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Slavery Returns: The Curse of Trafficking

Would you snatch an ice cream from a small child? Of course not! Yet consider how much worse it is for a young person to be robbed not just of confectionery, but of hope, life and purpose? That is what people trafficking does and that is why it is so serious.

Would you snatch an ice cream from a small child? Of course not! Yet consider how much worse it is for a young person to be robbed not just of confectionery, but of hope, life and purpose? That is what people trafficking does and that is why it is so serious.

Human trafficking is slavery under a new name. It is the illegal movement of people by force, fraud or deception, so that they can be exploited either financially or sexually. The victims of trafficking end up in prostitution or as cheap labour in factories, farms, restaurants and homes. It happens all over the world and it happens here. Many of us thought that slavery was extinct. We grew up with stories from the late eighteenth century onwards, of committed and concerned people, many of them Christians, who fought hard to see slavery abolished. We thought that slavery was a battle that had been permanently won. But we were wrong. The reality is that in people trafficking, slavery is not just alive but thriving.

The trafficking of people is not something we like to think about. There are countless heart-rending stories of victims: innocent girls duped into contracts abroad as dancers and trapped into a life of the most revolting prostitution; of naïve young men seeking their fortune abroad but ending up crushed by endless labouring in fields or factories; of parents who believed their children had left for success abroad but now tearfully realise that the very worst has happened. Let me appeal to your imagination. Imagine what it must be like to be owned entirely by someone who is only interested in exploiting you. Give yourself a name - Natasha or Paul - because you are a real person. Imagine how you feel - being forced to labour until every muscle aches or being routinely mocked and abused as a sexual slave. Think about what it must be like to be continually degraded and humiliated by your owner. Try to envisage a life of permanent fear, hardship and poverty; working in inhumane, cruel and dangerous conditions. Try to conceive of a situation in which all your efforts are enriching those who hold you in their power; and if you fail to deliver what your traffickers want, you will be cast off and thrown onto the street. Imagine having the grim certainty that there can be no escape. This may give you an insight into the pain and despair of those who are trafficked.

People trafficking is a heinous crime. But what makes it worse is that it does not just involve a few people, it involves a lot - an awful lot. It's hard to tell exactly how big it is because it is a world of darkness, anonymity, secrets and threats. And there are problems of definition: exactly how low does a wage have to go before a job becomes slavery? Precisely when does prostitution by choice become prostitution by necessity? Even if precision is lacking, everybody agrees that trafficking is a huge problem. The most recent and authoritative assessment is the US Department of State's Trafficking in Persons Report 2013. There we get the cautious if horrific conclusion that as many as 27 million men, women and children around the world are victims of trafficking at any given time. Particularly telling is that the report's authors have only been able to identify a fraction of these individuals. In other words, we only know the tiniest part of what is going on. Similar figures can be found elsewhere. There are chilling statistics that nearly two million children are currently in enforced sexual exploitation,that perhaps 80% of human trafficking is for sexual exploitation and that between 80 and 84% of trafficked people are women. It's a ghastly trade.

People trafficking is also enormously profitable. A widespread and uncontested estimate is that globally people trafficking is worth $32 billion a year - only marginally less than arms dealing and drug smuggling. Unfortunately it is also relatively secure, in that only a handful of people are prosecuted each year. In 2010, for example, 21 European Union (EU) member states managed between them to convict just over 1,300 people for trafficking offences. In the current economic climate, the legal apparatus of every country is under pressure and the complexities of trafficking cases; different languages, multinational networks and victims who are unwilling to testify - mean that other things take priority.

Patterns of people trafficking are also very varied. Let's look at three different countries.

Greece. At the edge of Europe and with long land mass and sea borders, Greece is a favoured entry point for traffickers into Europe. Get your victims into Greece and it is relatively easy to move them on into the wealthier countries in Western Europe. Trafficked people enter Greece by two routes. The Balkan route brings in people from the former Iron Curtain countries to the north, such as Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and the Ukraine; the Eastern Mediterranean route brings in victims from Turkey and the Middle East. Some estimate that Greece serves as the 'back-door' entry point for close to 90% of the EU's illegal immigrants and although Greece is a 'transit stop' rather than a destination for many traffickers, many trafficked people nevertheless stay in Greece for labouring work and the sex trade.

Cyprus. Cyprus is also an entry point into the EU, with people coming not just from the former Soviet bloc and the Middle East, but also from the rest of the world. Cyprus is also much more of a destination for traffickers than Greece. As a holiday island and a place of residence for rich emigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia, there is ample scope for the employment of trafficked victims in manual labour and in the sex trade. Human trafficking seems to be on the increase in Cyprus, which has resulted in the US State Department putting the nation on its watch list; the only EU state to be on it. There is also the specific problem that Cypriot culture is still dominated by issues of honour and shame, resulting in prostitution remaining unmentioned and unheeded. After years of importing large numbers of women as 'artists' to work in cabaret clubs, which were often little more than brothels, legislation was introduced that resulted in prostitution moving from the known and visible venues into hundreds of much less easily monitored settings. A new and increasing problem has also arisen with young people arriving in Cyprus to study from abroad but who, having misjudged costs, end up trying to pay off debts by working in the sex trade.

The United Kingdom. You would think that with its honourable history of opposing slavery the UK would be beyond reproach in the area of people trafficking. Unfortunately, the UK is the destination for a huge number of trafficked people.. The scale is hard to assess; it is estimated that there are more than 5,000 victims in the UK. There are undeniably very large numbers of people from Eastern Europe working in the sex trade and the catering and agricultural sectors, or simply begging. How many of these are actually trafficked is unclear. Some authorities consider that trafficking into the UK is actually on the increase and for all its virtues, the complex and unwieldy British legal system does not deal well with the complex issues of people trafficking. Some of the changes that the government has recently proposed to the legal system may also have negative implications for trafficking victims. For example, if legal aid were only available to those who have lived legally in the UK for twelve months, most trafficking victims would inevitably be excluded. There is also the fact that cheap foreign labour is good for an economy in recession, because it keeps costs down.

The horror that is people trafficking exists in a variety of forms, everywhere. Some of the people we meet in our towns are trafficked. What can we do about it? I would suggest that the two great allies of the traffickers are ignorance and silence. The trafficking of people is a stealth crime, a quiet outrage committed in the shadows. By definition, its victims are men, women and children, but they are not our flesh and blood. We choose the easy option, deciding to be ignorant and - in the language of the parable of the Good Samaritan - to 'pass by on the other side'. And if we do suspect something, it is tempting to stay silent; speaking out might mean that we have to do something. But I am reminded again of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), where the two people who pass by the victim are decent and, I'm afraid to say, religious. It's all too easy to have enough morality to avoid evil, but not enough to want to do something about it. We must avoid ignorance and silence; we must seek the facts, speak out about them and do something. At the heart of the Christian message is a God who neither ignores the mess of the world, nor condemns it, but who instead chooses to rescue it. That intervention costs him the cross. That costly intervention is the pattern that we must bear in mind when we look at people trafficking. God is a rescuing God; we can do nothing less.

Revd Canon J.John

General references

The US Department of State 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report

'It Happens Here: equipping the United Kingdom to fight modern slavery' Report from The Centre for Social Justice (2013)

For the UK

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