Time to stamp out trade in misery

Updated: 2011-09-23 08:37

By Jackie Sheehan (China Daily)

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Time to stamp out trade in misery

Action plan to be published soon gives china the chance to do more to combat human trafficking

China has been rooted to the Tier 2 watchlist of the United Nations' global human trafficking report for seven years, despite its progress in identifying and assisting more victims of domestic trafficking, for its failure to improve awareness of and services for Chinese victims of transnational trafficking. But later this year it has a chance to make amends.

A new National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking is being drafted for release in December and it is hoped that the Chinese authorities have learnt valuable lessons from the last decade, namely that trafficking from China to Europe and beyond is not solely about young women destined for the sex industry but also men and women, boys and girls, being trafficked for forced labor.

It is also hoped that the authorities are wising up to the highly damaging role being played by apparently legitimate agencies in China that advertise in public places in order to channel vulnerable people toward transnational traffickers.

Ever since Britain began counting suspected victims of human trafficking within its borders, China has been the second most common country of origin (after Nigeria), responsible for 18 percent of identified victims between 2009 and 2011.

Worse still, Chinese trafficking networks are recognized as some of the most sophisticated and well-organized networks operating in Britain so we have to assume that many more Chinese victims remain unidentified, hidden in plain sight within Britain's rapidly growing Chinese population.

Some of those identified as having been trafficked end up in the asylum system, where the patient efforts of lawyers, social workers and counsellors eventually persuade them to talk about their experiences.

As an expert witness in asylum cases, I help the court to understand what people trafficked from China have been through, and in the course of this work I have heard the detailed stories of more than 40 Chinese victims of human trafficking. These stories often paint a very different picture from what we expect when we think of the "typical" trafficking victim.

For one thing, unlike abducted children or the people with learning difficulties trafficked into slave labor in the brick kilns of Henan or Shanxi, all of the victims I know went willingly with their traffickers at the start.

Many of them were in their early teens as it's particularly easy for traffickers to bring under-18s into Britain. They can be abandoned at the airport with no papers and picked up again later at the traffickers' convenience from the children's homes where social services have placed them. Some were adults, men as well as women, when they unwittingly put themselves in traffickers' hands.

People smuggling and human trafficking are two distinct activities, but in practice they are often carried out by the same people, with the only difference being the exact nature of the agent's relationship to the client or victim. A smuggled person pays an agreed fee, which can be a very large sum - 100,000-300,000 yuan (11,470-34,410 euros) to an agent for passage to Britain and once they arrive at their destination, the relationship with the agent ends.

Trafficking involves deception and exploitation. When traffickers first dangle the possibility of working abroad before a vulnerable person, he won't say how much it costs. They will ask: "How much money do you have?" And then take all of it, without spelling out how much they still expect to earn by taking most or all of the person's earnings in Britain.

In this way, trafficking victims are tricked into taking on huge "debts" to agents, equivalent to the amount someone would pay to be smuggled, which they will have to work for years in Britain to pay off.

Some victims are also exploited along the way, with the men being forced to work in factories or felling trees in Eastern Europe, and the women compelled to work in brothels. The common factor is that they are too far from China to get back by the time they find out the reality of their situation.

In any case the traffickers control their passports and tickets, only putting them in victims' hands when they have to pass through border checks, and keep them locked up and even under armed guard between stages of their journey. Even where women and girls are not destined for the sex industry, rape is used as a means of control by traffickers who know it will make their victims too ashamed to go to anyone else for help.

Once in Britain, victims of trafficking can find themselves in any kind of employment, from painting and decorating or construction to street selling or working in a takeaway restaurant.

The mixing of trafficked and voluntary labor in the same workplace is one of the factors that make it so hard to spot a possible victim of trafficking. The average takeaway customer would never dream that one of the workers cleaning the kitchen or chopping vegetables might be a prisoner on the premises, working unpaid for months or years to pay off a trafficker.

Some trafficked women and girls are destined for the sex industry, and increasing numbers of both men and women find themselves tending plants in the many Chinese-owned cannabis factories operating in Britain.

Victims of trafficking are not supposed to be prosecuted for any illegal acts they are forced to commit, but terrorized and traumatized people will not always come forward even when the police discover them in a raid to say that they have been trafficked. In the case of trafficked workers in the cannabis farms, they are the ones in possession of the crop when the police come through the door and they can end up facing deportation back to China with a criminal record and still owing a substantial debt to their traffickers.

Even the most careful would-be migrants can end up being trafficked. One woman selected an agency that advertised its services openly, with the address of its office printed on posters. Sure enough, on her first trip to Britain, she was provided with accommodation and enrolled on a two-week course at a British technical college, before returning to China to prepare for a longer stay in Britain.

In this way, the agency could establish a pattern of bringing in migrants from China who did not overstay their visas, making everyone involved appear legitimate.

But the second time she was brought to Britain, she was locked in a room for 10 days, given food only once a day and forced to drink water from the toilet cistern, and repeatedly raped, before being taken to another city to work unpaid as a child-minder.

She is not the only victim I have seen who took care to approach a legitimate agency in China but ended up being trafficked. As more potential migrants become wary about trusting agents, the traffickers' methods evolve, too; one even joked with his victim, as she hesitated over their agreement, saying "Don't worry, I'm not going to sell you!"

The most traumatized victims - including a man who saw one of his fellow victims murdered in a farmhouse basement in the Czech Republic and was forced to help dig his grave, as well as the many women who have been raped - need long-term counseling and support to come to terms with their ordeal.

This is available to them in Britain, but back in China, services for trafficking victims are presently focused entirely on domestic victims, while Chinese nationals victimized abroad slip through the net. When China's second National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking is published in December, it must have something to offer to the increasing numbers of citizens trafficked not just to Britain, but anywhere in the world where Chinese business and a flow of legitimate Chinese migrants provide cover for traffickers' activities.

The author is associate professor at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and the China Policy Institute, at the University of Nottingham. The opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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