human trafficking

Human trafficking: a hidden epidemic

Human trafficking: a hidden epidemic

TW: References to sexual assault

Clarisa is a 14 year old Dominican girl. Disabled, she experiences the world as a six year old does. This has left her vulnerable to abuse. Last year, a man raped her many times and then offered her body to another man. He had a reputation for trafficking young girls in this way. A life of forced prostitution would have been Clarisa’s fate.

Fortunately the police and a team from International Justice Mission (IJM), a charity which works to combat trafficking and violence, helped to rescue Clarisa and track down the traffickers. She was deeply scarred by the experience, her mother Alma noted: “After this happened, she was always in the street. She would run away, and I would have to look for her. She would get angry with me. I didn’t know what had happened.” We all know that sexual assault is one of the most internally scarring experiences imaginable. The paradox in our twisted world is that Clarisa was lucky to get away with only being raped a few times. Her good fortune is currently the exception, not the rule.

Clarisa’s case is not an isolated one: there are millions around the world held in bondage, forced to sell their bodies in sex work, domestic labour or manual labour. There are 36 million slaves in the world today. A quarter of these are children. 2 million of those children are in sex work.

I’m often drawn to ask why this kind of injustice doesn’t have more media attention. Is it because it feels distant? Or is it because it feels too big an issue? Something must be wrong when you are more likely to hear about Nigel Farage going to a Kent pub in the newspaper than you are to hear about a girl working 16 hour days in an Indian factory. Injustice on this level almost goes beyond our comprehension and it easily slips under the radar. Do you remember the girls kidnapped in Nigeria last year? Their case, long since forgotten, had the sort of coverage which it deserved. Sadly the hordes of other people who have since been kidnapped in the same by Boko Haram have just been ignored.

Perhaps it is the distance which leads to our ambivalence. While we’ll fight hard to campaign against slavery when it happens in Oxford, see responses to Operation Bullfinch as an example, the plight of a child in India or Nigeria is not our problem. Yet, in a globalized world we cannot have that attitude. Our consumption patterns make us complicit in the maintenance of the slave trade. When did you last consider what the label ‘made in India / Vietnam / China’ actually means? When did you last think about who the girl that you’re watching on that kinky website is? When did you last ask where your food comes from? People are used as commodities to produce and sustain our lifestyles: we have to wake up and accept that responsibility.

On 12 June and 13th June, Just Love Oxford is putting on the annual ‘Stand for Freedom’ event in order to engage with these issues. Students are going to be standing on Bonn Square for twenty-four hours with the aims of raising awareness about the problem of human trafficking and of challenging people to think about creative ways of making a difference. How can we stand for the marginalized? How can we challenge our lifestyles and engage with these issues? How can we be opening our eyes and deciding to live in a way that does not accidentally exploit the most vulnerable? Come along and find out!

I think it is worth adding as an endnote that I am not writing this piece from the perspective of someone who has got all the answers. In fact, I did not know any of the statistics quoted here before I offered to write something on behalf of the Just Love Human Trafficking Action Group about why we are doing the event. Writing and engaging with these issues has been a challenge, one that I hope will force me to take this area of injustice more seriously. The purpose of Stand for Freedom is that people in Oxford will go through a similar process of allowing themselves to be challenged to live more justly. We’d love you to join us.

PHOTO/ VascoPlanet

Standing for Freedom protest in Bonn Square

Standing for Freedom protest in Bonn Square

Charitable Oxford students stood in the city centre for 27 hours straight to raise awareness of an anti-human trafficking charity last week.

The event was hosted by Just Love, a Christian student social justice group in Oxford. It aimed to promote ‘Stand for Freedom’, a national campaign to raise awareness of the 27 million people who are currently in slavery around the world.

Those taking part stood from 9am on 7th June through to 12pm on 8th June. They rotated in shifts, with one student – Izzy Morse, a first-year from Regent’s Park – standing for the whole 27 hours.

“Personally I would say what amazed me was people’s apathy about the situation; people didn’t want to be bothered about it,” she said.

“There was a good number who supported us, but also a huge proportion of people who would literally answer ‘no’ to the question ‘will you help me stop slavery and sign a petition?’. The amount of people who joked about how they wished the women on team were for sale was astonishing. People’s responses at times were scary!”

