(This is a transplant from the personal blog of Molly Hardwick, our CEO, during her time studying human trafficking in Amsterdam. Welcome to the past. Without further adieu...)
I bring a confession to this blog: I have been naive. That debunks my facade of being a cool funky informed activist, but I’d like to share my experience in case there are any more who were like me.
I’m in Amsterdam studying human trafficking. It is an incredible privilege! We’re hearing from a legion of heroes in the global anti-trafficking network, and I am learning so much. Truthfully, one of the biggest things I’ve learned is how wrong I’ve been in my thinking towards individuals caught in the system of exploitation. Sometimes we call them “victims of human trafficking.” Tucked away in the corner of my mind, I’ve discovered a stereotype for what this sort of person looks like, complete with their reasons for falling prey and a tidy solution to their situation. I think this is largely due to the news articles I have paid attention to and the documentaries I have watched. Media is a tricky thing; it appeals to our sense of humanity, compassion and justice, and calls for action. It’s advocacy, which is where every excellent movement has its beginning! But oftentimes its just a small glimpse at an enormous social situation and a monstrously successful economic enterprise. It could very well lead to a case of “when helping hurts.” I’ve been reading accounts of investigation of the trafficking system throughout Europe, and one author puts this into a challenging perspective:
“The language we use to describe human trafficking, especially the trafficking of women and girls, reflects our underlying attitudes towards slavery and slaves. We talk about ‘victims’ and ‘sex slaves’. We refer to young women as being ‘tricked’ into prostitution and forced to ‘service’ clients. These words make trafficked women and girls sound both stupid and pitiful. They evoke paternalistic concern for these poor wretched victims who obviously can’t help themselves, but need rescuing by kindly punters or heroic police officers. I’m not trying to be ironic here: the language of sex slaves and tricked victims has nothing to do with challenging the trafficking status quo, or demanding specific legal and human rights for trafficked migrants. It offers no humanity or dignity to the person being abused, but revels in their suffering. At best it is crude and patronising: at worst it is victim porn. The term ‘trafficked migrant’ certainly doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘sex slave’, but it is a far more accurate description of how many people who have been trafficked actually see themselves.
“When ‘victims’ of trafficking don’t behave the way we expect, they confound sex slave stereotypes. I spoke to sexual health outreach workers across Britain, who almost unanimously stated that they believed many trafficked women agreed to work in the sex industry before they arrived in the UK. These women ‘chose’ sex work because they wanted money and sex work was a way of earning it. They resorted to paying facilitators because they couldn’t legally enter the UK to work. They were angry because their control over their own lives has been severed by traffickers and pimps, who know damn well that chronic poverty makes people take unwise risks. And the violations these women had endured were every bit as severe as those of any ‘genuine’ victim of trafficking. these women had also been forced to have sex with as many men as their pimp demanded, and been beaten for refusing to comply. The women I interviewed in Britain and across Europe whilst researching this book never once described themselves as victims, but as migrants who’d been brutalised because they’d had to resort to desperate measures, or else had believed they were being offered genuine legal jobs abroad. We need to see these modern-day slaves for who and what they really are: individuals who are shamelessly exploited and abused, because they can be.” Louisa Waugh, Selling Olga.
The majority of the women who work in the windows of Amsterdam’s red light districts (plural! there are three!) are from Eastern Europe. Me, a well-intentioned young American with a heart for justice, may see one of them and think she is in the very worst situation she could be in. My heart would beat for her rescue and for her to be returned to her home and her family, so she could heal and live a normal life. but I didn’t study much about the Soviet Union or the decade of armed conflict in the Balkans when I was in school, and I have very little understanding of what life at home is actually like for her. I am learning.
So many nations in Eastern Europe are controlled by corruption and organized crime. The grey tenemants of communism still remain, and job opportunities are few. In Moldova, like many surrounding countries, it has become the norm for young men and women to search for work abroad, and there are listings upon listings of job opportunities in the newspapers. Some of them are real job advertisements, and others are schemes set up by a network of organized crime to exploit invididuals for financial gain. Often times these individuals have children and family that need providing for, and the opportunity to work anywhere and at least make some amount of money is legitimately their best option. One officer from the International Office of Migration in Moldova told this story:
“I did hear about a plane being stopped on the runway a few months ago in Chisinau. The staff on the plane were suspicious of this Turkish man who was traveling with six young Moldovan women. They were all apparently going to Turkey with him. The airport manager rang the national hotline, because these days there is a little more undestanding about trafficking, and a man from the interior ministry came to investigate. He went straight on to the plane, and while the Turkish man was taken away and questioned, this official talked with the six women. He asked them where they were going, and they said they were all going to work in Turkey and this man had arranged everything for them. So then the official announced that he was there to tell them pravada— the truth. They were not going to work as waitresses or babysitters in Istanbul. As soon as they arrived, they would probably have their passports taken away and then be sent to some brothel and forced to work as prostitutes. They would be beaten and raped, and they might not be able to leave for a long time. And even if they did get out, they would never be paid for what they had to do. He told them all of these things, and at the end, after they had listened to everything he had said, each one of them told him that she was still going to leave. He couldn’t stop them. They had passports and work visas, the Turkish man had no criminal record, and they all had tickets. So he had to let them go. I think they just wanted to work abroad, that was all. Like everyone here does.”
I've read other stories of women being “rescued” and returned to their home countries, only to leave for work abroad again in hopes of eventually escaping and being able to make a decent income for their families. Here in Amsterdam, we hear stories of tons of women who have escaped from their pimps and yet still work in the windows, because they make good money. This isn’t unique to Europe; it’s often the story of women from many countries around the world. What, in my perception of reality based on my upbringing, could persuade someone to volunteer for this work?
“Human trafficking is the exploitation of vulnerability” (said Lauren Bethell, head of the International Christian Alliance on Prostitution). Vulnerabilities are economic, in areas where poverty, lack of education, and low job opportunity are mutually parasitic to one another. Vulnerabilities are also social, like cultures where women have a lesser status, or the breakdown of the family is left unchecked and sexual abuse is common. This can lead the way for low self esteem in girls, which is when loverboys (pimps in handsome disguise) swoop into the picture and begin groom them into the codependent, controlling relationships that keep them from running away or asking for help when they are exploited (this is incredibly common).
I once heard a social worker shout in indignation, “Everyone wants to work in aftercare, but no one wants to work in prevention!” << That is starting to make a whole lotta sense. Media that pulls on our compassionate nature has good intentions. But if it only creates a state of public pity, we have short circuited. The church of Jesus wants to “set the captives free”, but what if the best way to do that IS NOT by busting open cages, but by working with farmers and artisans to start small businesses in their countries of origin so they can provide for their families? What if it’s by giving creativity and innovation a place to speak in art, music and architecture– celebrating cultures, beautifying cities and improving their quality of life? Setting captives free is offering dignity to those to whom it has been denied. Yes, sweet Jesus, let there be lifelong aftercare for precious creations that have known hell on earth. But also, let there be a commitment to community development and empowerment for these courageous fighters. We cannot abandon the responsibility of the holistic gospel.
Till next time!