I forget this childhood and tend to remember instead having handstand competitions against the school wall and playing manhunt while simultaneously trying not to get smacked in the face by a football hurtling through the air. Yet, being exposed to these global issues and environmental injustices at such a young age has most definitely paved the way for me to bring to light those causes I believe are the greatest injustices of our time.

When people started to become aware of the possibility of bits of dolphin being found in their tins of tuna, they were horrified and many did something about it, especially in the USA. They boycotted any tinned tuna company that did not state that theirs was dolphin-friendly, later rebranded as ‘dolphin-safe’. By 2004 dolphin mortality rates dropped by 97% thanks to the dolphin-safe commitment made by tuna companies. Nowadays ‘dolphin-safe’ tuna is the norm and is expected by consumers and for a while it seemed that the world had been made right-ish.

Fast forward 20-odd years and recently, before the refugee crisis hit our shores, there were news stories coming out on a near daily basis about thousands of people being enslaved as fishermen for brutal Thai fishing captains and other forms of forced or bonded labour across the world. Many victims trafficked by people they may have initially trusted. Just because these stories are no longer flooding our media doesn’t mean it’s all been fixed and we can go on our merry way.

In fact, it has been widely reported that traffickers are cashing in on the current refugee crisis. Lest we forget the 71 people – 59 men, 8 women and 4 children – who were found dead in the back of a lorry, abandoned beside an Austrian motorway.  It was illegal people smugglers, traffickers, with their networks and logistical knowhow who are behind incidents like this.

So now, let me remind you of the full extent of the problem.

A New York Times article, Sea Slaves: The Human Misery That Feeds Pets and Livestock, investigated the experiences faced by those, mainly Cambodian and Burmese men and boys, who were promised a job by traffickers within their home country only to be faced with years of indentured servitude as they work, and occasionally die, in horrifically oppressive conditions at sea: ‘the sick cast overboard, the defiant beheaded, the insubordinate sealed for days below deck in a dark, fetid fishing hold.’ All to fulfil the needs of the United States’ cat and dog populations.

The findings of investigations like the New York Times’ article have prompted lawmaker Gabriel Mato, a Spanish member of the European parliament and its committee for fisheries, to suggest the possibility of refusing imports of Thai fish products into Europe. In the meantime, as we did with tinned tuna, a boycott of Thai fish products by European consumers would send a strong message. There are plenty of websites giving useful recommendations for how this can be organised. Ethicalconsumer.org is a good place to start.

Already we are witnessing the Thai government moving into action. It was recently reported, after the discovery of 36 bodies in the south of Thailand – all believed to be migrants from Burma and Bangladesh – that over 100 people, including 15 state officials, have been arrested for crimes of human trafficking within the fishing industry. The Thai defence minister, having received a letter from the EU detailing their concerns, has admitted to 3,000 unregistered fishing boats being used nationwide.

To be clear, the definition of human trafficking is “the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation.” It’s worth pointing out that every country is affected by human trafficking, as countries of origin, transit or destination.

Trafficking happens in your country. A quick Google of ‘human trafficking statistics UK’ provides ample evidence that it is rife in my country. In 2014 the National Crime Agency published a report which stated that an estimated 2,744 people, including 602 children, were potential victims of trafficking in 2013. A 22% increase from 2012.

Stats are not easy to come by in terms of measuring the size and impact of the human trafficking industry; traffickers, pimps and madams don’t particularly enjoy being quizzed about their business dealings. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have identified that forced labour, such as what we see happening on Thai fishing boats, amounts to 18% of those who are trafficked contrasted with 79% who are being sexually exploited. Due to the fact that those who are sexually exploited are more visible, to an extent, and those who are forced into labour tend to be hidden, especially out at sea, the distribution of these figures may be due to statistical bias; forms of trafficking other than sexual exploitation are less frequently reported.

As consumer activists we need to consider the fact that human trafficking for sexual exploitation cannot be boycotted and therefore it is harder for governments to give the ‘red card’, and sanction into action those nations that contain sex trafficking networks.

