When Humans Are Just Pieces of Cargo

Despite laws, protocols and international conventions, the number of people being trafficked into servitude is growing

Not long ago, a young Czech girl called Natasha arrived in Nicosia to become a dancer in a club. Her father had recently died of cancer and she could not find a job at home that paid enough to support herself and her elderly mother. She had been there less than a day when she discovered that the job meant lap dancing. She protested, was sacked, became a waitress and was picked up by the police for violating the terms of her work permit.

Released into the custody of a Cypriot who had befriended her, Natasha found that his brother owned a brothel and that she was expected to work in it. And there, from a third-floor window, early one morning, she jumped to her death. Hearing her story, an asylum seeker in a British detention centre called Talut wrote a rap song: “Snared in a trap/Like a hare she was game/Punished for pleasure/With no way back…/Her pupils always dilated, intoxicated, violated, time after time/She starts to lose her mind…”

In October, Nick Davies wrote an article in the Guardian about the grossly inflated claims made about sex trafficking in the UK. Calling his piece the “anatomy of a moral panic”, he compared the government’s statistics to the lies put out about Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction. A countrywide police operation, he noted, had failed to catch a single trafficker in six months. Davies’s article sparked a furious row on BBC2’s Newsnight between the Labour MP Denis MacShane, who defended the claim that there were 25,000 trafficked women on the streets of Britain, and a representative of the English Collective of Prostitutes, who argued that sex workers were not innocents, gullibly trafficked, but women who had made a conscious and dignified decision to work “to support their families”.

Before the subject vanishes behind the debate on the rights and wrongs of prostitution, it is important not to lose sight of the issue that lay behind Davies’s article: that of trafficking itself. Davies was correct in pointing out that the figures quoted in government reports were highly debatable, that the Home Office itself admitted that reliable data were hard to come by and that a number of individuals and organisations did manipulate the figures for their own ends. But that men, women and children are being trafficked, every day, all over the world, to work in agriculture, sweatshops, stone quarries, kitchens, brick kilns and as domestic servants and prostitutes — anywhere where there is a need for cheap labour — is beyond doubt.

When, on 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, slavery was identified as one of the first international human rights issues. “No one,” proclaimed Article 4, “shall be held in slavery or servitude.” In 2007, the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, Rahila Gupta, the author of Enslaved (Portobello), estimated that there were in all probability more people today in forms of bonded and forced labour than the total number of those — estimated at 15 to 28 million shipped during the 300 years of the transatlantic slave trade. 

About 2.4 million of them, according to figures issued by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), have been trafficked. Of these, half are children. There are Chinese people trafficked to sweatshops in France, Filipinos to domestic service across the Middle East, Zambian girls to brothels in Ireland. Trafficked children, as young as five, are currently at work on plantations and in sweatshops across Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria and Togo. Few of them will ever see their parents again, and they will spend their short lives paying off supposed debts to their traffickers and employers in bonded labour. But whether it is actually useful or appropriate to regard trafficked workers solely as helpless pawns in a game not of their making, without concentrating first on world poverty, labour markets and organised crime, is a question increasingly being asked. 

Trafficked people are economic migrants-but with a difference. For, unlike migrants, they have been deceived, lured by false promises and later locked into indebtedness or terrorised into submission. Trafficking differs fundamentally from smuggling, with which it is often confused, for while smuggling involves the consent of the individual to be taken illegally across a border and terminates at the point of destination, trafficking involves deception and ongoing exploitation. Even if a person has at some point consented — as Natasha did — consent becomes meaningless where deception and coercion follow. All trafficked people, at some point, are duped and misinformed. Most are isolated and lacking in knowledge of local laws, and all engage in work that is unsupervised, underpaid and without contract. Afraid of their traffickers and of being arrested and deported, they neither appeal for help nor go to the police for they, as many know only too well from their own countries, can also be brutal and corrupt. Most have no passport, all documents having been taken from them by their “employers”.

“What makes it so terrible,” says Michael Korsinski, of the Helen Bamber Foundation in London, “is that what is being exploited is hope, the hope and longing of people for something better. The combination of abuse, deceit and brutality amounts to a kind of modern torture. It is on our doorstep and it permeates society. It breaks people — which is what it is designed to do.”

