Today, 12 000 orphaned children in Sierra Leone are at risk of human trafficking. Hundreds of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram remain unaccounted for. Slavery is not a crime confined to the history books, nor to the third world. Jennifer Burn and Emma Christopher explain how Anti-Slavery Australia is fighting to put slavery and human trafficking back on the national agenda and provide better support for victims.
March 25 is the International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery. This year, Anti-Slavery Australia (ASA), part of UTS’s Faculty of Law, will be teaming up with the United Nations to commemorate the day with a special screening of the new documentary, Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftaness. The film centres on Queen Nanny, one of the Jamaican slave rebels known as ‘maroons’ and her struggle for freedom.
Why are stories like Nanny’s, which comes from the 18th century, still so important to hear today?
In many parts of the world, including Australia, freedom is still far from guaranteed. One way to commemorate Nanny, and the millions of other past victims of slavery, is to work towards ensuring that such stories do not continue in our own times. It is the least we can do in her name.
For over 12 years ASA has battled human trafficking and slavery in our own time and our own nation. Our team of researchers and academics, lawyers, students and volunteers support survivors and develop policies consistent with human rights principles. To this end, our recent research has focussed on the importance of effective remedies for trafficked and enslaved people and better visa protection and material support.
It has already made some changes to the law, contributed to better policies and assisted in the recovery from the immeasurable harm suffered. There is no better feeling than when we hear a trafficked person say, ‘Now I have freedom’, or witness the growth of a new business, a new university or vocational enrolment, or see joy on receipt of a job offer.
But ending human trafficking and slavery is more difficult than ever.
While our recently-appointed patron, philanthoropist Judith Neilson, has already made headway in raising the awareness of the reality of human trafficking and slavery in Australia on a national scale, we need to do more at the grassroots level. Commemorating days like International Day for the Remembrance of Victims of Slavery can go a long way to raising awareness in the community.
Last year, the day was marked around the world with the screening of a documentary made by ASA’s Emma Christopher. They Are We tells the story of a reunification after a historical case of slavery in Sierra Leone, and was hailed as a ‘victory over slavery’. But, one year on, the victory is far from complete and things might be worsening.
Today, as the Ebola epidemic leaves behind 12 000 orphaned children and economic devastation, Sierra Leoneans are again fighting to keep their loved ones safe from traffickers and the most serious kinds of exploitation.
Similarly, across West Africa – the region once devastated by the transatlantic slave trade – the majority of the girls whose kidnap gave rise to the #bringbackourgirls campaign are still unaccounted for. Boko Haram remains a major threat. Further afield, ISIL have declared it their right (according to their own ideology) to enslave non-Muslims and Muslims who don’t agree with their particular views. Jamaica, where Queen Nanny once fought for her freedom, remains a country fighting against the trafficking of its people into forced labour and sex work.
These issues might seem far away from Australia but they are not unrelated to us in our global world. And there are issues right here at home that we urgently need to put back on the agenda.
We urgently need to develop better support for victims of slavery and trafficking. Better visa support and the opportunity of 510 hours of government-funded English language lessons represent welcome progress. Yet support for trafficked people rests essentially on their participation in the criminal justice process, and involves helping the police or prosecutors. Some victims of slavery and trafficking are unable to do so.
What we need is a more flexible visa that recognises the experience of human trafficking and slavery and provides for protection in the small number of circumstances where it’s impossible, or dangerous, for a person to engage with law enforcement.
We also need a national compensation scheme for trafficked people, something Australia has an international obligation to provide. Currently eight different schemes exist, one in each of the states and territories, each with different rules, criteria and amounts paid out to those successful in claiming compensation. A national scheme would ensure that victims of slavery and human trafficking are treated equally throughout Australia.
Likewise, we need independent monitoring and review. Since 2003, coordination of Australia’s anti-trafficking and anti-slavery response has been through the Australian Attorney-General’s Department. This should continue, but we need more, especially an independent Anti-Slavery and Trafficking Commissioner. A commissioner would spearhead inquiries into human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices and report to the Australian Parliament. Importantly, they would have different powers to government, including monitoring and reviewing the success of national initiatives, listening to complaints, and advocating for better systems.
Freedom from human trafficking and slavery is recognised as an expression of humanity and Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude”. Queen Nanny of the Maroons fought for her freedom from enslavement in 18th century Jamaica. Unfortunately, there is still so much for which to fight.