She went on to explain the cause. “There are actually an estimated 29.8 million people being held in slavery today, according to the most recent Global Slavery Index, 26% of which are children.”

“The whole time was emotionally and physically gruelling, I can hardly walk now my legs hurt so much but it was also an absolute pleasure. These people have their whole lives taken away from them so I can definitely stand for 27 hours for their cause!”

150 different groups have taken part in the wider campaign, with Oxford being invited to take part this year. Aside from physical protest, students were also petitioning, photographing people who stood, selling fair trade food and bracelets made by trafficking survivors. They were also stamping people with ‘Not For Sale’ barcodes, and some also joined in a flash mob.

Ben Coulter, a student who took part in the flash mob, said: “It was an amazing day; I think we got around 800 people to sign our petition, we had a great flash mob, we were selling fair trade goods, and just generally raising awareness about modern day slavery by talking to passers by!”

Hannah Coates, a third-year from Jesus, runs Just Love’s Human Trafficking Action Group, which has representatives across the colleges. She said: “The idea of Stand For Freedom came from the charity International Justice Mission (IJM) who send lawyers and investigators to work in many countries around the world in order to assist local police officers and legal professionals in rescuing victims of trafficking and prosecuting their traffickers.

“I think it is really important that we, as Western consumers, know that trafficked people are often used to pick, dye and spin the cotton which makes many of the clothes in our favourite shops. There is no simple solution to trafficking in supply chains but there won’t be a stop to it unless consumers demand change and improvement.”

Pheobe Scott-Green, also part of Just Love, explained that one person was always standing on the monument, either tied or gagged “to symbolise that those enslaved really don’t have a voice, so we have to speak up on their behalf”.

She went on to say: “It was just staggering how many people think slavery was abolished with William Wilberforce, which it was, but that they don’t know that despite this there are more slaves alive today than there were in the time of Wilberforce.”


Standing in the street to stop trafficking

A flash mob of blindfolded protestors stood statuesque on Cornmarket for five minutes on Tuesday to raise awareness about human trafficking.

Coinciding with National Anti-Slavery Day, a crowd of supporters donned blindfolds and froze in place at 1pm for five minutes. At five past one the surreal event ended with the call “You can now open your eyes to human trafficking”.

The Oxford Community Against Trafficking (OXCAT) set up a stall on Cornmarket Street advertising “Girls for sale” while shivering girls dressing in black stood in metal cages at the side of the stall. A handful of suited ‘sleazy’ sales men advertised their ‘wares’ over megaphones with calls of “Girls! Girls! Buy them now and sell them on!” Some people stopped to take photos of their friends posing besides the cages and signs.

The protest was in response to the recent trial and prosecution of Anastassios Papas and Graham Cochrane.

Cochrane and Papas ran the ‘Fun Girls in Oxford’ escort agency, but were arrested after a tip-off that they had been employing girls as young as 13 as prostitutes. The pair were convicted of trafficking women within the UK for sexual explotation in September, with Papas receiving a seven-year sentence and Cochrane five.

Detective Inspector Simon Morton of Thames Valley Police said that the girls Papas used “were told they were going to be cut up and put in a box if they did something that he didn’t like. They were threatened continually. He was forcing them to be raped every day.”

OXCAT believes that Papas and Cochranes’ convictions have just scratched the surface of sex trafficking issues in Oxford. Spokesperson Owen Gallacher said: “Human trafficking is normally associated with big cities, but it could happen anywhere”. He continued:  “The number one thing to do is to raise awareness; let people know that it exists and what the warning signals are. We want to get people to open their eyes.”

The leaflets OXCAThanded out on the day stressed that Papas and Cochrane’s crimes are unlikely to be an isolated case. They added that “there are at least 4,000 sex trafficking victims in the UK, according to the Home Affairs Committee” and that “the majority of victims are girls aged 12-25”.

Though many of the protesters came in response to OXCAT’s online campaigning, a large number were also recruited on the day. Keble student Sarah Poulten said: “I joined because I think it is an important issue and conscious raising activities are the first step in getting things done because people are forced to realize there is a problem when they would much rather just ignore it.”

