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In Australia, bid to help trafficking victims

At country's only dedicated safe house, women learn to rebuild their lives after being tricked into sex slavery.

By Phil MercerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 4, 2008


Behind the doors of a small apartment complex in Sydney, a battle is being waged to help women caught up by Australia's flourishing trade in people.

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The country's only dedicated safe house for victims of human trafficking accommodates 10 residents, and counselors work to rebuild trust and self-esteem eroded by the trauma and indignity of modern-day slavery.

Lured by the promise of lucrative jobs at restaurants, farms, or construction sites that have gone begging for workers over the past decade-plus of prosperity, men and women from Asia and Eastern Europe end up being exploited in industries from prostitution to agriculture, and forced to repay exorbitant debts.

Enslaved workers are also employed as domestic servants, working in kitchens or subjected to servile marriages.

Official statistics on how many people are drawn into the trade are unavailable, though anecdotal evidence from charities suggests the numbers are large. The Salvation Army, which runs the Sydney safe house, estimates that up to 1,000 people are trafficked into Australia each year, and charities report that the number of enslaved workers brought into the country is increasing.

"I'm fairly comfortable saying there are thousands of victims of trafficking in Australia across a full spectrum of labor sectors," says Jenny Stangar, the American-born manager of the Salvation Army hostel in Sydney.

"The demographic profile includes men, women, and children from all over the world working in a whole variety of industries," she continues. "The youngest I ever worked with was 3, and the oldest person was 72."

Escaping from such a ruthless world is not easy. Sex workers are often thrown penniless into the street when their debts are cleared, while other exploited workers have to summon immense courage to seek help from nongovernmental organizations or the police.

The fortunate ones end up in the supportive hands of charities like the Salvation Army. The safe house – which differs from other ad hoc efforts to house victims – comprises two five-bedroom apartments with common living areas and a kitchen. Residents have their own rooms.

Here, in this complex, reconstructing damaged lives is a painstaking task.

"We're looking for successful outcomes in ... safe, affordable housing, stability in their mental health, reconnecting with family, and being able to manage daily living," Ms. Stangar explains, adding that they want to ensure that the women do not become ensnared in trafficking again.

Legal problems are another issue. Many victims of trafficking have either overstayed their visas or have violated tourist permits. The Salvation Army works with lawyers to help them secure permanent residency, Stangar says.

"Without having a stable legal situation, it's very hard for us to help the clients achieve stability in all those other areas, and legal issues are a big worry for lots of people," she says.

For the past decade, Stangar has worked as an advocate for survivors of human trafficking and slavery in the United States and Australia. She cofounded the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking in Los Angeles, which opened the first US refuge for victims in 2003. She then relocated to Sydney, "only to find that the work needs to be done all over again."