Modern Day Slavery

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Posted by Lilly from ? ( on Thursday, May 16, 2002 at 4:05PM :

for anyone with access to Scientific American [online or hardcopy] there's an excellent article on this in the April 2002 issue (beginning on pg. 80).

Human Cargo
Business Is Booming for Traffickers Trading in Women and Children

By Leela Jacinto

May 15 — When Ibrahim Mohammad, now around 6 years old, fell off a camel in Dubai and fractured his shoulder last year, he says he broke into a sobbing fit and pleaded with his handlers not to strap him onto the back of a camel ever again.

But as he well knew, no amount of sniveling, whining or weeping could save him from the camel-racing track. There was a lot of money at stake, there were no adults who would intercede for him, and the skinny little Bangladeshi boy was just pushing his luck.
As a camel jockey in the United Arab Emirates' glitzy port city, Ibrahim was just a tiny cog in a vast, popular sports industry, and like the other 20-odd boys in his dormitory, he was a child slave. Protests were treated with a sound whipping with the sticks used for the camels, and then it was back to the races for the tiny lads.

Ibrahim was one of innumerable, mostly South Asian children smuggled out of their homelands to work as camel jockeys in several Persian Gulf states. But unlike most of the unfortunate children, he was rescued from Dubai and repatriated home to Bangladesh earlier this year after his handler died and authorities found the abandoned boy.

"I didn't like camel racing," he says slowly in a frail, high-pitched voice during a recent phone interview with from the shelter in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka that he now calls home. "I was very scared of riding camels."

Medical experts at the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, the country's main anti-slave-trafficking organization, estimate Ibrahim is approximately 6 years old. But Salma Ali, BNWLA executive director, says it's hard to believe he is that old — he's tiny, malnourished, timid, and three months after he arrived at the shelter, he still suffers from severe emotional trauma.

On the top floors of the shelter where Ibrahim currently lives, Shabana Khatun, 16, is finally getting a basic education a year after she was repatriated from Calcutta, India. She had been smuggled there and sold to a brothel — joining the untold number of women and girls trafficked annually across international borders and sold into a brutal but thriving global sex industry.

21st-Century Slavery

In Rome today, representatives from five continents are attending a conference on international trafficking in human beings. It aims to bring together members of the diplomatic corps, law enforcement agencies, rights groups and religious groups as well as policy planners and victims of global trafficking.

Titled "21st-Century Slavery — The Human Rights Dimension to Trafficking in Human Beings," the conference is hosted by James Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, in conjunction with the Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace and for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.

Nicholson got the idea of hosting the conference not long after he took up his post in Rome in October 2001. "You don't have to drive far in Rome to see victims of trafficking on the streets," says Nicholson. "We decided to hold this conference to increase the awareness and educate the diplomatic corps, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and the media about the extent of this horrific problem."

Trafficking in human beings is one of the world's fastest-growing organized criminal activities. The combination of the collapse of the Soviet Union and socialism's state securities and the loosening of East European borders, coupled with a persistent chasm between rich and poor nations, has seen an increase in the resolve of people trying to flee their countries and of unscrupulous criminals ready to make a financial killing out of their desperation.

A 2001 report by the U.S. State Department estimates that at least 700,000 persons are trafficked each year across international borders. But some international observers put the figure at 2 million.

Europol, the European law enforcement agency, estimates the human-trafficking industry is worth several billion dollars a year, and the U.N. International Drug Control Program warns that human trafficking is "the fastest-growing facet of organized crime."

The sheer numbers, according to Marco Gramegna, head of the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration's counter-trafficking division, has helped put the issue on the international spotlight.

"One of the reasons for the surge in awareness of the problem is that the impact of the increasing number of victims in countries of destination is evident," says Gramegna. "In cities like Paris, London and Rome, nationals see people who are obviously victims of trafficking on the streets. There is not a single region of the world that is not affected — either as a destination, origin or transit point."

Applying to Be a Waitress, Ending Up a Prostitute

Among the more appalling features of trafficking, according to human-rights workers, is the fact that the most vulnerable sections of some societies — women and children — are the most-targeted victims of trafficking rings.