Trafficking is not new. In the 16th century the term was synonymous with trading. By the 17th, it had acquired dubious overtones, denoting the sale of contraband, and by the 19th it had come to include human beings, traded as merchandise into slavery. The destination countries are frequently the most developed ones, those which are rightly proud of their human rights records, like the UK and France, but where the greed for cheap goods leads to labour exploitation and where the trade in people finds secret invisible places, disused warehouses or derelict caravans, not readily discovered by police and inspectors. While globalisation is driving deregulation and the opening of borders to the trade in goods, concerns about illegal immigration and terrorism are at the same time leading states to tighten their borders. It is where legal avenues for migration are blocked, where there is constant pressure on employers to cut costs, where there are long subcontracting chains and where birth rates are falling. People are living beyond their reproductive years so labour is needed to sustain economic growth, thus vulnerable people, driven by desperation and poverty, become prey to traffickers, the brokers and facilitators for hard, dirty, dangerous work.

And the profits — to organised crime, to the traffickers, to the many people who fill positions in the long and deceitful line between recruitment and forced labour — are immense. The ILO’s most recent Global Report estimated at $31.7 billion — well over double Mali’s entire annual GDP — the illicit profits produced in one year by trafficked workers. The “opportunity cost” of coercion to the workers themselves — excluding the women and children in sexual exploitation — may be as high as $20 billion, taking into account unpaid wages, unremunerated overtime and other deductions. While the extent to which patterns of exploitation and trafficking have been influenced by the global financial crisis remains unclear, trafficking in 2009 is very big business indeed.

On 1 April 2009, in keeping with other OSCE countries, Britain set up a National Referral Mechanism to collect data on trafficking. The figures are almost absurdly small but they are revealing of the pernicious and global nature of modern trafficking. Of the 69 victims documented between 1 April and 30 June, one was under ten years of age, eight between 12 and 15, and ten were aged 16 or 17. China, Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Nigeria were the countries most represented. Behind each of these cases lies a story of poverty, longing and deception. These are the narratives of the modern world, of people pushed and pulled by forces not of their making to feed a global hunger for profit and cheap labour.

Not long ago, I was introduced to Mira in London. Soon after her 17th birthday, her father and older sister disappeared in Ethiopia. Where they had gone was never discovered, but since Mira’s father had spent several years in prison as a former security officer in the military dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, it was probable that he had many enemies. Mira’s mother, who was Eritrean, did not long survive her husband’s abduction. In a matter of weeks, she had a heart attack and died.

This was in 2000, and Addis Ababa, where Mira’s family lived, was not a good place for a young orphan girl of mixed Eritrean and Ethiopian parentage. The long-running conflict over the countries’ shared borders, which had seen thousands of people expelled and many others accused of spying and imprisoned, simmered on.

But the family friend to whom Mira turned for help was resourceful and before long she had been introduced to a rich Saudi Arabian businessman and was on her way to Jeddah, to take up a job as nanny to his two children, a boy of eight and a girl of three. Grieving for her lost family, Mira wanted to survive. What she did not know was that a prolonged nightmare was only just beginning.

Mira’s new employers were well-connected and extremely rich. The house in which she found herself was vast, with marble floors, enclosed in a guarded compound. She slept on the ground, in the corner of the kitchen. There were no wages, no time off, no new clothes and very little food. She could eat, she was told, the leftovers from the children’s plates. “They treated me like an animal,” Mira cries when she describes the scene. “Sometimes, the children had spat out the food and that was all that I was given. People here treat their cats better.” To make certain that she never left the compound, her employers locked her in.

It was the violence, not the deprivation, that terrified her. For every mistake, every order obeyed too slowly, Mira was slapped. When she complained that the little boy had bitten her, his mother banged her head, hard, against the wall. Battering, pinching and biting became the routine of her days, as was rape. When the woman she had been ordered to address as “Madam” went away, taking the two children with her, her husband raped Mira, repeatedly and brutally. If she told anyone, he warned, he would kill her. She believed him. She is a slight, angular woman, with a long, sad face, accustomed to the love of a close-knit family, not the brutality of strangers.

One day, she was informed that she would be travelling with the family to England. Inside an equally large house in north London, behind locked gates, Mira’s life scarcely changed: more beatings, more bangings of her head against the walls and more rape. But then, at last, after almost four years of servitude, Mira’s luck turned.

Taken by her employer to the St John’s Wood Mosque and instructed to keep an eye on the children while she prayed, Mira sat on a bench and cried. A woman, seeing her there, asked her what was wrong. “At first,” Mira says, “I was too afraid to speak. But once I had started talking, I couldn’t stop.” The stranger listened, asked questions, and told Mira that she would help her. “She kept saying: ‘We are in England now and these things don’t happen here.'” Her rescuer took her home and next day found a solicitor. Mira applied for asylum.

