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Complexities of Human Trafficking

BY RUTH LESMANA | 7 NOVEMBER 2018

When you hear the words ‘human trafficking’, what do you think of?

Usually when we ask this question, the responses are about women and children who have been forced to work in the sex industry, or people who have been tricked into working on fishing boats.

Considering our reliance on news outlets and the media to provide us with the current facts and statistics, it can be easy to think of this issue in ‘simplified’ terms. I know that personally, trying to get my head around it resorts to the need for a general overview so that a quick-fix solution can be found.

But unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

We get bombarded with numbers such as:

  • “…an estimated 40.3 million people are in modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labour and 15.4 million in forced marriage.”
  • “1 in 4 victims of modern slavery are children.”
  • “…16 million people are exploited in the private sector such as domestic work, construction or agriculture; 4.8 million persons in forced sexual exploitation…”*

So the natural human response is to look at these numbers as what they are ... numbers.

We think about the industry as a whole, illegal as it may be, and the profit that it earns. We think about how big the problem is, and how intertwined it is with the economy and the trends of migration.

What we often forget to remember, are the lives and stories that make up those numbers.

I recently came across an article** that was written to report on the trade of underage girls from Burma to Singapore, and how despite the bans imposed by both governments, it continues to thrive. It speaks of a particular village in Burma where approximately 60 girls had been recruited by an agency that promised families of better income-earning opportunities for their young daughters. It seems like a fairly typical scenario – the parents (and sometimes children) believe that it is a worthwhile opportunity, and despite needing to pay the agency large amounts of money to ‘kick off the transaction’; they place such trust and hope in them that whether or not the process was illegal, those who experience a good return genuinely believe that the agency lifted them out of poverty.

Yet their neighbours paid a different price. On top of the money that they first paid in order to send their child to work in Singapore, the biggest price they paid was the life of their teenage daughter. Their 17 year-old daughter who, within a month after arriving in Singapore, had died after falling from her employer’s apartment. It is still unclear how and why this happened, and her family may never find out.

These are young, teenage girls – who are told to lie about their age (the official legal age for domestic workers in Singapore is 23 years old); living far away from their families and the village life they know, placing their lives in the hands of agencies who may not be held responsible for their illegal actions.

“We didn’t know that you have to be at least 23 or 24 to work in Singapore. As naïve villagers, we didn’t know. A police investigator told us that she was able to go as her passport was altered. That’s all that we know.”

I wish there was a quick-fix solution to this. That the tragic stories that make up the statistics could be recovered or better yet, rewound like a tape – so that they never occurred. But the truth is that there are still many more out there who aren’t even included in these reported cases and statistics. The exploitation of men, women, and children continues to seep into so many households and communities; whether in the sex, agriculture, fishing, domestic, or construction industries. And although it’s important to uncover these stories, the publicity of these issues often drive them even further underground. Unacknowledged, forgotten, and overlooked.

So we continue doing what we can.

We fight against any assaults on human rights, dignity and value. We listen to our neighbours, the people in the communities, and partner with them so that they are aware of certain dangers that they’re exposed to. We continue discussions and collaborations to connect them with opportunities and support services they may need. We educate and train in order to equip them with knowledge and skills that they can take wherever they go.

Most of all – we remember the faces, stories, and lives of those at risk of being exploited. We remember them so that we don’t see them as numbers, but people just like us. People who are doing their best to survive, to provide a life for themselves and their families; and to work towards achieving dreams of their own.

NB: If you’re interested in definitions and the elements of human trafficking, here’s a good place to start - https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html

*International Labour Organisation: http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/lang--en/index.htm

**Watch the news report video and read the article here: https://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/asia/2018/04/myanmar-singapore-maid-trafficking-continues-180401073206179.html

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