The horrors of human trafficking during COVID-19

During this COVID-19 crisis, many feel isolated, “locked in” due to restrictions on their daily life – understandably. But what would the forty million trafficking victims worldwide say about the same situation?

It is not so long since International Sex Workers’ Day (02/06), so perhaps this is a good moment to examine the pandemic’s impact on sexually exploited people and other victims of modern slavery.

Human trafficking is the trade of people, both across and within borders. When a person is affected by this, he/she gets forced into labour exploitation, debt bondage and other miserable circumstances plus often gets one of the “DDD” (dirty, dangerous, difficult) jobs: This is modern slavery.

Perhaps trafficking should stop under a nationwide lockdown and increased police presence on the streets. However, luring and recruiting victims is still possible, even in their own home neighbourhoods, where they are still obeying travel restrictions. Instances have been recorded of the use of drive-thru and delivery services for the sexual exploitation of children. Others have been satisfying demand for sexual services delivered online by webcam. Additionally, the county lines (criminal exploitation of children selling drugs on the UK’s streets), are still active everywhere. Brothels operate underground. As recently as 22 April, British police found trafficking victims at four different premises in Westminster, London.

So, the trafficking business has adapted to the current situation and flourishes. Academics have identified three pillars which are the foundation on which this has been happening:

  • Firstly, current victims of labour exploitation need to cope with a worsening of the situation they already find themselves in.

Due to the pandemic, many healthcare services and trafficking survivors’ assistance centres diverted resources to deal with the enormous pressure from COVID-19. This limits the authorities’ ability to expose trafficking activities, identify victims and offer support.

The trafficked persons’ movement restrictions are aggravated by travel disruptions and the governmental order to stay at home. This leaves many vulnerable people isolated and helpless in the hands of their abuser.

Even if they can leave their house, debt bondage forces them to remain with their trafficker, who can now easily force them to do even riskier activities. Moreover, recession leads to low-cost production everywhere, forcing victims into extremely exploitative jobs simply to avoid the danger of homelessness and severe poverty.

Another important aspect of the situation is the way in which increased stigmatization can damage the mental health of trafficked people. Now more than ever, many trafficked people are seen as outcasts due to their living and working conditions: sex workers could easily spread the virus due to their activities, construction workers living very close together in labour “camps” (e.g. in the Gulf) have low hygiene standards, and so on.

  • The second pillar is that of the increased pool of people that can be exploited since many more people worldwide have become vulnerable due to the Coronavirus crisis.

As usual during international emergencies, support structures change and break down. Since COVID-19 has exacerbated social inequalities and unemployment has risen, disadvantaged people are ideal victims a trafficker is looking for!

Let’s say you’re in desperate need of paying for your basic needs and someone proposes a cheap loan or an easy way to earn money – you might accept it, assuming that it’s only temporary. Even if you know that it’s far from a fair offer paying minimum wage, you’d take it since it can help you out of acute poverty!

So, the downward spiral begins, the victim becoming financially dependent on their respective trafficker and usually being threatened with violence.

Even in the absence of such external influences, really desperate people may take, for example, sex work into consideration. However, due to brothels being closed at the moment, prostitution is being pushed underground, making it more dangerous.

The next point is the increased risk of child exploitation – currently, children are mainly at home instead of attending school. This has three negative effects on their safety: they are more prone to online exploitation, abuse and grooming; they might be forced to search for money and food on the streets; and if the situation goes on for much longer, they could be at risk of child marriage in some countries.

This is very concerning, having the third pillar in mind:

  • Due to the pandemic, victim support services and law enforcement agencies are being disrupted in their usual work.

Recently, shelters for trafficked people have had to close due to financial pressure or high infection risk. Since donors turn away from them and governmental resources are being redirected towards the battle against COVID-19, some emergency networks had to issue requests for material support – not just for sanitizers or masks – but simply for food! This illustrates the severity of the situation.

Also, many governmental or NGO offices are closed leading to delays in legal proceedings. Immigrants who’d have to renew their documents might not be able to do so, but then, they cannot return to their country, either. This leaves them in a precarious situation.

To sum up, the remaining question is how can we tackle these problems? Researchers assume that if we invest to support victims adequately, we might still be able to stop a “trafficking epidemic”.