The years of brutality have taken their toll. Mira suffers from constant headaches and the frequent blows to her head have left her with epilepsy. She is depressed and suffers from panic attacks. When she walks in the streets, she is constantly fearful that she may see her tormenters again. Not long ago, during a seizure, she fell down the stairs and broke her elbow. Her bones have become brittle and slow to mend.

Mira’s Saudi Arabian family were acting on their own. More often, traffickers are part of a vast clandestine world, an elusive breed, not least because they come in so many different forms. The exceptionally high returns from trafficking make it extremely attractive to organised crime, whose networks often have structures such as transport, safe houses and corrupt officials already in place, and to agents and gangmasters. Trafficking is a vast and complicated process, involving movement across entire continents and elaborate financial transactions. Organised criminal groups such as the Chinese Triads, the Japanese Yakuza and networks operating in Russia, Albania, Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Nigeria and Thailand are known to have profited from weak economies, corruption and improved international transport and to have diverted from drug smuggling to the traffic in people. 

The ILO estimates that 700’000 women and girls are shipped around the world annually

The so called “Eastern route”, running through Poland and into Germany has become a key corridor for the traffic of people into the EU from Russia, Ukraine, Romania and the Baltics. From the Caucus and Central Asian republics, women are moved to the Middle East and China. Many of these groups are carefully structured so that, in case of discovery, only small units are exposed. Along the way are money launderers, enforcers, debt collectors, corrupt police officials, guides, the crews of ships and recruiters. 

It was in the early 2000s that NGOs working with asylum seekers in the UK began to notice a new phenomenon. Many Roma — Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians — had been reaching Britain to ask for asylum from persecution at home. Most were denied leave to remain and returned to their own countries. But soon they were back. As the EU expanded and new nations joined, so the Roma-now permitted to travel legally to the UK to work — began to set up networks of their own, recruiting unemployed and gullible men and women from villages across Central and Eastern Europe with promises of good jobs and high wages in the UK. What these people found instead was intimidation and exploitation.

Peter is Hungarian, a slight, tentative man with watery eyes and courteous, old-world manners. His straight black hair, thinning a little, is parted in the middle and carefully combed. In greeting, he bows. After finishing secondary school in 1969 in his hometown near Lake Beloton, Peter became a lorry driver for a milk company. He married in 1975 and had three children. In 1990, he went to work for a Roma family, collecting scrap metal from nearby villages. “I even travelled abroad sometimes,” he says. “I made good money.”

But then Peter’s wife left him for his best friend, taking the children with her. He moved out of his house and into a rented room. When a Roma man told him that he could find him work in Britain, painting a picture of high wages and a fine house of his own, Peter listened. “The Roma are very persuasive — and after all, what life did I have left at home?”

In spring 2005, Peter was driven to Britain, together with two other Hungarians in search of new lives. He paid nothing for the journey and never saw his passport. As he spoke only Hungarian, he had little idea where he was, and in any case could not read the signposts. It turned out that he was bound for Huddersfield, in South Yorkshire. And there was indeed a job for him, packing bananas for £5.70 an hour. It was good money and Peter was delighted. It even made up for the squalor and discomfort of his accommodation, sharing a small flat with five other men. It made him feel that his ruined life might still be redeemed.

The money failed, however, to reach him. His recruiter opened an account in Peter’s name at a local bank, but held on to the bankcard and cheque book. The £230 he earned each week went straight into the account, only to be withdrawn by the recruiter, who told Peter that he owed it, in travel costs, living expenses and the money that went to getting his passport. “I thought of going to the police but I felt trapped. One day, I did escape, but they caught me and beat me. I am not a brave man.”

Another Hungarian, held with Peter, proved bolder. He got away and though tracked down and returned to the flat in Huddersfield by the Roma network, he fought and shouted before being locked in the cellar. Neighbours rang the police. The Roma were arrested and Peter was set free. He has agreed to give evidence against them and is now awaiting the trial. “But what shall I do then? I have nothing to go back to in Hungary. And I am afraid. If they catch me, they will cut my throat.” 

Though it has historical precedents in the white slave trade of the 19th century, it was only in the 1990s, after the surge in economic growth across the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia began to evaporate, that cross-border trafficking of jobless and desperate women really began. As Nick Davies rightly noted, there are no more reliable figures for trafficking for sexual exploitation than for any other forms of trafficking. However, the ILO have tentatively suggested that as many as 700,000 women and girls may be illegally and secretly taken across international borders every year, feeding an industry with profits put at between $12 billion and $17 billion per annum. Often sold on from owner to owner in a long cycle of abuse, women are said to make excellent merchandise: they can be duped and terrorised into submission and made dependent on drugs and alcohol, while the profits are vast and the chances of being caught minimal. And, like trafficked people everywhere, they can be forced to pay back the costs of enslaving them, in endlessly repeated “debts”. One CIA report estimated that each trafficked woman may earn her recruiters and handlers $250,000.

