The Biggest Scandal of Our Age?
Imagine you are walking past a house when you notice a child sobbing in the garden or, late at night, you hear shouting and frightened screams coming from next door. What do you do? I hope you would do something. You would not walk on or just turn your music up. You would act, and probably without even thinking about it. We all know that, when suffering is happening and tragedy is imminent, to act is the only right – the only decent – thing to do. We must intervene.
Yet there is a tragedy happening around us in which we are not intervening. Slavery is back. Yes, the evil trade that history books told us was defeated 200 years ago is active and thriving. In fact, more people are now slaves than ever before in human history - it’s just that the new slavery is hidden. The polite name for the new slave trade is people trafficking, defined as the illegal movement of people by force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them either financially or sexually. Those who are trafficked are used in prostitution and as cheap labour in factories, farms, restaurants and homes. Most are young, some little more than children. People trafficking is a nasty, dirty and complex business and decent people like you and me prefer not to have anything to do with it. The trouble is that this is exactly the response that traffickers want.
Yet there is a tragedy happening around us in which we are not intervening. Slavery is back. Yes, the evil trade that history books told us was defeated 200 years ago is active and thriving. In fact, more people are now slaves than ever before in human history - it’s just that the new slavery is hidden. The polite name for the new slave trade is people trafficking, defined as the illegal movement of people by force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them either financially or sexually. Those who are trafficked are used in prostitution and as cheap labour in factories, farms, restaurants and homes. Most are young, some little more than children. People trafficking is a nasty, dirty and complex business and decent people like you and me prefer not to have anything to do with it. The trouble is that this is exactly the response that traffickers want. There is no single pattern of trafficking. Let me give you three cases typical of those that occur in Britain:
• An 18-year-old girl from an impoverished part of Eastern Europe answers an advertisement that offers her work in the West. She is taken to a major city where her papers are taken from her and she is then brutally forced into prostitution. Kept locked away, she is repeatedly raped on a daily basis. In an unfamiliar country with an unknown language, she is utterly at the mercy of her masters. Because of her culture’s view of sex, the fact that she has become a prostitute means that, even if she could do so, returning home is not an option. She is in a hopeless situation.
• A man from an Asian country is invited to the United Kingdom where, he is told, a well-paid job is available for him. The reality is otherwise: once here, his identity papers are seized and he finds himself in a labour gang taking part in backbreaking agricultural work from dawn till dusk. He can see no escape.
• A woman from Africa is hired as a maid and taken to London. There she is passed on to a new household where her conditions are viciously changed: she is physically abused, kept indoors and forced to work from six a.m. until midnight, all year round. She has no way out.
These are just some of the new slaves.
One of the worst things about people trafficking is our ignorance. No one – not even the police – knows how pervasive it is in our communities. The ignorance is hardly surprising: people trafficking involves international links, foreign languages and tight-knit, ethnic communities. It is also complex and hard to define. For example, however unpleasant their job, not every Croatian prostitute or Chinese crop picker in the UK is trafficked; they may have chosen to come here. Being an economic migrant, or even an illegal immigrant, is not the same as being trafficked. Yet what we do know is that trafficking is big, both globally and in the UK.
There are widely circulated estimates that around 30 million people are trafficked globally and that, as a global industry, people trafficking is worth $32 billion a year, only marginally less than arms dealing and drug smuggling. A recent conference summary produced by the Community Justice Portal wrote that ‘between 100,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked into the EU each year and at least 5,000 victims are held in the UK’. Other police figures suggest there may be up to 12,000 trafficked women in the UK; many – or most – of whom are in prostitution. The reality is that in any town or even large village in Britain, there will be at least someone who has come from abroad and is being treated illegally. Slaves live near us.
Why has this happened? There are many reasons. One is that in our modern, interconnected world there is so much international travelling that, among the billions of legal journeys, it’s easy to overlook a few thousand illegal ones. Not for nothing has people trafficking been called the dark side of globalisation. Another reason is that people trafficking is a very profitable crime. To own a prostitute who sees 20 clients a day at £30 a time, or an agricultural labourer who costs no more than the price of his food, is lucrative business. Still another reason is that people trafficking is a low-risk crime in which an arrest or conviction is unlikely. Our over-stretched police forces are tempted to simply turn a blind eye to what’s going on. Any investigation of alleged people trafficking is always complex, time-consuming and costly, almost inevitably requiring translation and investigations in other countries. In many cases, the victims themselves will not contact the authorities, either because they can’t or because they believe that they themselves will be prosecuted. They are also often unwilling to testify in court; after all, there’s a good chance that those who trafficked them will be able to threaten their families back home. It is a telling point that in the UK there have only been 19 successful prosecutions for people trafficking since December 2004.
