It was sad to attend a panel on ending slavery in 2011. This is a chapter of history that should have been closed; yet tragically there are more slaves today than there were during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. It is estimated that 10 to 30 million people worldwide live in conditions of sexual, domestic or labour slavery, with 600 thousand to 800 thousand people trafficked across international borders every year. It is a crime that denies individuals of every basic human right and exploits the tragic reality of poverty – and Australia is a destination for human trafficking.
On Monday 17 October, the Melbourne Festival held a panel on ending modern-day slavery. It was part of the CNN Freedom Project, a campaign run by the American television network to combat the trading of human lives.
CNN anchor Anna Coren facilitated the discussion. Director of Anti-Slavery Australia, Professor Jennifer Burn; barrister Fiona McLeod; fair trade pioneer and founder of Etiko Pty Ltd, Nick Savaidis; author of Trafficked, Kathleen Maltzahn; and Minister for the Status of Women the Hon Kate Ellis MP sat on the panel. The CNN Freedom Project documentary Nepal’s Stolen Children was aired following the discussion.
Early in the evening, Fiona McLeod spoke of how she came to be involved in the anti-slavery movement. She was attending a screening of the film Trafficked – the Reckoning, which tells the story of a young Thai girl, “Ning”.
When she was 13, Ning’s parents sold her to human traffickers. They took her to Sydney where she worked in a brothel. Imprisoned, she was forced to have sex with up to 10 men a night. Eventually she was rescued in a raid and deported to Thailand were she had the courage to stand up to her traffickers, resulting in their arrest. As a form of retaliation, the sons of her abusers raped her. She is now infected with HIV.
Ning’s story is one you cannot turn away from. So painful is the level of tragedy and the depth of her captors’ audacity. McLeod did not turn away and, thanks to her pro bono work, Ning became the first victim of human trafficking to be awarded crime compensation. Yet, she is one of millions.
Australia has an undeniable moral responsibility to protect those within its borders.
Australia has an undeniable moral responsibility to protect those within its borders. Members of the panel generally agreed that this responsibility lies in the hands of both governments and us as individuals. As a community, we can look for signs of abuse or distress in labourers, hotel workers, prostitutes and others working in Australia. But, there also needs to be a system in place where reports can be made anonymously and, most importantly, acted upon.
At one point Kathleen Maltzahn horrified even members of the panel by speaking about brothels, known to have trafficked women, that are still operating in Australia. Everyone – from the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to the local councils concerned – has been informed of these brothels’ existence, yet there is no simple mechanism to close them down. Every institute sees the problem as somebody else’s responsibility, but, unfortunately, the stakes for individuals are too high to excuse systematic failure.
The main point of contention that arose during the discussion concerned the issue of protecting victims of trafficking when they escape or are rescued. In Australia, all victims are granted protection for a period of 45 days. From then on they have to cooperate with the police to continue to be eligible for support services.
Kate Ellis unequivocally defended this government policy, and some members of the panel agreed with her that it was a necessary measure to prevent further crime. Yet the idea of conditional protection is controversial and, as Maltzahn pointed out, not imposed on victims of other types of crime.
Everybody in the audience would have completely objected to child labour and yet … every single person would be wearing clothes made by children.
Nick Savaidis addressed the issue of slavery from a different angle. Everybody in the audience would have completely objected to child labour and yet, as he reminded us, every single person would be wearing clothes made by children. When we buy $10 jeans, do we think about how much of the revenue generated is going to the cotton pickers or how old they are? It comes down to consumer choices.
The documentary, Nepal’s Stolen Children, was also incredibly moving. It follows anti-trafficking NGO Maiti Nepal’s founder Anuradha Koirala and American actress Demi Moore as they explore the multiple layers of human trafficking in Nepal. It is unfortunate that such an important issue requires the backing of a celebrity campaigner to bring TV cameras to Nepal. Nevertheless, you will probably have more respect for Demi Moore by the end of the film, should you see it.
One element that comes through strongly in the documentary is the important work Maiti Nepal has done and continues to do. So far, they have rescued and supported up to 12,000 women and children. Former victims now stand at the border between India and Nepal, proudly wearing the NGO uniform, looking for potential trafficking victims. This is a documentary that will move you to tears – both through its portrayal of the intensity of human suffering and cruelty; and through the courage of survivors to make a life for themselves against the odds. Clips from the documentary are featured on the CNN Freedom Project’s website.
Jenifer Burn, of Anti-Slavery Australia, spoke about the importance of awareness. Ensuring that migrants are aware of their rights and that the police are there to protect them is paramount. But, it is also important that we are aware. Kate Ellis pointed out that too many Australians believe that slavery is not an issue here: not in their country, community or street. These are hidden people. If the discussion of this panel concluded nothing else, it was that it is time we made some noise to find them.
The CNN Freedom Project – Ending Modern-Day Slavery panel was held on Monday 17 October at the Arts Centre ANZ Pavilion as part of the Melbourne Festival.