But the issue of trafficking and prostitution has its own particular difficulties. As the recent debate in the UK makes clear, campaigns against traffickers have been dominated by activists from two opposing camps: those who see all prostitution as a violation of human rights, and those who differentiate between voluntary and forced prostitution. For them, sex work can be a legitimate choice. It is the idea of what exactly constitutes coercion that is in question: whether a woman ever, in fact, actually “consents” to prostitution, or whether she is not always forced into it — by poverty, desperate need or violence. For a while, the subject of trafficked women became a target of intense feminist lobbying in the US, with Christian evangelists and some feminists uniting in their view of a world full of evil inflicted by men on women, using sex as a form of abuse. 

The 2000 Palermo Protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Crime is the international legal document that addresses all forms of trafficking in people. According to this protocol, trafficking is said to take place when a person is moved, by means of deceit or coercion, into a state of exploitation, whether of forced labour, slavery, servitude, sexual exploitation or removal of organs. Mira, Natasha and Peter all come under its rubric. With children under 18, it is enough that they be recruited and exploited. 

Initially debated with transnational crime in mind, the protocol focuses on encouraging states to adopt laws against trafficking. Law enforcement is obligatory for all signatories. The protocol — ratified to date by 117 states and signed by 110 — has been followed by a wide range of initiatives by the EU, the Council of Europe, Interpol, various UN bodies, OSCE and an immense number of NGOs. 

In Europe, the response to trafficking has been shaped in part by a succession of tragedies. In June 2000, the bodies of 58 Chinese were discovered suffocated to death in the back of a lorry bound for Dover from Belgium. They had come from Fujian province and had been trafficked by a Triad group in China, who had subcontracted the last stage of the journey to a Dutch-Turkish criminal gang in Rotterdam. Then, in the summer of 2004, 20 Chinese cockle-pickers were washed up in Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, having been drowned in a racing tide that no local cockle-picker would have risked. They had paid around £17,500 each to traffickers in China and were working in dangerous conditions not only to pay back their fee but to meet exorbitant demands for rent, electricity and food from the traffickers’ agents in Britain. Their families would suffer, the traffickers had warned, if the repayments were not met.

After the tragedy: Cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay 

The fate of the drowned cockle-pickers touched a nerve with the British public. Soon after the Morecambe Bay disaster, a Gangmasters Licensing Act was passed in the UK, providing prison sentences for unlicensed intermediaries. Although it was not explicitly intended to stop traffickers, the Act represents a valuable instrument that can be used to tackle the environment in which trafficking and exploitation thrive. Talks are continuing about extending their current remit in food production and agriculture to cover the construction industry, where widespread exploitation and trafficking is known to occur. Paul Whitehouse, the chairman of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority would like to see it extended still further, to take in cleaning, catering and domestic services. A UK Human Trafficking Centre was opened in Sheffield in 2006, to monitor and co-ordinate all aspects of the war on trafficking here. In March 2007, the government introduced an Action Plan on Tackling Human Traffic, the first policy document to include a focus on the human rights of victims. 

In the worldwide campaign against trafficking, the US has not simply pursued a path of its own but taken a leading role. In October 2000, shortly before the UN General Assembly adopted the protocol, the US framed its own Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), signed into law by President Clinton, increasing the penalties for trafficking-related offences committed in the US. Its stated intention was to accomplish what the drafters of the act called the “three Ps” — prosecution, prevention and protection. In the wake of this new law came an Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking and a Human Smuggling and Trafficking Centre.

The US has also set itself up as a policeman for other parts of the world. In December 2007, the office awarded anti-trafficking programmes in 46 countries $16.5 million to strengthen legal provisions, provide assistance to victims, raise public awareness and expand shelters and advice centres for people drawn into the traffickers’ web. Launching the 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report last June, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that trafficking is to be a “critical part of our foreign policy agenda”. 

The TVPA contains a set of minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, which the US regards as applicable to all countries with more than 100 cases of what they call “victims of severe forms of trafficking”. Assessed once a year in a report published by the Department of State, offending countries are placed in one of four tiers. Being in the most serious, Tier 3, leads to the possible withholding of non-humanitarian, non-trade-related assistance. Tier 2 Watch is for those on “probation”, such as Russia, which has failed to make any real effort to combat the trafficking of children from Ukraine and Moldova to join beggars on the streets of Moscow, or the trafficking of men from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan for construction work. The TVPA programme has, however, come in for considerable criticism. In the 2009 report, Tier 3 included Iran, North Korea and Sudan, all countries notorious more for their poor relations with Washington than for their trafficking activities.