Women from the former Soviet bloc countries sold into prostitution are among the most visible victims of trafficking. Experts estimate that between 250,000 and 400,000 females have been sold into prostitution since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Activists working with such victims say typically, the women answer ads seeking waitresses, dancers or au pairs only to arrive at their destination country — often not even the country of their choice — where pimps and racketeers hold their documents and they are forced into prostitution, often through very violent means.

But in many destination and transit points such as Romania and Greece, local politicians and law enforcement officials say stories of foreign women forced into prostitution are just that: stories.

In an interview with the Financial Times earlier this year, a Romanian law enforcement official voiced a common view when he told the British daily that "very few go abroad without knowing exactly why they are going."

But Gramegna says such allegations fail to get to the root of the problem. "In many instances word may have gone around that this is dangerous work, but they never know the full story — the extent of the physical and emotional abuse," he says. "I don't think people freely decide to be slaves."

And in the 16 years since she has been fighting trafficking in Bangladesh, Ali says she has never come across a single case of a woman voluntarily joining an overseas brothel. "It is 100 percent forced prostitution," she says emphatically. "And in South Asia at least, most of the girls are adolescents."

‘I Don’t Want to Go Home’

While Gramegna says the problem is exacerbated in societies where women are subordinated — be it Asian, European or African societies — Ali says that in Bangladesh, cultural factors combine to make her job even more challenging.

Although it's been nearly a year since Khatun — who was given the nickname "Jasmine" — was repatriated from India, the 16-year-old still lives in the BNWLA shelter, stretching the organization's limited resources.

"We contacted her family in her village near Khulna [in southern Bangladesh] but they don't want to take her back. We are trying to motivate them to take her back," says Ali, adding that reintegrating repatriated girls who have worked in the sex trade is a particularly challenging task.

But during a phone interview with, Khatun shows no sorrow over her family's rejection. "I don't want to go home," she says firmly. "I want to stay here [in the shelter] and study — and then I'll work."

Given the crushing poverty in most rural areas, many activists say it is not inconceivable that parents or relatives sell the children, although most families maintain the children were abducted or lured away by strangers.

"Trafficking occurs in countries where people have little economic opportunity," says Jean-Phillippe Chauzy, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration. "Generally, there is a lack of awareness of the problem in countries of origin. And for traffickers, it is a highly lucrative and low-risk activity."

Kingpins Go Scot-Free

Another source of frustration for activists rescuing and repatriating victims is the all-too-frequent failure to nail down the kingpins in vast, organized smuggling networks.

"If we do manage to arrest and prosecute the traffickers, it is mostly the low-level operators and middlemen," says Ali. "With countries like the U.A.E., it is very difficult for us, because we need governmental cooperation and we don't have extradition treaties with some of these countries. And because a lot of Bangladeshi and South Asian laborers work in the Middle East — and we are very poor — our governments don't want to take it on."

In Ibrahim's case, for instance, the BNWLA managed to trace his family in a remote village in northeastern Bangladesh, but his mother does not want to file charges. Her husband is currently working in the United Arab Emirates and she fears he will be targeted by trafficking groups.

Although the United Arab Emirates banned the use of children as camel jockeys in 1993, the implementation of the law is lax and the country's powerful Camel Racing Association, not the government, is responsible for enforcing the law.

"The Middle East is a complicated situation, where you have a mixing of criminal activities with very difficult political situations," Gramegna says.

While Ali believes the United States has an obligation to "lobby for us," many of the nations on the State Department's list of countries that rank lowest in counter-trafficking efforts are close U.S. allies, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Greece and Turkey. (See Modern-Day Slavery)

Activists say some of the children rescued from slavery and repatriated have forgotten their native language, customs and sometimes even their families, But no matter what they've forgotten, and no matter how impoverished their native country is, they always express relief when they arrive home.

"Bangladesh is bhalo," says Ibrahim, using his native Bengali word for good. But when asked about his life in Dubai, he slips in a few Arabic words, remnants of the language he spoke in the United Arab Emirates.

"My moodir (boss) was kharab (horrible)," he says. "I want to stay here. Bangladesh is bhalo."

-- Lilly
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