The unknown victims of trafficking

Posted on September 23, 2018 Under All 1 Comment

By Annika Reynolds

When you picture the ‘typical’ victim of trafficking, who comes to mind?

The average Australian looks at her and sees someone of Middle Eastern descent. They see a woman that has been smuggled into the country by an international organised crime network. They say poor English skills, no freedom of movement, and no personal documents are evidence of her situation.

But she is not. She is not Middle Eastern; in fact, she is mostly likely from a South-East Asian country, likely Thailand or Malaysia. She has not been smuggled in. Rather, she walked in through an airport on a student or working visa. The people that got her here are not members of foreign crime syndicates, but Australia-based recruiters. The only determinative characteristic that she holds is that she likely comes from a background of extreme poverty. Not illiteracy. Not age. Not lack of personal documents or freedom of movement. But desperation.

She is the unknown victim of trafficking.

Australia is a country preoccupied with its borders. A country that feels justified in limiting Humanitarian Program visas to roughly thirteen thousand a year and boasts that it has ‘stopped the boats.’ And that fear of the unknown, of the foreign, has bled into the Australian psyche. So much so, that when asked what a victim of trafficking is, the average Australian recites the offence for people smuggling.

In reality, the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children defines trafficking as:

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

The exploitative nature of the conduct is key, usually translating into sexual exploitation, forced marriage, forced labour, slavery, servitude or the forced removal of organs. Whereas people smuggling is merely illegal movement, trafficking is concerned with forcing individuals into a situation of modern slavery.

In Australia, only thirteen people were convicted of a trafficking offence (under Division 270 and 271 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995) between 2004 and 2011, which suggests that trafficking is not a serious issue in Australia; that perhaps a warped Australian perception of trafficking is relatively harmless; that maybe it is okay that Australians blur the lines between trafficking and people smuggling. Is it really a threat to Australia, or to our community if this is such a minute problem?

But the story woven by official convictions, like Australia’s general perception, intersects only marginally with the reality of trafficking in Australia. The AFP’s Transnational Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking Teams investigate an average of 50 cases a year. But the Global Slavery Index casts an even bleaker picture, estimating there are roughly 15,000 people who have been trafficked or are in servitude in Australia as of 2018. A figure equal to the number of undergraduate students at ANU, living in modern slavery. Enough people to fill a campus, suffering exploitation, abuse and coercion.

The Australian government’s response has been regulated by the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery (2015-2019). The document outlines Australia’s commitment to a ‘future where no one is subjected to human trafficking or slavery’, and does in fact lay out a comprehensive and rigorous plan to achieve this vision. The strategy covers everything from AFP, state and territory investigation processes, to victim support groups during investigation, trial and afterwards, to regional engagement with the Asia Pacific in the hope of limiting the flow of trafficked persons. NGOs, like Anti-Slavery Australia, praised the document upon its release as establishing a regime that is capable of realising the Plan’s ambitious purpose.

So why is it that in 2018 there are still 15,000 people suffering? Why is it that convictions are so low? Why is it that the average Australian cannot define trafficking, let alone pinpoint the demographics most affected?

The problem is not the framework. The problem is that we have closed our eyes to the reality of modern slavery. The problem is that we have developed a culture that fears the external, the unknown, and by doing so has sacrificed the self-reflection necessary to fight back against the exploitation occurring within our borders.

In its 2016 review of the National Action Plan, the Law Council of Australia called for two major reforms: That the government ‘take a human rights approach to all efforts to prevent and combat these offences,’ and ‘protect, assist and provide redress to victims’. The review recommended the establishment of a national compensation scheme, and of an independent review of the Minister for Immigration’s power to unilaterally cancel a visa that a trafficking victim may be staying on. This review demonstrates a reality in which the basic components of the National Action Plan have not been implemented.

It is an indictment on the Australian government – not just Parliament, but the whole machinery of the public service – that the only major review of its National Action Plan asks for human rights to be given priority.

Truth and perception rarely intersect on the issue of trafficking. The Australian government’s commitment to end trafficking is a glossy palimpsest over the cold reality. But like all superimpositions, this carefully crafted humanitarian image is cracking around the edges.

It is our responsibility to make sure those cracks widen. To hold our government responsible for the victims of modern slavery that walk amongst us. To change the Australian narrative, so that rhetoric and reality do intersect.

To make the unknown victims of trafficking known.