There now exists a myriad of legal instruments that can be used against traffickers and a genuine desire on the part of many governments to wage war on them. Everywhere, however, there remains a gulf between the rhetoric of the anti-traffickers and the willingness of governments and police forces either to protect and assist those who have been trafficked, or to track down and prosecute their traffickers. Mira has lost her appeal for asylum in the UK, while the Saudi Arabian couple remains free, though their names are known. “We are failing these people, daily and systematically,” says Helen Bamber, whose foundation is seeing an increasing number of traumatised and injured victims of trafficking. “We allow them poor legal representation and scant medical attention, and then we send them home, penniless and stigmatised by their experiences, often only to be trafficked again.” 

Most significantly, however, the array of protocols, conventions, agreements and laws, together with all the US and locally-funded initiatives, do not seem to be working. If anything, the number of people being trafficked every year is increasing. Traffickers are proving adept at avoiding detection and capture, while victims remain for the most part too afraid of what will happen to themselves and to their families if they agree to act as witnesses. 

Compared to the figures for trafficked people, those for convictions are pitiful. Russia conducted 125 trafficking investigations in 2006. By the end of the year, there had been a mere 13 convictions. In Africa, in the same year, there were just 51 convictions for trafficking-related crimes. Two of the five countries covered by the EU Office to Monitor Trafficking in Persons have not recorded a single conviction. 

Though the Council of Europe’s Action Plan includes for the first time a legally binding instrument, with provisions for granting protection to trafficked women and children, giving them some rights to residence in exchange for evidence against traffickers, the fact remains that very few people receive it. And even appearance in court is no guarantee of special treatment. For the most part, women who escape their traffickers, and men who turn to the police for help, continue to be perceived as illegal immigrants and deported, rather than as vulnerable human beings whose rights are being violated.

Faced with the overwhelming failure of so much legislation, there is a growing feeling that there needs to be a change of direction. Andreas Schloenhardt, of the Australian Institute of Criminology, argues that the current system of international criminal law leaves too many loopholes for criminals and allows too many concessions to the protocols’ signatories, while the actual enforcement of anti-trafficking measures remains in the hands of individual countries. It is only at a supranational level, using a court modelled on the International Criminal Court, that international law enforcement against traffickers, he suggests, might become more efficient. 

But there are other issues at stake. There is, first of all, something profoundly faulty in labour contracting itself, that permits exploitation, and hence trafficking, to take place. As Roger Plant, the head of the Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour at the ILO, puts it, it is not a question of a “few rotten apples” but of the systematic, worldwide “coercive exploitation of human beings”. States, actively promoting a false image of human trafficking as illegal immigration, effectively draw attention away from the dependence of the West on cheap and malleable workers in the unregulated and unprotected labour market. And this distortion can be attacked only by strong labour laws, vigorously enforced against industries profiting from cheap labour, by clear and fair immigration controls and by generous and far-sighted programmes for the protection and rehabilitation of victims. It is the exploitation of all workers, trafficked or otherwise, Plant argues, rather than the movement of people into situations in which they will be exploited that has to be fought. 

And there is perhaps a more fundamental point to be made as to why the many anti-trafficking measures are having such little effect. To focus, as they do, on trafficking solely as a criminal activity is to ignore the nature of migration itself. People move, and have always moved, in search of work and better lives and they will continue doing so. Yet in a world that is supposed to be more accessible to everyone, the right to migrate remains a privilege offered to the very few. Mechanisms of control and punishment over the mobility of migrants, instead of eliminating trafficking, may actually be creating the conditions in which it will grow and spread, while at the same time diverting attention away from the global inequalities in wealth that drive people to migrate in the first place. Trafficking would not occur, argue the authors of a recent paper on human trafficking in Oxford University’s St Antony’s International Review, in a world with well-managed migration policies. It is no coincidence that the growth in trafficking has come at a time of increasing demand for cheap labour and ever tighter border controls: desperate people have no alternative but to seek the services of traffickers, hoping that their promises of a better life are genuine.

That people will continue to move from poor countries to rich countries is inevitable, as is the fact that many will be deceived along the way. There are basic movements that defy the neat categories and solutions expressed in protocols and international agreements and no number of laws will curb them. Recognising this vast, messy, unwieldy subject for what it is, and attempting to tackle its causes rather than cynically addressing its symptoms, may be the only way ahead.

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