Most importantly, resources need to go directly to the most vulnerable in our society. This could consist of providing housing for victims, providing anti-trafficking workers with PPE and more generally, strictly enforcing minimum wage laws.

Clearly, it’s not easy for an individual to act against such a large-scale issue, but one way to help is to watch out for situations that seem suspicious and report them to police or suitable NGOs (e.g. unseen UK, hope for justice or the Red Cross) – they are grateful for every hint they receive! 

Image by sammisreachers from Pixabay

Treatment of migrants in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The Next Century Foundation submitted the following a written statement to the Human Rights Council in accordance with its special consultative status at the United Nations. Thirty-sixth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Agenda item 6. Universal Periodic Review of the UK:

“It is the humanitarian duty of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to offer migrants, who are often refugees from war-torn states, a fair chance to rebuild their lives. The Next Century Foundation notes the concerns expressed in the 2017 Universal Periodic Review. There are major shortcomings on the part of the British government.  Specifically:

  • The UK government is sometimes a poor listener, which can result in inefficient and ineffective dispersal of aid money. Increased communication with refugees, both in the camps to which they have been displaced in the first instance and subsequently in the UK, would inflate their esteem, morale and resolve. Most particularly with regard to those coming from war torn states, the international community in general and the UK in particular could empower local communities in the region to take control of their own destiny by giving them a voice in regard to the dispersal of international aid.
  • An effort should be made to recruit and employ teachers, doctors and nurses or others appropriately qualified who are themselves refugees within the camps wherever possible; and government aid funds should be diverted to this purpose in preference to bringing in Western teachers, doctors and nurses and others to perform these roles. This both lifts morale and provides economic support to key refugees.
  • Within the UK, there are initiatives such as Herts Welcomes Syrian Families, Refugee Action, and the Refugee Council, whose support of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme has positively affected thousands of migrants. However, the “temporary protection” which this programme permits is inadequate. Under this programme, migrants are offered the chance to study or work for a limited five year period only. We urge that this time period be extended or that they are offered fast track citizenship after five years.
  • Trained migrant professionals are often not permitted to work in the UK whilst seeking asylum. Asylum seekers should be permitted to work in the United Kingdom whilst seeking indefinite leave to remain, should they wish to do so. The asylum seekers allowance is only £36.95 a week, which is evidently very small, especially when compared to the job-seekers allowance of £73.10. It makes life incredibly tenuous and is utterly unfair, given that they are then unable to work legally and become a burden on the taxpayer. However, whilst it is extremely important that refugees and asylum seekers should have the opportunity to work in the UK, it is also important to bear in mind that safeguards need to be put in place to see that they are not exploited by employers and that they are paid a fair wage for the job that they are doing. This is of importance in preventing bad feeling and resentment on the part of indigenous workers (the “immigrants” should not be perceived as a threat to the jobs and terms/conditions of employment of UK citizens).
  • To be granted university places, all migrants whose status has yet to be determined must have lived half of their lives in the UK in order to apply as if they were native citizens. This denial of university education to the majority of young migrants whose status has yet to be determined prevents migrants from rebuilding their lives, and retaining their dignity.
  • The Lawyers’ Refugee Initiative advocates the use of humanitarian visas, or “humanitarian passports” – that is to say visas for the specific purpose of seeking asylum on arrival – issued in the country of departure or intended embarkation. We urge that this procedure be used extensively by the United Kingdom.
  • In order to speed up the processing of asylum applications and reduce legal costs and emotional strain for all involved, we recommend that the Home Office only appeal decisions in exceptional circumstances, and rarely if the case has been under consideration for more than five years. It should be a statutory duty that all appeals by the Home Office take place within one year and be grounded on strict criteria. The actual asylum application process should be based on criteria that are generous to genuine refugee claims with a mechanism for withdrawing status on conviction of a crime – and fast track citizenship after five years.

We should regard refugees, whatever their circumstance, with compassion and mercy. Compassion and Mercy are moral virtues which elevate humanity and therefore our obligation to refugees transcends any obligation we may have to accept economic migrants and / or the free movement of labour and should not be confused with any such obligation – and the UK is not yet doing enough”.

