Article Women & Money

Modern slavery - how effective is the fight against it?

Samat Senasuk’s broken fingers are testimony of a tough life. During the six years he spent on a fishing vessel in the waters between Thailand and Indonesia, continuous pulling on the nets little by little eroded his hands. Eventually, two of his fingers succumbed to the cutting yarn and broke. Nevertheless, the handling of the sharp net was not the toughest part. For years, Samat had to work 18 hours a day, could only rest for periods of a maximum of three hours and was frequently beaten by the captain of the boat.

Samat was not doing the job willingly. He was tricked with the promise of a job as a security guard in a building in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, but ended up being sold to a fishing trawler by a broker. There, he was rarely allowed to leave the boat and his meagre salary of $100 per month was kept by his employer to ensure that he would not flee. Eventually, a few months ago, he saved enough money to bribe the security guard at the Indonesian port where they were loading their catches and fled from the floating jail.

Samat’s case is not an isolated one. About 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders annually and around 21m live today in slavery-like conditions. Trafficking in persons is defined by the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, the main international legal framework on this issue, 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”. Exploitation, explains the protocol, “shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”.

Trafficking in persons has been one of the main fights of the international community over the last few years. According to anti-trafficking NGO Walk Free, donor countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) allocate about $120m each year to combat modern slavery. This figure does not include the amount of private donations that are also designated for this purpose. Nevertheless, little is known about how this money is spent and several organisations and activists have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the fight against human trafficking.

They have good reasons to, because, far from vanishing, trafficking is rapidly growing. According to the United Nations Organization for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), it is already the second largest international crime in terms of income, with an estimated $32bn generated annually, second only to the $320bn made by drug trafficking. The profits from exploiting forced labour reach about $150bn every year. Human trafficking today, says UNODC, affects at least 152 countries of origin and 124 countries of destination, and there are over 510 trafficking flows crossing the world.

Samat was tricked with the promise of a job as a security guard in a building in Bangkok, but ended up being sold to a fishing trawler by a broker.

Despite the rapid increase of this industry, roughly only 25,000 victims are identified and helped annually by governments and organisations, according to UNODC. “It is not even 1% of the victims who are out there [of the 21 million who live in slavery]. We need to change the way we do what we do in order to be much more efficient and effective [because] we are not having an impact to reduce it,” says Matthew Friedman, chief executive officer of the Mekong Club and an expert on human trafficking.

An unknown problem

One of the main problems in the fight against human trafficking is the lack of accurate information on how networks work, activists say. “We haven’t spent enough time collecting research to know exactly what needs to be done and the inefficiency comes from not having enough basic information on what exactly the problem is,” says Friedman. “Human trafficking is a very complex crime because it implies crossing borders and everything is done very secretly,” adds Saisuree Chutikul, an expert on human trafficking in Thailand, one of the countries that has been in the spotlight in recent months after several camps where victims of human trafficking were held were discovered in the jungle in the south of the country. Little information on slave labour is also available, because the workers are often kept in hidden locations and are not allowed to leave their workplace.

Samat was an example of this. Working hundreds of miles offshore, only the sea was witness to the abuses to which he was subjected. “The work was very hard. Sometimes we had to work 24 hours in a row or we were asked to clean the trawl in our free time,” explains Samat. Mistakes were severely punished. “I accidentally broke a machine and [the captain] beat me so hard that he broke my teeth.”

The trafficking networks are also very flexible and mutate rapidly to adapt to new circumstances, finding new paths and methods to transport and hold people captive. In Thailand, for example, after the crackdown on the trafficking networks this year, camps were moved offshore to boats where migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar were held while waiting for families to pay their ransom. “Criminals are always ahead of the authorities. Better intelligence services need to be put in place if we want to be successful,” says Chutikul.

Moreover, the anti-trafficking sector is opaque itself. Most of the governments and organisations do not provide any detailed information on how the money is spent, and only Sweden and the UK have implemented methods to disclose this data to the public, says Martina Ucnikova of Walk Free, in the paper “Anti-trafficking review”, published last year. The US Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, whose last edition was released at the end of July, provides the most comprehensive information on domestic and international spending on modern slavery, but it is still incomplete because it does not identify exactly where the money is going.

Money in the wrong place

Besides this opacity, money is often spent in the wrong place, many activists complain. “A lot of money goes to international meetings, to dissemination, [or] to conferences. Sometimes we have complained that this looks like a circus,” says Suzanne Hoff, coordinator at La Strada International. Therefore, some more important services, such as direct assistance to victims for medical and juridical care, shelter services or hotline services, do not receive any funding.

The short-term approach of many anti-trafficking programmes is one of the biggest problems. Most of the victims have been subjected to abuses, including physical and sexual abuse, and need long-term assistance to recover.

Donors, rather than organisations, normally decide how the money is used. “In the anti-trafficking sector, donors fund anti-trafficking organisations to do work they have determined is important, though the organisations […] have different needs and preferences for how the funding is used,” writes Victoria I Nwogu, member of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, referring to the case of Nigeria. “The money should be more freely based on needs. I understand that they have their own programme and their own directions on what they like to support, but I think that awareness-raising is much more needed and prevention is much more needed and there should be more money going there,” adds Hoff.

Thus, money is concentrated in more visible policies, such as rescuing, rather than prevention or support for the victims. More money is also going to fight against prostitution and other sex-related services, rather than forced labour, although trafficking is rapidly turning to low-skilled industries hungry for cheap labour.

For Friedman, focusing more on those industries and working with companies to avoid trafficking would make the difference. “A lot of the organisations that are addressing the issue don’t have necessarily the skills to be able to understand forced labour, a lot of NGOS, the UN and so forth, that are not a part of that world. The private sector understands forced labour much better than the civil society does and that is why they are in a better situation to address it,” he says.

A short-term perspective

Today, Samat is back in Thailand, his home country, but he faces a hopeless future. Without a job and still owing $250 for his ticket from Indonesia to Thailand, he is the perfect candidate to end up being exploited again. “We have to consider the cost of not doing reintegration [of the victims]. If we do not offer comprehensive and individualised reintegration support, people may not recover from trafficking and be able to reintegrate. They may also be at risk of other exploitation or even re-trafficking,” says Rebecca Surtees, an anthropologist and senior researcher at NEXUS institute and an advisor for the Trafficking Victims Re/Integration Programme (TVPR) in the Balkans.

The short-term approach of many of the anti-trafficking programmes is one of the biggest problems in the fight against modern slavery. Most of the victims have been subjected to abuses, including physical and sexual abuse, and need long-term assistance to recover from the trauma. “This process (of reintegration) is a very complex process. It is messy, it is hard and it is a very long process. It cannot be short term,” says Surtees.

There is no precise data on the number of rescued victims who end up being trafficked again, but even those who receive extensive assistance can be re-trafficked. In the case of the TVPR in the Balkans, for example, about 60% of the cases of victims who were assisted achieved successful reintegration, says Surtees, although the rate is likely to become higher as many people are currently still in the process of reintegration.

Samat will not receive any assistance. He is not even considered by Thai authorities as a victim of trafficking, because, they say, he voluntarily made an agreement, even though he was tricked by the broker. He is now fighting, with the help of a local NGO, to get the money that the company did not pay to him during his six-year captivity. For everything else, he will be on his own. He is in his hometown, in the impoverished area of Isaan, in north-east Thailand, and will try to find a new job to feed his wife and daughter, whom he has not seen in almost seven years. However, he already had to leave his village once because he could not find a job there. In addition, he knows that in the search for new employment, the trafficking networks will always be there to try to trick him again.

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