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Trapped In The Traffic

Human Rights

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Trapped in the traffic

Driven by the need to migrate, enterprising people can fall into the clutches of
ruthless traffickers. Rescuing them, argues Elaine Pearson, is far from simple.

Soon after I met nam we were sharing a taxi through downtown Bangkok. Neither of us was entirely impressed with our driver. ‘You can drive faster, you know,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘Come on… fast… faster.’ She drummed her fingers on the back of his seat impatiently. The taxi driver looked a bit bewildered but didn’t speed up. Nam sat back, rolling her eyes. A few minutes later she was leaning forward again, her voice raised sharply. ‘Hey, don’t go on the expressway, do we look like we want to pay a toll? Maybe it’s because I’m with a foreigner,’ she teased me. ‘He thinks we don’t know where we’re going or we have a lot of money.’

Nam wouldn’t tell me her age but I guess she’s in her thirties. She’s from the north of Thailand where the rest of her family still lives, including her two children. Now she works in Bangkok and sends money home, visiting her family once, perhaps twice a year. Nam is self-confident – direct and assertive to the point of being downright rude – and not just with taxi drivers. She is a far cry from the shy, demure stereotype of Thai women. And even further from the stereotype of Thai women trafficked into the sex industry abroad.

Several years ago Nam was promised safe passage to Canada and a job to help pay off her airfare. When she arrived she found she had been trafficked into prostitution, forced to work against her will without seeing any of her earnings. Later, when the brothel was raided Nam was ‘rescued’ by police. But that meant going to jail for a year before being forced to return home.

Neither Nam’s gullibility nor her experience are unique. Hundreds of thousands of women, men and children are trafficked every year. Like Nam, many go willingly, desperate for work and unaware of the harsh reality that will face them on foreign shores. Though they are often portrayed as passive and naive, young women like Nam are more often both enterprising and courageous, taking the initiative to improve their situation.

The problem comes when people are recruited into abusive conditions quite unlike what was promised them. Some of those trafficked are told they must work to pay back various unspecified expenses – a form of debt bondage where the original sum keeps getting inflated, making repayment impossible. Threats, violence, blackmail and confiscation of travel documents are common measures to ensure their compliance.

People are trafficked into a variety of occupations, not just the sex industry. They may end up doing domestic work, agricultural labour, begging or even married against their will.

Dinah, for example, was trafficked from Cambodia to work in a sewing factory in Bangkok. She was imprisoned in the factory and forced to work 12 hours a day, six days a week for no pay. After the factory was raided by police she was arrested at the police station and later convicted for working without a permit. The forced labour issue was ignored. No translator was provided during the police investigation. And since she could not pay the fine she spent months in jail, sleeping on the floor, receiving meagre rations.

This kind of government response is not limited to the South. In Britain, police rescuing victims of trafficking routinely arrest them, either for illegal entry or for working illegally. In Japan, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented the horrific treatment of trafficked women in immigration detention facilities – ranging from ‘physical and verbal abuse to substandard sanitary conditions and insufficient opportunity to exercise’. While victims are punished, traffickers often escape and employers get off lightly.

In Dinah’s case, the factory owner was arrested for non-payment of wages, but not for keeping her employees in a virtual prison. The case did not go to trial until after Dinah was deported back to Cambodia, so she had no chance to give evidence.

Governments consistently do not address the realities of trafficking. They treat it less as a problem of the violation of human rights than as one of illegal migration, organized crime or prostitution. Their response is to curtail the fundamental right to freedom of movement by erecting further barriers to migration. To make matters worse they do so under the guise of ‘anti-trafficking’.

The end result of tighter border controls and stricter immigration policy is that those who feel compelled to move – driven by economic need – are even more vulnerable to exploitation by third parties who are only too willing to grease the wheels of illegal migration. As undocumented migrants those who are trafficked are almost completely powerless when they reach their final destination. So far, governments have been reluctant to look at the growing economic disparities between rich and poor that fuel the trafficking business. Instead the emphasis has been on attacking organized crime and prosecuting traffickers while those who’ve been trafficked find themselves re-victimized by the judicial system. They may be pressured into testifying against their exploiters then shipped home – with no provision for their safety, no adequate support and no access to redress.

A trafficked woman once told me: ‘That I was rescued by the police, and returned home immediately, did not change the fact that I had a debt to pay to the traffickers. I owed them for the initial travel expense, and then they kept adding on more money for accommodation, food, clothes and medicine. Not only had I failed to earn what I had hoped to support my family, but my situation was even worse, because now I also had the debt.’ Returning her home was effectively putting her straight back into the hands of the traffickers.

Serious measures to tackle trafficking would include increased employment and migration opportunities; protection and support for those trafficked, including temporary or permanent residence in countries of destination; and opportunities for legal redress and compensation.

One starting point would be for countries to issue temporary residence permits for those who have been trafficked. This is happening now in places like Belgium, the Netherlands and the US – even though it is usually linked to a requirement to testify against the trafficker and is often only for the duration of the court case. In Italy, there is a new law which entitles victims of trafficking to a renewable six-month stay, including the right to work, not linked to a need to testify. Whilst the implementation of the law in practice is still questionable, it’s a promising start.

But the real key is to recognize that trafficking is fundamentally about people who need to move. Like myself and Nam in the Bangkok taxi, people who are trafficked are people who need to get somewhere. The problem is, as passengers, they have no power and no control. The driver is able to manipulate the route, the speed, the amount they pay and whether or not they reach their destination.

Even so, the solution is not to stop us from getting into taxis, or to take action against passengers who take taxis and force them back to where they started from. Instead, why not focus on keeping the passengers safe, making sure there is legal, alternative transport and taking action against drivers who exploit them.

Elaine Pearson is the author of Human Rights and Trafficking in Persons (GAATW, Bangkok, 2001) and is currently the Trafficking Programme Officer for Anti-Slavery International.

Web resources
Stop Traffic Listserve and Archives
Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women

Elaine Pearson

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