By Thulasi Mahadevan
The buzz words are glaring – exploitation, enslavement, trafficking, money, virginity sale, sex trade, brides for sale and modern day slavery. The list of words goes on. Unfortunately, so too does the list of victims.
More than 20 million people are victims of forced labour, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
The victims usually comprise immigrants, both legal and illegal, who have willingly come to major cities in hopes of a better life, attracted by the large supply of jobs and better wages. However, they fall prey to organised crime syndicates and recruitment companies whose mandate is corruption and exploitation.
And the situation is getting worse in parts of Asia, according to the U.S. State Department, which ranks countries’ responses to these crimes in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report, most recently published on 20 June 2014. Malaysia dropped to Tier 3 – the lowest ranking – alongside North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe. Thailand also fails to meet the minimum standards to fight human trafficking.
“The Malaysia government has continuously failed to provide basic rights protections to migrant workers and instead has created a system where unscrupulous labour brokers, corrupt police and abusive employers can have a field day,” says Phil Robertson, Asia’s deputy director of Human Rights Watch, in a recent article in The Guardian.
Meanwhile, a six month investigation by The Guardian recently uncovered horrific and alarming stories and statistics of the fishing industry in Thailand. It’s a systematic industry that enslaves and even kills workers onboard vessels that have been dubbed Thai ‘ghost ships’.
Singapore – which has drafted a National Plan of Action Against Trafficking in Persons – has been recognised for making significant efforts. But it still does not meet minimum international standards.
A coalition of civil society organisations has called on the government to do more and to ensure that people who have been trafficked are not further victimised by Singapore laws.
“We are also deeply concerned that trafficked victims are being penalised for immigration and work-related offences,” the migrant workers advocacy group HOME notes in a statement. “Without an effective victim-protection system, it is highly unlikely that trafficked migrants will file complaints and cooperate with the authorities,”
This is the reality, these are the facts uncovered by years and months of investigation, rescuing victims, talking to survivors, telling their stories to the world and in one fell swoop it gets seamlessly undone. It all unravels because of one big lie: Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking.
Millions of people read, wept and donated to her global campaign. There were glitzy galas, headlines in reputable publications and Hollywood endorsements. Yes, she saved lives. But she also lied and falsified stories.
One could say, it’s a beautiful lie. But did she really have to lie? Human trafficking exists, the truth is ugly. So why ‘the pressure to package the right story’? Is the fundraising pressure really so immense?
“Trafficking and abuse in Cambodia has become an image of a young girl locked in a cage in a secret brothel, waiting for a hero to burst through the doors and rescue her. Or at least donate to do that,” writes Dale Edmonds, managing director of Riverkids Project Limited, in an open letter titled The Beautiful Lies that Broke my Heart.
Riverkids – a Singapore charity that works to prevent child trafficking and exploitation in Cambodia – was kickstarted by one little girl’s bravery and is now home to 600 children. Some of their stories are told in a book called ‘Eight Stories’, unedited, uncut and untarnished. The tales are raw and real and nowhere near packaged as, the “beautiful lies (that) grab all the loving compassion and generous support that good people are moved to give to children in Cambodia and send it to the least effective ways to help them.”
The global reports, the news, the stories, the reality, the people and children are all there. They are not just statistics. Raising awareness comes with responsibility. It should never be gambled away for better donations. It hinders the goal – putting a stop to all human trafficking. Let’s remember that.
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