At school, we are taught about the slave trade in history books – Men, women and children sold and bought by other human beings. They were chained, exploited, beaten and killed, all legally. In most countries, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, slavery was abolished and became a criminal offence. However, slavery is not over. People are still traded, even at our own doorstep, in the European capital. There are no metal chains anymore but mental ones.
At a fundraising event in Brussels co organised by MCI Brussels, on Thursday 21 February, I had the great pleasure to meet Steve Chalke, Founder and President of Oasis* and United Nations’ special adviser on community action against human trafficking. In Belgium, Oasis works with marginalised and exploited people trying to help them by providing moral support and offering a way out of their misery.
What is human trafficking and in which form is it present in Europe?
There are many types of human trafficking which affect different groups of people. In general, human trafficking consists of taking a person against their will by force or deception, and exploiting them for one’s own ends. Bridal agencies are an example of human trafficking. Young girls are promised a wonderful future, away from poverty, through marrying a man in a country like Belgium. Extremely vulnerable, they arrive expecting to find happiness and prosperity. Few of them do. Too many are abused and turned into sex slaves.
Most of the time, victims of trafficking have no idea what is happening to them; they say that they feel trapped, there is no way out and no hope. Indeed, trafficking is a technical word used by experts to describe something that is happening to other people, to explain a factual situation – but victims experience it simply as deception.
Western countries are normally the final destinations for people trafficked from Asia, Africa or Eastern Europe seeking prosperity; they are shown that Western cities offer jobs and rewards. People are also trafficked from Western countries, though this is a minority.
People who are being trafficked are looking for better lives, is poverty the main cause of the traffic?
A person is more vulnerable to becoming a victim of trafficking if they have no hope in their current situation. If you are happy and you’ve got a job; you do not want to escape your situation. On the contrary, if you have nothing: if you cannot eat, if you cannot house yourself, if you cannot look after your family, which is a huge factor in Asian culture, you would do anything to remedy the situation.
What are the main obstacles in your work against human trafficking?
These women could go to the police station but they don’t because of the emotional pressure put on them. The psychological aspect is the biggest obstacle in the fight against human trafficking. Cruelty is another factor, as this is a reminder that the trafficker can destroy its victim and their families. Moreover, these women are isolated and going to the police station may not seem like the best option as they often don’t speak the language of the country, the brothel is all they know, the only roof they can sleep under, and their pimp is the only person showing them some sort of kindness, even if it is false kindness.
In your opinion, what can be done to end human trafficking? How should this issue be tackled?
NGOs and community groups act locally to care for people who have been trafficked, creating safe houses for them. All of that is important but this is dealing with the consequences, not dealing with the cause and preventing the problem. Human trafficking is a global problem and the second biggest crime in the world (behind drug trafficking). Governments have a responsibility to deal with the issue at a transnational level. Authorities of origin and destination countries need to cooperate to gather intelligence and data in order to establish profiles and understand who is involved and who controls the traffic.
This is not always easy. However NGOs and governments should work hand in hand and create a new sense of interdependency. We have different functions but we all want the same outcome to stop these crimes.
Educating people is key: young people who are vulnerable, police forces, businesses, etc. In addition, every business should submit an annual transparency report on their supply chain. Fair trade labels exist but they do not scrutinise the whole supply chain. This is the responsibility of governments to push for this change.
The European Union has committed itself against human trafficking, namely with the creation of the European Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, in 2010 and two directives in 2011-2012. The legislation defines the crimes and sentences for those found guilty of trafficking crimes, and proposes protection and assistance to victims. What do you think about these initiatives and their impact?
The rising number of trafficking victims is not being matched by increases in prosecutions and convictions for trafficking offences. Many court cases do not lead to convictions. Therefore, defining crimes is essential. It is important but long and difficult work that needs to be well done, and effectively transmuted to authorities and police forces who have to understand the rules and implement them. I always say, you can never stop the traffic unless you can spot the traffic. The European Anti-Trafficking Coordinator is also a really good initiative. She should have an equivalent in every country at national level; perhaps even at regional level.
In the 21st century, there are more slaves alive than there were throughout the entire slave trading era. It is our responsibility to end it.
Oasis is a Christian global non-profit organisation working on projects in 10 locations across the world (e.g South Africa, UK, India, Uganda, US, Kyrgyzstan and Belgium). It promotes inclusion in society regardless of religion, race, ethnicity and gender and seeks to empower disadvantaged individuals in order to help them develop their potential by for instance fostering access to healthcare and education. The organisation is very active in helping girls and women victims of human trafficking.