Note: The Next Century Foundation acknowledges the help of Initiatives of Change, an organisation that co-hosted the migration conference that contributed to the preparation of this submission.

The Next Century Foundation at the United Nations – Intervention on Human Rights in Myanmar, Bangladesh and India

The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 5 “Human rights bodies and mechanisms” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the issue of human rights violations of the refugees in Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. The Next Century Foundation urged these States to all sign the Refugee Convention and take the necessary steps in order to improve refugees human rights.

Banksy - "There is always Hope"

Veritas Omnia Vincit

On 13 September 2017, Italy’s ambassador Giampaolo Cantini was sent back to the Egyptian capital after more than one year of soured relations between the two countries over the death of the Italian PhD Cambridge student, Giulio Regeni, in Cairo in January 2016. The 28-year-old student was tortured and killed in Egypt, allegedly by the Egyptian security services who, since the very outset of the affair, have denied any involvement.

The issue quickly triggered an open diplomatic crisis between Egypt and Italy due to al-Sīsī’s government’s repeated avoidance of their responsibility to investigate the murder in the face of hard evidence implying that the Egyptian security services were culpable. For more than one year, faced with the hardline stance taken by the Italian government as they strove to obtain the names of those responsible and the reason for this abhorrent act, the Egyptian authorities have been trying to cover up the truth, forging documents and misleading Italian magistrates with false trails. This misdirection is the umpteenth deplorable act of a state whose crackdown on human rights is going down in history as one of the worst in years. And while everything seemed to suggest the diplomatic deadlock was unlikely to break, out of the blue the Italian ambassador was sent back to Cairo and the crisis magically resolved, as if it had never happened.

No change of strategy, official apology or acknowledgment of guilt was issued by the Egyptian authorities. Likewise, no clear explanation was provided by the Italian government on the matter. So, what led the Italian government to take the incongruous decision to give up its legitimate right to pursue the truth about the brutal death of one of its citizens in a foreign land? Interestingly, the solution to this conundrum may not lie too far away. And with a subtle combination of imagination and cynicism, we might be able to find it.

If the world ran according to a Machiavellian conception of politics, then one might think that everything happens for a reason and nothing in politics is left to chance. Accordingly, one might think for instance that the investigation into the death of Giulio was sidelined in exchange for a halt of the migration flow from Libya to Italy, given the strong friendship that binds Al-Sīsī to Haftar, the Libyan strongman in control of the eastern part of the country. Indeed, the bizarre coincidence of the sudden halt in migrant influxes to Italy on those same days when the Italian ambassador was sent back to Cairo, after years of unsuccessful attempts to curb them, might represent enough evidence to a more cynical mind. Or, equally, the complacency of the Italian government in not taking action when confronted with some “explosive evidence” on the case provided by the Obama administration could serve as a further clue in this respect.

Nobody will ever know what happened on those days for it is no longer the intention of the Italian government to unravel the truth. People will never know for sure why Giulio was killed, who tortured and assassinated him; neither will they know why the Italian government abruptly sent its ambassador back to Cairo, forever waiving the right to justice for one of its citizens, a son of Italy. The truth will be covered up, wiped out according in the Italian tradition of state secrets.

And now only sorrow is left. Sorrow of a girlfriend in losing the love of her life. Sorrow of a family in losing a son. Sorrow of a nation in losing its future and its honour. Yes, its honour. Honour because Giulio is not just a human viciously slaughtered on foreign soil. Giulio represents a vision, a feeling, an idea. The idea that unites men and women of different countries and different cultures; the idea that human rights violations in Egypt are real, raw and ruthless, and affect men and women whatever their nationality; the idea that Italy is a country whose leaders had no hesitation in selling the truth, trust and hope of its own citizens as well as its own dignity in exchange for some political or economic payoff; the idea that western democracies “fill their mouths” with nice words on human rights but that after all it is a mere façade, as they continue to aid and abet such crimes and violations where convenient.

