Anti-Trafficking seminar and photography exhibition Wednesday 23rd January 2013

This Wednesday 23rd January, World Youth Alliance was proud to hold, in collaboration with CARE for Europe and hosted by Sir Graham Watson, MEP, a seminar and photography exhibition on Anti-Trafficking at the European Parliament. Nearly sixty individuals partook in the afternoon’s seminar and roughly a hundred were present for the inauguration of the exhibition. The event was appreciated by many as an opportunity to discuss the issue of human trafficking: a human rights abuse directly linked to our consumer habits, yet often hidden from the public eye or considered too taboo for discussion.  

The title of the evening’s events was “Is your purchase causing someone pain? Help stop human trafficking. Think before you buy”. Organizations and individuals were invited to re-think the impact their decisions have upon the freedom and dignity of others.

The trafficking of human beings represents more than 27 million people worldwide. Sir Graham Watson, MEP, opened the seminar with the notion that the buying and selling of people and their services, often referred to as human trafficking, must be acknowledged as slavery. Three key speakers were invited to give their address.

First to speak was Torsten Moritz of Churches Commission for Migrant Workers (CCME) who addressed the question of supply and demand. Previously discussion about anti-trafficking had been focussed around those who get exploited – effectively, “how we can tell boys and girls to remain out of trouble”; whereas in the last decade, discussion has shifted towards how we can reduce the demand itself. He explains that in the definition of supply and demand, the price is the aspect easiest to change; yet an approach to reduce supply in order to drive up prices has been attempted for a long time without all too much effect.

Moritz moved on to explain that in quite a few sectors demand was created rather because of the supply. He cites the work of Bridget Anderson and shows the examples of Germany, Cyprus and Greece: in the sex industry, increased demand was created because there was such a freely available offer. Furthermore, he discusses other aspects: why persons are prepared to take the risk of working in certain sectors (i.e. why the supply exists). The supply for services of trafficked persons is mainly based on people making risky choices or being forced to make them: we are mainly looking at trafficking with the initial consent of the person, trafficked later because they are unaware of the full picture of what awaits him or her. Massive income inequalities and systematic exclusion in terms of jobs is most likely the underlying driver for these decisions, and therefore, the only true solution Moritz envisages is improved employment possibilities and quality of life in the countries of origin of trafficked persons. The question for Torsten Moritz is how we should couple freedom of movement with other social rights.

Moritz adds that we must examine a more suitable framework for public messaging, and campaigns must focus around corporate, fair trade and private responsibility: fairness is a concept that many people can relate to.

Next to intervene was Gerard Oonk, India Committee of the Netherlands who distinguished between four key players in human trafficking: the consumers, the businesses, the governments of the exploited countries, and the governments of the exploiting countries. He explained that consumers do have the power to put pressure on businesses and governments, however the number of concerned consumers is a very small minority, and furthermore, consumers are not well informed. Disclosure of companies, Mr Oonk argues, should become mandatory, and he encourages the EU to provide an assessment of which companies and countries accept child labour. He addresses two important sectors of exploitation: the production of garments and of seeds. Very often, young children are used for cross-pollinating plants for the production of seeds and in cotton mills for the clothes industry: sources that are reliant on child labour.

Furthermore, Mr Oonk suggests that the EU should enforce its position on exploitation in a treaty so that the document becomes binding for all member states. What exists so far are the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the European Commission (EC) has published an introductory guide to human rights for SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises). The EC is furthermore currently supporting a process to develop human rights guidance for three business sectors: employment and recruitment agencies, ICT/Telecommunications, and oil and gas. The guidance will be based on the UN Guiding Principles, and should be submitted by end April 2013. (Institute for Human Rights and Business). The European Commission has also expressed its expectation that all companies should meet the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, as defined in the UN Guiding Principles. However, as Mr. Oonk highlighted, the guiding principles are not binding.

The last speaker, Philip Hyldgaard, of the A21 campaign, gave an enlightening account of the issue of human trafficking, which he has seen first-hand through his work managing a refugee centre for women coming out of trafficking. The example he gives of a girl who was recently taken into their care shows how as an organized crime, human trafficking is so effective because it is so “organized”.  He tells the story of a girl who was promised a job, and falls into the hands of prostitution. Microphones were placed in her room so every word could be monitored, thus ensuring that clients would never be aware of her slavery, or if she did tell them of her slavery, she would be beaten again. He emphasized this example was in a legal brothel, and thus consumers who feel the women are there willingly are unaware of the truth, covered behind a legal façade. We should be attentive furthermore, he explains, because increasingly, humans are held captive in ways that are more disguised: by emotional shackles, rather than by physical ones.

Culture, Mr Hyldgaard noted also has a distinctive role to play: in Greece, where he works with the A21 campaign, there is the tradition to offer a prostitute on the occasion of a boy’s 15th birthday; in Sweden, on the contrary, since the introduction of a ban in 1999 making it illegal to buy sex services, the use of prostitutes is now perceived to be shameful, and the number of prostitutes in Sweden has reportedly dropped 40% from 2,500 in 1998 to 1,500 in 2003. According to a survey worldwide, countries where prostitution is legal sees an increased number of trafficked persons.  He explains that a legal contract can easily mask instances where women have been trafficked and forced to sign a contract, making it “legal”. Mr Hyldgaard thus called for the tackling of exploitation and disguised slavery within the activity of prostitution.

The seminar came to a close with Sir Graham Watson concluding that 80% of the solution for human trafficking lies in people’s awareness. If individuals were aware of the damaging effect their purchases were having on other peoples’ lives; the instances, and demand for trafficked persons, would fall dramatically. People must be educated on the matter and recognise that their daily consumptions often rely on the exploitation of others. MEP Sir Watson reminds us of what was once said by Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The message to take away from the seminar seemed to be that through transparency and public awareness, it might be possible for a reduction in the demand of trafficked persons.

The photography exhibition was on display from Monday 21st January to Friday 25th January in the Galerie Cafeteria in the European Parliament. The exhibition was comprised of collection of twenty metre-high photographs divided into two main themes: labour exploitation, especially among child workers; and sexual exploitation. In the exhibition attendees were presented of images of fashion models with projections of child labourers; along with images of men superimposed with the face of mistreated women.

The photos were subtle but extremely effective. Frequently, people did not on first glance notice the picture of the child labourer on the fashion models’ clothing, thinking it to be a beautiful decoration on the coat, and then later realizing the hidden value to the item of clothing. Of course, this is reflective of the reality, since consumers very often overlook the fact that when purchasing a coat or new dress our misinformed choices may be fuelling someone else’s misery. One of the exhibition captions embraced this notion well: “Think twice about your actions – your ‘fun’ may be robbing someone of their freedom and dignity.” The connection was made subtly, and stimulated interesting discussion on the topic.

We would like to thank all those who attended the seminar and exhibition for their support.

World Youth Alliance kindly thanks CARE for Europe for their kind collaboration

Our special thanks goes to Sir Graham Watson, MEP, for hosting this event, and for our three speakers, Torsten Moritz, Gerard Oonk, and Philip Hyldegaard and exhibition photographer, Adrian Cot.

If you would like to give feedback on the event or have comments for discussion, please email Europe@wya.net

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