Compared to what we are able to do as consumers for those in forced labour, the average concerned citizen can do a number of things to raise awareness of human trafficking for sexual exploitation. You can help by campaigning and fundraising for organisations such as Stop The Traffik, a global movement of activists around the world who passionately give their time and energy to build resilient communities and prevent human trafficking.

The work Stop The Traffik do in terms of awareness raising for sexual exploitation cover campaigns such as the No Room hotel campaign which enables you to ask local hotels to say they have No Room for trafficking. Or if you or someone you know is a taxi driver then Stop The Traffik can provide support for how to deal with a potential trafficked victim in your taxi. Drivers across Liverpool are now issued with a sticker (see below) when they renew their license.

Taxis against Trafficking
Courtesy of Stop The Traffik

A Cambodian-based non-profit, Sak Saum, provide vocational skills and training to women who have been trafficked and sell an array of handbags and accessories. Buying from a business such as this and telling people about the story behind your purchase is a way to raise awareness.

Whenever you read an article about human trafficking for sexual exploitation you can share it on your social networks and raise awareness that way. If you want to do something more visible within your community you can walk a mile barefoot.

19th July 2010, Dr Jeff Brodsky visited Cambodia in order to support a feeding programme. His visit took him to a rubbish tip in Phnom Penh where many children lived who were at risk of being taken and sold into brothels. Jeff noticed that most of the children at the tip were barefoot. Later that evening, back at his hotel, Jeff wondered how it would feel to be without shoes every day. He decided that for the next year he would live barefoot.

Jeff said the day his barefoot year ended he went to put on his socks and ‘sat on the edge of my bed, socks in hand, and was ready to feel the warmth and softness of those socks around my feet. I stretched them a little, brought them towards my foot and then something very strange happened. I couldn’t get them past my toes!’ He believes something that day stopped him from putting on his socks and he saw the children who motivated him, children who had no choice whether they would wear shoes or not. He has never worn a pair of shoes since.

Since 1981 Jeff has been working with the poorest and neediest children of the world with his organisation JOY International. In 2014 Jeff visited a church in Coshocton, Ohio where the youth group decided that they wanted to help JOY International somehow. After some discussion they came up with the idea that they were going to walk a mile barefoot. Their local community participated and together were able to raise over $12,000 while bringing awareness of child trafficking for sexual exploitation to hundreds of people.

My own experience walking a barefoot mile was powerful. It was the five year anniversary of Jeff being barefoot, and the first international event, outside of the USA, of its kind. Held at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, it couldn’t have been at a more appropriate location, chosen because those we were representing that day may never get the chance to participate in the sports and events that take place there. Due to construction on the running track we did four laps above the seating area. Although it was raining constantly the weather was ideal for being barefoot; the hot Cambodian sun would have made it a painful experience. As each lap ended Jeff would speak about something on his heart, the growing crowds of Cambodians and other nations being represented were left tearful yet motivated to continue.

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Dr Jeff Brodsky – photo courtesy of JOY International

After the event, Kelly Treat, Joy International’s National Director of The Barefoot Mile told me ‘Our hope is to expand our Barefoot Miles in many more countries to raise awareness and the much needed funds to continue rescuing these precious children. Together we can make a huge difference in the lives of these children.’

The funds raised through hosting a Barefoot Mile go towards rescue missions, rehabilitation efforts and other projects that allow JOY International to combat child trafficking. If you would like to organise a Barefoot Mile event in your local community then contact Kelly Treat at kelly@joy.org for an information pack.

Imagine thousands of people across the nations walking barefoot in solidarity for the oppressed, the powerless and voiceless. You’re stood waiting for the bus. You’re not wearing shoes because you’re being sponsored by friends and family. Someone asks you ‘why aren’t you wearing shoes, mate?’ and you tell them that you choose to be shoeless for those who have no choice. A powerful statement and one which, although initially mocked, will be remembered for a long time after.

You have more power than you realise. Use it to make this world good.

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Photo courtesy of JOY International

 

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