There is a Latin saying whose power and meaning has always struck me. It expresses the universal principle of a vision, a feeling, an idea. The Truth. “Veritas Omnia Vincit”, truth conquers everything. And Giulio represents the Truth, for his death has shined a light on the lies, the falsehood, the cruelty and the wickedness of a global system that brings together democracies and dictatorships, thus rendering them accomplices. It does not matter that the official version will never admit the existence of any deal, agreement or negotiation between Italy and Egypt in exchange for silence on the death of Giulio. For the conspicuous silence on the part of Italian government speaks louder than any official statement.

And hence, Veritas Omnia Vincit: we will know when a state betrays its own citizens, its own values and future for its own gain;

Veritas Omnia Vincit, when public outcry spreads across the world after Giulio’s death, against al-Sīsī’s authoritarian rule, thus uniting men and women who, just like Giulio’s family, have lost their loved ones.

And again, Veritas Omnia Vincit, when the mask of this self-proclaimed democracy is removed revealing the true face of power.

I recently visited a Banksy exhibition at the Moco museum in Amsterdam. I was taken aback by how the author emphasised the existence of a thread that connects sorrow to hope and love. In suffering and grief people can gather and unite, taking solace from the shared experience of finding justice, truth or stillness. Such feelings bring them hope. And being able to connect and to hope means being able to love. This is what is happening in Egypt, Italy and elsewhere in the world at the moment. The sorrow caused by the circumstances of Giulio’s death has spread across the globe, uniting people in hope for justice, for “truth” and for a better world.

“Only in the darkness can you see the stars”, (Martin Luther King Jr).

Giulio is your son, your brother, your cousin; Giulio is your colleague, your neighbour, your friend; Giulio is a vision, a feeling, an idea.

Giulio is hope, love and truth, and he has already won.

Veritas Omnia Vincit.

Ciao Giulio

#veritàpergiulioregeni

European Civilians are Being Punished for Providing Aid to Refugees

In September 2016 the Danish high court upheld a verdict, which criminalised humanitarian assistance to refugees. A children’s rights activist was among the three hundred other Danes who were found guilty of breaching Danish law, and subsequently prosecuted for human trafficking.

Shockingly, there is no evidence of human smuggling in any of the cases presented in court. There was no exchange of money, nor were they clandestine in nature.  Benevolent Danes merely picked up refugees after a train from Germany was stopped in the Danish border town of Rødby. At the time, the government was quiet with no proper policy position in place for refugee migration.  This lack of clarity led to extreme confusion, particularly amongst the Police Force about the legality of helping migrants along their journeys. People simply did not know that helping another human in distress was illegal.

These prosecutions have resulted in large fines and prison sentences of up to two years being given. They have successfully deterred many European civilians from providing help to migrants crossing the continent. European civilians are now faced with a dilemma; either abandon their moral compass and remain on the right side of the law or risk breaching the law but maintain universal humanitarian values that connect us all. This is a unique situation in which the law is at odds with decency, empathy and liberty, virtues upon which the European project is predicated.

Unfortunately, there is also large confusion on the definition of migrant smuggling. The United Nations define the act as exclusively motivated by “financial or other material benefit”. This is in sharp contrast to the Council of the European Union definition which broadly stipulates that anyone who assists migrants to “enter or transit across” a country is in breach of national law and can be prosecuted. Discussing and debating the legality of civilian refugee aid becomes much more difficult when many contradictions are present. Uncertainty will continue to rise amongst the public and further indecision will continue from all parties responsible for tackling the migration crisis.

Whilst we must be wary when comparing recent events with the biggest genocide of the 20th century, punishing European civilians for aiding the persecuted is reminiscent of the punitive policies of Nazi Germany. The intent of this comparison is not to trivialise the Holocaust, indeed drastic measures such as death penalty have not been implemented, and over one million asylum seekers have been welcomed in 2015 alone. But it serves as a continual reminder that punishing civilian goodwill and outlawing instinctive humanitarian qualities will only compound mass humanitarian crises.
refugees-walking

Photo credits to TT

People often talk about the dangers of progressive dehumanisation of refugees, but perhaps we ourselves are subtly undergoing a form of dehumanisation led by these faulty laws? Perhaps we are becoming increasingly desensitised to the refugee crisis? It is at moments like these, when we must remember that history is never repeated unintentionally.

Majed Tw 31/01/2017