Today is Human Rights Day! With the theme for this year being “Our Freedom, Our Rights, Always”, the world has been advised to reflect on the meaning of Freedom. This year’s Human Rights Day also marks the launch of a year-long campaign to celebrate the 50th anniversary of two of the oldest international human rights treaties – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These two documents, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, form the International Bill of Human Rights, which together set out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights – the birthrights of all human beings.
Freedom is the ideal that underpins what we now recognise as international human rights law – that is, the norms and regulations that protect and guarantee our rights. The Four Freedoms articulated in the preamble of the Declaration are Freedom of speech, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want andFreedom from fear. These Freedoms are universal and consequently apply to all human beings regardless of race, age, ethnicity, gender, religion, country or continent. Therefore, harmful traditional practices and cultural norms cannot justify taking these rights away from adults or children alike.
As the world celebrates this year’s Human Rights Day, I have been pondering on the meaning of ‘Freedom’ within the context of Modern Slavery. The Declaration states that: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”. In spite of this, modern slavery still continues in our world today. The Global Slavery Index estimates that about 35.8 million people from 167 countries are in modern slavery. Such people are exploited in various inhuman and degrading ways ranging from human/child trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage to forced/child marriage, sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation and domestic servitude.
Human trafficking has become the third largest international crime industry (after illegal drugs and arms trafficking). It has also been reported that women and young girls represent the largest share of trafficked victims globally for forced labour and sexual exploitation. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) further estimates 19 million victims are exploited by private individuals or enterprises and about $150 billion in illegal profit is generated annually in the private sector. So what is responsible for the boom of this illicit human trafficking industry?
I believe that the main factor fuelling modern slavery is the freedom from want. That is, the absence of an adequate standard of living – encompassing shelter, decent work, education, health and social security – in source countries make people vulnerable to human traffickers in the hope that a better life or future awaits them in the city, state, country or continent they are bound for. Also, human traffickers or perpetrators of modern slavery are able to lure unsuspecting victims by appealing to their innate desires to live in dignity, pursue personal development and contribute in a meaningful way to their immediate families and the society at large. Unfortunately, victims soon realise that such desires or dreams will never be fulfilled as long as they remain in the trafficking situation.
While I continue to reflect on freedom from want, I can’t help but think about the stories of some of the survivors of child trafficking from Africa I have been privileged to work with. In most of the trafficking stories recounted to be, the absence of the freedom from want seems to trail their narratives. It often begins with child victims being born into poverty or becoming an orphan at an early age. Then, the parents or caregivers at the time genuinely (or not) believe that sending such children to Europe will guarantee a better life, education and economic security, not only for such children but also their immediate families.
When these children get to destination countries (using the United Kingdom as a case in point), the freedom from wants continues to move further and further away from them. Overcome by fear, some may remain in exploitation for years before they escape their slavery ordeal. Deprived of their identity, childhood and education, they further become burdened with new challenges such as criminalisation, immigration, age disputes and the culture of disbelief after their escape. At this point, the future of victims become dependent on the government accepting them as a genuine victim of trafficking or not. If accepted as a victim of trafficking, some are lucky enough to be guaranteed a form of leave in the UK. Others (including those not accepted to be victims of trafficking) are forced to return to their country of origin and face head-on the circumstances that made them vulnerable to human traffickers in the first instance.
As we start the year-long human rights campaign, today, my hope is that everybody (whether you see yourself as a human rights activist/advocate or not) resolve to make Freedom count for victims of modern slavery. We must, in the next 365 days, make the decision to not turn a blind eye to the plights of others – male, female, children or adults. Let us not only be self-aware but also ‘neighbour-aware’ by knowing who are neighbours, friends, colleagues and those we share life with are. But this is just half of the resolution. Our utmost priority in the coming months should be one of speaking up for those who have lost theirfreedom of speech and freedom from want.
Aside from practitioners, organisations and individuals playing their part in shedding light on the evil of modern slavery, the bulk of the work still rests with the government in ensuring that current anti-trafficking laws and victim-support mechanisms are victim-centred and human-rights focused. Support for victims should not only meet the current needs of victims but also guarantee and protect their future freedom from want. This will ensure that victims of modern slavery are guarded against falling into the vicious cycle of reprisal, victimisation and re-trafficking. Furthermore, government in source countries must work towards creating a safe and secure society that fosters better opportunities in education and the labour market as well as create social safety nets for the most vulnerable in the society.
President Franklin Roosevelt once said, “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” I am equally convinced that poverty and the lack of opportunities are the stuff, not only of which traffickers are made but also, on which modern slavery thrives in the 21st century.