Another student declared that they had known little about the issue before coming to the protest. “It’s amazing to think that it happens right here on your doorstep. When you hear about human trafficking you think of Eastern Europe and places like that. You forget that it is just as big an issue here in England, even in Oxford.”

One second year student at Wadham College said: “it is easy to forget that anything like this happens when you’re stuck in the Oxford bubble, but at least some effort is being made to draw attention to it”.

Interview with Catherine Bearder MEP

It’s a unfortunate fact of journalism that many people stop reading articles if they dislike the opening sentences. It’s even more unfortunate that when these sentences mention the EU, the chances of readers finding a large object to whack themselves repeatedly on the head increase somewhat. So why, over the summer, did I decide to interview an MEP and write it up here?

In March, the Daily Express claimed that a survey had found MEPs to be the “most hated profession in Britain”. Now this was, in all probability, absolute rubbish – the article did not specify any sources or polling organisations. Yet what’s most surprising about this is the very lack of public suspicion. We all have the same public perception of those far-right nutters and corrupt frauds who comprise our representatives in Europe, and expect our MEPs to be hated.

I wanted to find out what life as an MEP is actually like. So, I interviewed Catherine Bearder, a Liberal Democrat MEP based in Oxford, and, on the basis of a half-hour whirlwind chat, I’ve set out six points about our MEP which show a more realistic side to the profession.

Firstly, her small office in Park End Street is at odds with the idea of Brussels luxury. Three or four members of staff are stuffed into a corner of a dilapidated building with a lift that wouldn’t look out of place in a silent film. It may be this which, when I ask her about the public’s perception of an MEP, causes her to exclaim “gravy train, eh!” and laugh uproariously. Her salary is roughly the same as that of an MP, and the expenses are minimal, considering the travelling she does.

Secondly, this is a politician who is proud to admit that “I never thought of politics as a career”. This only changed after extensive community and local council work: “The more active I got the more I realised that if I wanted to make a difference about the things I cared about, I would have to stand for an international body.” Although she did once stand for Westminster, she now firmly believes that she can make more of a tangible difference on certain issues in the European parliament. “There’s a saying that young men go into politics as a career, whereas women get into politics when they get angry”, citing the environment and human trafficking as the issues closest to her heart. She comes across as more of a social activist interested in a specific set of issues, rather than a politician.

Thirdly, she vastly prefers the European parliamentary system to the British one, stating that “it’s a much more grown-up type of politics”, in that there is much more consensus and coalition building, rather than cheap political point scoring. This may mean it takes longer for laws to pass, but the eventual outcome is “better legislation”, she claims. There are, of course, some less tasteful aspects of the European parliament: “You do get some who stand up and say the most ridiculous things,” referring to certain BNP members’ speeches on the Haiti earthquake as particularly appalling examples. Nonetheless, “the BNP apart,” she smiles, “most of us get along okay”.

Fourthly, she is very frustrated with treatment of the EU in this country – in fact, she uses the word “frustrating” five times over the course of our interview. It’s not just the public or the media’s fault, though: “The vast majority of MPs don’t really have a good understanding of how the European parliament works,” which makes co-operation incredibly difficult.

Fifthly, she’s not the biggest fan of, which she sarcastically refers to as “that lovely website”. Although she likes receiving letters, she gets sent huge numbers of email which are completely irrelevant to her position. At the time of interview, she says that she was receiving hundreds of letters on a planning application in Yorkshire, and on the issue of horse transport – neither of which fall under her remit.

Sixthly, she spends a considerable portion of her time working solely on human trafficking. A recent success was getting the UK government to opt in to a new EU directive on the matter, but she recognises the huge amount that is still to be done. Indeed, she stresses that this is a problem extremely close to home – a recent case saw the conviction of a man living in Iffley for keeping two Croatian girls in his house and using them as prostitutes. Pointing to evidence which shows that trafficking increases in the lead up to major international events, she declares that the next year is crucial for the UK to prevent any upsurge before the 2012 Olympics.

Support the campaign to stop human trafficking by visiting her website: EU Anti-Trafficking Day is on October 18th.

Alex Newton