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OPINION: Slaves Among Us

Monday, 11 November 2019 09:00 GMT

The author of the book 'Slaves among us'. Photo courtesy Monique Villa

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Monique Villa is special advisor to Thomson Reuters’ President and CEO. She is the former chief executive of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

"I’m sorry Mum, my path abroad didn’t succeed.", said Pham Thi Tra My, 26, in a text message to her mother before dying "because I can’t breathe" in a lorry that shipped her and 38 other victims to England last month.  This cry in the dark of a young Vietnamese woman moved all of us: this may not be human trafficking but it bears all the hallmarks of it. The violence. The cruelty. The dehumanization. The organized crime. This is a huge business, $150 billion a year according to the ILO*, probably a lot more- and a growing one.

It is through the survivors of human trafficking that I started to understand the huge scope and the particularities of the global crime that keeps 40,3 million people in slavery, even in rich countries like Britain, France or the United States.

People usually fall prey to traffickers when they are at their most vulnerable, often because of poverty. "Do you want a job?" or "Entrust me your child so they can attend school in exchange for a few hours work" can be magic words when you desperately need to feed your family or cannot afford your child education. Or simply because you had such a traumatic childhood that you trust the first person who makes you feel loved, without realizing you are being groomed for sex slavery. And of course debt bondage, is a cancer that keeps half of the slaves in the world in that state and can even be inherited from parents who can’t refund their debt to their master.

One fact has struck me more and more all along: to be a trafficker you need to see the person you enslave as a thing or as an animal, not as a human being, so that you can beat them, torture them, sell and resell them without remorse, and force them into total submission. They come out of it - when they do - having lost their dignity, self-respect and capacity to trust anyone. Rebuilding their lives is a tough road and they need help of all kinds.

Modern slaves are people like you and me, with the same needs, fears and hopes. And when they can escape the hell of slavery and overcome complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that inevitably affects them, some indeed become among the strongest of human beings. I know some real heroes among the survivors, starting with the three extraordinary people who agreed to tell their story for my book Slaves Among Us : Jennifer Kempton in the U.S., Marcela Loaiza in Colombia and Tokyo, and Deependra Giri in Nepal and Qatar.

Why did they agree to candidly say it all? In the hope that their ordeal would help others stay safe from traffickers.

And this is precisely why I decided to write this book: to make the crime easy to understand, to shed light on all aspects of the business, and to give keys to what all of us can do if we choose to see. Many positives things have happened in the last five years, and interesting solutions have emerged, but we are still way too slow at taking significant action and fighting this very well-organized crime. Each of us can play a role as consumers, citizens, and as human beings. As Albert Einstein said: “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act”.

Through the stories of Jennifer, Marcela and Deependra - how they fell victims of traffickers, their years in enslavement and how they managed to escape and reconstruct a meaningful life - we can see how the whole business works. We can understand the complicities, the corruption, the lack of resources on the law enforcement side. But most of all, we can see the impunity that allows trafficking to thrive in the shadows.

Suffice to know that in 2018, there were 7,148 convictions of traffickers in the world, of which only 259 for forced labour. Just over even thousand for 40.3 million slaves, of which 70% are in forced labour and 30% in sex trafficking.

Criminals can turn intelligent people into obedient machines through violence, coercion and debt: the cruelty deployed to reach this result is often mind blowing. And indeed, it is something that one can barely imagine and - even less - believe, until one hears it from those who lived through it.

Sex trafficking is a rapidly growing business, in large parts because it is so easy to put ads online and to sell people on websites that, by definition, have no borders. When justice acts to stop a website like backpage.com which sold children outright, new websites immediately take the ads and the sales continue.

We need a shift in mind-set, the kind that happened with drunk driving suddenly became unacceptable.

Slavery has existed since the beginning of human history, yet this doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.

*International Labour Organization