Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, OSCE Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings.

Conference reports Discrimination fosters human trafficking. empowerment may help prevent it

Dehumanization of groups of people is a prerequisite for human trafficking. The very same factor that make vulnerable groups target of discrimination also make people vulnerable to human trafficking. The link between discrimination and human trafficking was the theme on OSCE:s 12th "Alliance against Trafficking in Persons" Conference.

Published on on oktober 30, 2012

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There is a link between discrimination and trafficking in human beings. Ethnic minorities, women, children, people with disabilities, and irregular migrants are all vulnerable groups that are targets of discrimination. Often poorly educated, they have lower self-esteem and less awareness of their rights. They live in a precarious state of poverty, ill health, and insecurity. These very same factors also make people vulnerable to human trafficking.

Thus does Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, OSCE Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, present the theme of the twelfth OSCE conference: An Agenda for Prevention: Non-Discrimination and Empowerment. The OSCE-initiated 12th Alliance against Trafficking in Persons Conference brought together more than 300 senior government officials, national anti-trafficking coordinators and rapporteurs, representatives from international and non-governmental organizations, universities, law enforcement agencies, trade unions, employers’ organizations, and migrants’ rights groups.

Morten Kjaerum, Director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) stressed that trafficking in human beings must be considered a human rights issue. He cautioned against thinking about human trafficking as just another form of organized crime and equating human trafficking with the illicit drugs business and illegal arms trading.

“But victims of trafficking are not ‘dangerous commodities.’ They are human beings entitled to respect and compassion. Victims should not be overlooked or marginalized because they are unwilling participants in organized crime. […] This easily becomes a practical mental construction which gives legitimacy for turning the blind eye to these atrocities. “

He argued that we must make it clear that these vulnerable people are covered by human rights in the same way as “other” people.

Dehumanization of groups of people is a prerequisite for human trafficking. When groups of people are denied a decent standard of living due to discrimination, they are also dehumanized as a group. When certain groups, such as ethnic minorities in a majority society or undocumented migrants and guest workers, are treated like second-class citizens, this legitimizes the notion that they cannot fully claim their human rights.

Irregular migrants lack rights

Professor Ryszard Piotrowicz stresses the importance of strengthening and ensuring the rights of victims.

“When we have identified a person as a victim of human trafficking, we have met a person who has been stripped of human dignity. It is our duty to help them regain their dignity. Everyone we have identified must, through our efforts, be restored from having been a commodity to human beings. The fight to eradicate trafficking in persons must take a human rights approach.”

The importance of being able to offer victims of human trafficking all forms of rapid support and security was discussed. There is risk that people will be discriminated against after they have been identified and will be deported as irregular migrants, instead of being offered care and support.

This is particularly applicable to undocumented migrants. Kadri Soova, Advocacy Officer, PICUM (Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants) says that many undocumented migrants fear they will be deported if they make themselves known to the authorities, even if they have been victims of exploitation and human trafficking. According to Soova, they lack civil rights and thus, ironically enough, cannot assert their human rights. She says: “There is structural discrimination against undocumented migrants. They have no right to fundamental labor law protection or health care.”

Racism and dehumanization

Women are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking and the link between gender and trafficking has been previously discussed. There is also a strong connection between racism and human trafficking.

The idea of ranking people according to skin color is racism. The notion of races is a racist invention, according to Bridget Anderson, Deputy Director of the ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society.

“Racism makes skin color significant. Skin color becomes a way to place people on a value scale. But national minorities can also be ranked according to a value scale. In that situation, markers other than skin color – often connected to the body and physical appearance – are the determinants.”

”Racism is a social hierarchy upheld by how we categorize others in relation to ourselves. Certain groups are “the Other,” the people who are not civilized enough to be fully regarded as having the same rights and value as civilized citizens. This contemptuous view of certain groups of people makes slavery and trafficking of these groups possible, argues Andersson. “The same degrading, dehumanizing view that legitimizes human trafficking today once legitimized the slave trade and persecution of the Jews.”

