Stolen lives: human trafficking in China
Report reveals that 110 people have been trafficked from Burma into China over the past six years – the majority are females aged between three months and 33 years old. Melissa Lahoud reports.
Story features Joanna Hayter, Executive Director of the International Women’s Development Agency.
The “Stolen Lives” report was produced by Burmese not-for-profit group the Palaung Women’s Organisation. The report reveals that in a quarter of the trafficking cases, women were forced to marry Chinese men and 10 per cent were forced into the sex trade. One disturbing story reveals that an under-age girl was transferred to four husbands before escaping. Palaung Women’s Organisation partner with the International Women’s Development Agency in Australia and their programs rely on public support for funding.
JH: What we’re seeing year after years is that the instances of trafficking just isn’t changing and so all of those issues around vulnerability of women and girls just continue to be a threat to their lives.
What we’re seeing is a commoditisation of women and girls and we’re seeing women forced in marriage and forced into the sex industry. Really a complete denial of human rights.
ML: In the report there’s one story about a woman who witnessed people being used as food for leeches.
JH: Yeah, isn’t that shocking!
ML: Definitely. How common are cases like that?
JH: That’s not common thank goodness. I felt that it was important to talk to you about that because it’s such a shock when you see information like that. But I think that it’s really important that we understand how weird and how disgusting it gets.
In the case that we have through this report, we know that the woman was able to escape and that she was able to escape with the support of police, which is terrific. It does seem that the two men that were also captured in the same block of apartments were not able to escape at that point. But it really is quite extraordinary isn’t it.
It’s a question of demand and supply. You’ve got a situation in China where some part of the natural medicines world believes that big, fat, healthy leeches is a really valuable medicine so they have a demand for that and they have to find some way to supply blood to leeches. In this case what they’re doing is exploiting the most vulnerable people into those circumstances. The trauma of being imprisoned for something like that must almost be beyond belief, I think.
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ML: Why are women and young girls so vulnerable to human trafficking?
JH: There’s so many reasons. I think what’s happening from within the Palaung areas in Burma is that there’s a huge level of migration for the Palaung people generally. These people are a people that are heavily oppressed by the current government within Burma.
Trafficking itself, well there are both demand and supply issues to that.
What happens is, if you’re coming from within a really, really poor community to start with, as a girl you’re less likely to have access to education, which means you’ve got less choices about work and less ability to earn money. So people start to look for alternative sources of income and choose to accept offers, very often false offers, of work in other places and then find themselves tricked into the whole trafficking cycle.
ML: What kinds of laws already exist and what needs to be changed in that regard?
JH: The law looks good on paper but in fact in practice it’s not slowing down the trafficking and it’s not reaching those people that are either most vulnerable; or not assisting those who most need to be rescued or rehabilitated.
ML: So does that mean the law needs to be changed completely or does it just need to be enforced?
JH: In many cases the law needs to be better understood, let’s put it that way. You can’t just have a law in one country and think that that’s going to make a difference. The point about trafficking is that we’re trafficking across borders and we’re trafficking between countries. So you need a lot of regional co-operation. You need a lot of inter-ministerial co-operation and you need a lot of international co-operation.
ML: What kind of support do programs like yours receive?
JH: The thing that worries me more than anything is that International Women’s Development Agency and our partners Palaung Women’s Organisation, we struggle to find funds just to resource things like their crisis centre.
You know, it’s very difficult because it’s small scale and because it’s under the radar and you can’t put a whole lot of media attention onto these organisations because that’s potentially doing more harm. It potentially exposes them to the police and the law who may not like what they’re doing. It’s actually difficult for us to resource them to enable them to widen their services. That’s the reason we wanted to talk to the media about this. We need more public support for these kinds of programs.
Melissa Lahoud is a reporter on The Wire.