I also believe there is something deeper behind this horrible business of people trafficking. I am certain that consumerism – the belief that happiness is to be found in the purchase of ever more services and items – is to blame. At the heart of consumerism – which is, in effect, a religion – is the belief that everything can be bought or sold and the inevitable implication of this is that human beings are no different. Men and women are commodities that can be bought or sold. People are de-humanised, their dignity is stripped from them and they become objects of consumption.
In the face of this human tragedy, the gospel must be heralded. Action must be taken. Human trafficking is the antithesis of the Christian truth of who humans are – God’s beloved. Christianity rejects any notion that seeks to deny humanity its dignity. Our gospel celebrates that everyone is made in the image of God and is of infinite value. Every human on this planet is God’s creation. The Psalmist wrote that we are all ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, ‘knit in our mother’s womb’ by God himself (Psalm 139). His heart is to see all human beings live an abundant life (John 10:10). The Lord said, ‘Great are the plans I have for you, plans to help you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future’ (Jeremiah 29:11). St John wrote that we are God’s beloved children (John 1:12).
Ours is a gospel of freedom from slavery, not bondage into it. So what should we do? Four things:
We need to speak. In the Holocaust there were not just the major villains, the monsters who designed and ran the concentration camps, there were also the minor villains. They were those who deliberately ignored what was going on, who looked away and who, pretending they had seen nothing, were silent. People trafficking may not be as great an evil as the Holocaust but the principle holds true: appalling evils can happen when ordinary people look away. We should – we must – intervene and raise the issue when it surfaces. We may need to encourage police forces to pursue cases of people trafficking. We may need to ask questions about the troubled men working in the fields or the melancholy staff cleaning our restaurants. We should demand that the fine words by politicians on the evils of people trafficking are matched by solid, genuine responses.
We need to think. This is a profoundly difficult matter and an emotional, knee-jerk response will not do. For instance, the unpleasant truth is that, in the same way that old-fashioned slavery was profitable, so people trafficking is actually profitable. Hotel bills, restaurant prices and the cost of crops and manufactured goods are greatly reduced when their labour comes almost free. We will need to craft strong arguments to make our point. Equally, we may need to deal with the reality that most ‘massage parlours’ are actually brothels tolerated by the police because they remove prostitution from the streets. In this shadow world, midway between legality and crime, it is not surprising that many of the workers are trafficked. And here is another problem to think about. Let’s suppose we did identify that some women in a nearby house had been trafficked and are employed in prostitution. If the police move in what is going to happen to them? We must be careful that we do not punish the victims, but devise and support appropriate alternatives.
We need to act. One of the key issues in people trafficking is the fact that we have ceased to see such people as human, but have come to view them as commodities. We need to reverse the trend and be people who care. Men and women trying to escape from their trafficked situations will often make for churches in the hope that there they will find help. May they not be disappointed by the welcome and assistance they receive! There are also a number of organisations involved in working in different ways against people trafficking and I urge you to support them. I work with the A21 Campaign headed up by Christine Caine; the Director in the UK is Beth Redman. I also recommend the wonderful work done by Stop the Traffik founded by Steve Chalke.
We need to pray. As ever, there is more than mere economics and politics going on here; deep down there is a spiritual battle. People trafficking typifies the works of the devil, the one who seeks to enslave. In contrast, our God is one who, in Christ, delights to set people free.
None of these things are easy. For instance, it is part of the very nature of people trafficking that it is largely done by those of other nationalities, from other communities. To ask questions about the status of maids, restaurant workers or agricultural labourers is to risk accusations of racism. Of course, it is precisely the reverse; if we really were racists we would ignore the plight of other peoples. You may even find that your friends wonder at your interest in such a sordid matter. And if you do get practically involved, then be warned, things may get very nasty indeed. So it will be costly, but then redeeming people out of slavery generally is. That’s why the symbol of Christianity is the cross.
We are the hands, feet and mouthpieces of Jesus Christ. We are his ambassadors on earth, called to stop injustice and restore his people. He calls each of us to do our part. ‘So if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed’ (John 8:36).
Revd. Canon J.John