Roma are particularly vulnerable

Social exclusion is something that Roma endure as a group. Andrzej Mirga, Senior Adviser on Roma and Sinti Issues, ODIHIR, describes how the situation of Roma was actualized after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Roma are highly vulnerable to and involved in human trafficking, both as victims and intermediaries.

“Roma women face discrimination as women and as Roma. In addition, the financial crisis has made an already bad situation worse. Roma women are unaware of their rights and do not have the resources to claim their rights even if they did know them. They are at high risk of being forced to sell their children abroad. This is a Roma problem. That they sell their children.”

He maintains that the vulnerability factors found among Roma as a group are also found in other groups: they live in socially segregated conditions, unemployment is high, the level of education is low, and they are targets of discrimination. They have a network of contacts between villages and across national borders, but often lack access to basic state and public services and protection. They are often burdened with debt and ill health and there is high incidence of alcohol abuse and violence.

“I would like to emphasize that trafficking in human beings does not have an ethnic face. It is not culturally related. It is an outcome of discrimination,” Mirga says. He advocates education and information. He also emphasizes the importance of involving Roma themselves: empowerment.

Denitsa Boeva, the Bulgarian representative to the OSCE talks about the challenges of combating human trafficking among Roma and argues that other methods and instruments must be used.

“Fundamental problems we have identified are illiteracy, unemployment, and lack of family planning. They have no income and substandard housing, but have seven or eight children. This increases the risk that they will sell their children: they cannot afford to support them. Lack of trust in the majority society is also a problem.

Within the Roma community, they often know when someone is going to be sold, but no one speaks out. So, there is a chance of stopping the sale if you know about it. This is why we must cooperate with Roma, help with prevention and offer alternatives.”

Using theater to spread information

Preventive and informational work among people who cannot read or lack trust in – or contact with – the state, may require other types of tools.

Theater is one such tool. Ms. Elmira Khasanova, the leader of the NGO Karakol in Kyrgyzstan presented the organization’s work in project form in 2010 and 2011 to reach ethnic groups in the Issyk-Kul region. The people live in small villages scattered through the valleys between the mountains, where no roads lead and there is no Internet. Many of them earn their livelihoods as shepherds. They usually have no formal education and many are illiterate. They are poor and uneducated and are thus easy prey for recruiters who promise them milk and honey. Khasanova explains: “We understood that we could not pass out leaflets. Partly because their reading skills are low, but also party because they would not take in the message and understand the danger.”

A professor at the university in Kyrgyzstan wrote a play called “Spots on the Moon” about a group of people who are exploited as labor and treated like slaves. They cannot escape without being captured and beaten. The play is written in the form of a folktale to make it easily accessible and the text alludes to the themes found in the legends and folktales of the region. The great hope is that the White Bird will come and save the people – and erase the spots on the moon.

“We looked for actors among young students and the unemployed. We chose ten people. One group performed the play in eight villages in 2010 and another group performed for eight other villages in 2011. If we get funding, we want to continue and do the same thing in more villages,” Khasanova says.

She describes how they approached the people in these remote villages and suggested staging a play. Together with the villagers, they looked for a place to rehearse and perform. They figured out various arrangements to seat the audience and teamed up with the villagers to put up posters or spread information about when the play would be performed.

When the play was performed, the shepherds came down from the mountains and every man, woman, and child in the village turned out. Everyone saw the play and got caught up in the plot. Afterwards, they discussed whether what happened in the play could happen in their village. What should they do if it did?

“It turned out that some of them had experienced this. We identified seven victims immediately when the play was performed and 189 people called our hotline later for contact and help. We reached a total of 4,007 people in the Issyk-Kul region with information about the risk of ending up victims of trafficking and we created new networks they could turn to if they were approached by a trafficker.”

For more information about the anti-trafficking work of the OSCE: