Bodies Bought and Sold


The 25th of March will mark the 200th anniversary of the passing of William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery legislation in the UK Parliament. This milestone legislation, for which he fought for for three decades, was the beginning of the end of the slave trade as it then existed.

But 200 years later, more people are bought and sold on the world market than Wilberforce could ever have imagined. It is estimated that, at $US7 billion per annum, human trafficking is the world’s third largest illegal industry behind arms and drugs. Stop the Traffik, a global coalition of organisations fighting against people trafficking, estimates that 600,000-800,000 people are trafficked around the world each year. Additionally, it is estimated that 1000-1500 persons in Australia are being or have recently been trafficked.

Many people are trafficked by their families, friends of their families, or other people that they know. Often, they initially travel with consent believing they have a job waiting in the country they are going to, only to be forced into prostitution on arrival. When they arrive at their destination, their captors take their passports, they are told that they have to work to repay their ‘debt’ (a sum of about $20,000 is usually stipulated); and they are kept in virtual captivity.

Typically, within days of arrival, they are made to view hardcore pornographic material and then forced to perform those acts. This is then either videoed or photographed and used to blackmail the victim to remain in servitude. They are told repeatedly that if they do not co-operate, then their families back home will be told of their immorality and that if they leave, then local authorities will arrest them and deport them. (This is true in Australia if a trafficked victim refuses to testify against their captor then they will be imprisoned and deported! This usually starts the cycle all over again, because the victim is often stigmatised and unwelcome in their community.)

And it is not only women that are trafficked, and not all end up in prostitution. Men and boys are also trafficked, and some trafficked victims end up in sweated labour. Some of the case histories are unimaginable in a supposedly ‘modern’ world.

But before you think this is something that happens elsewhere, here is a case study from Melbourne sourced from a refuge service that is supporting trafficked women . ( Some of the circumstances have been changed to remove identifiers. As the victims described are deemed illegal immigrants, harbouring them is also illegal, and, therefore, extreme caution is advised for the sake of the service providers as well as the victim.)

Maria [not her real name]was working as a prostitute in St Kilda when she made contact with a welfare worker. Over a period of several weeks the welfare worker built up trust with Maria, and eventually she agreed to ‘escape’ to a women’s refuge. She arrived at the refuge in poor physical and psychological shape and without any personal belongings. She reported having been held by her captor, along with several other women, for two years.

She presented as nervous, afraid of authority, and quite incapable of basic life skills such as catching a bus, or going to a shop. The refuge, (which has developed some expertise in helping women escaping captivity) worked with her to develop life skills and negotiated with Immigration officials and Centrelink to arrange for her to stay in Australia and to gain income support.

As there is no funding package that catches Maria’s circumstances, negotiations were protracted and, at times, difficult. All of this work was internally funded by the refuge as it does not attract support from either State or Commonwealth sources.

Since that time, Maria has been connected to a number of health and welfare agencies and is working towards leaving the refuge, with ongoing support. She feels she cannot engage with the local community of her nationality because of the deep stigma involved in her circumstances. Therefore, it is important for her to develop new links in the wider community.

 200 years after William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery legislation more people are being bought and sold around the world than ever before

A number of organisations in Australia, including World Vision, The Salvation Army  and Stop the Traffik are actively working on this issue, advocating for tougher laws and more effective enforcement against the trade. They are calling for a change in the policy that automatically incarcerates and deports victims. They are calling for a supportive response to the victims of trafficking including funding for services such as rescue programs, debriefing, counselling and material aid.

Poverty is the primary social contributor to trafficking, but there are many others factors. One important market dynamic is that purchasing a sex act in Australia is contributing to the global sex trade even if it is a purchase from a local market. And this fuels the market for trafficked prostitutes. This is yet another reason why governments should be developing and maintaining legislative and structural frameworks that provide for a transparent, highly regulated, and relatively safe sex industry.

Australians are becoming increasingly aware of this issue, and, while there is a long way to go to gain real traction, many are getting behind campaigns. Initiatives include highly effective micro-credit programs run by ordinary suburban churches, schools and sporting clubs. These schemes are actively preventing people from being sold into human trafficking.

Other Australians are also getting behind the Make Poverty History campaign for debt forgiveness, and the eradication of extreme poverty as a driver of human trafficking.

Still, others are taking part in marches to draw attention to the plight of trafficked people on the bicentenary of Wilberforce’s anti-slavery bill, on 25 March 2007, which has been designated ‘Freedom Day.’ Organisers are looking to have several thousand at each of these events around the nation. For more information go to the Stop the Traffik  website.

In Melbourne the Freedom Day (25 March) event is to be held in Queensbridge Square, Southbank, supported by a great line-up of musicians, activities, speakers and bands including Mezz Coleman (and band), The Black Swans of Trespass, Groove Child, Commissioner James & Carolyn Knaggs, Sendi, Bus Cramming to break world record, The White Rabbits, Frankie Wants Out, DJ Ben Jackson.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.