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 , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

Trafficking victims usually fall into a life of crushing servitude, especially those put to work in Australia's legal sex trade. "Posie" arrived in Sydney expecting to earn enough money as a cook to pay for medicine for a sister back home in Asia. Instead, she was taken to an apartment in Sydney with six women and told she had to have sex with 500 men to pay off a debt of $40,000 (US$35,725).

"The owner said he would shame my family by putting up pictures of me naked in my home town and that he would tell everyone about what I did," she says. "He said he would have my family hurt if I didn't do what he said [and] that I would be found and ... killed if I ran away. He told me that the police would not help me."

When she wasn't working in the brothel, "Posie" was locked in the apartment. Only after eight months, when her debt was paid, was she allowed to walk free.

Traffickers and their associates are seldom brought to justice. The government has established a specialist task force to investigate traffickers and has insisted the battle is being won. Trafficking can bring penalties of up to 25 years' imprisonment.

Encouraging victims to give evidence is a hurdle. "[If] a girl runs away, [gangs] can exert pressure on her family," says "Dale," who runs a legal brothel. "Children have been kidnapped ... in Thailand, and the girl is told they will be sold if she doesn't go back to work."

Jennifer Burn, director of the Anti-Slavery Project at the University of Technology Sydney, says the traffickers are skilled manipulators. "Not everybody is forced. They may be tricked," she says. "I've had clients who've answered an advertisement in a city newspaper and it's exactly the kind of advertisement that young people in Australia might answer. It will say something like, 'Do you want to make a lot of money in Australia, lovely country, fabulous climate, and nice people?'

"They see the opportunity to go to a country like Australia and make a fortune and have a new life.... Others are desperate financially and are looking for a way out,and those people are particularly vulnerable."

In the case of "Posie," lawyers helped her apply for a visa to stay permanently in Australia. "[The] immigration minister gave me a chance to start a new life in Australia. I am happy. I am studying, but it will take some time reach my goal to be a normal person and to have a life that I had dreamed of. Next year, I want to go home and visit my family, but I will never tell them what happened to me," she says.

It is women like her who are given a refuge by the Salvation Army in its privately funded safe house. The center is still in its infancy, but Stangar says the early signs are encouraging.

"One of the wonderful things ... is how people are mentoring each other and how some of the residents who've been there longer are providing support to the newer folks," she says. "What's interesting is that it can happen across languages and cultures, so it's very important for us that we create a strong sense of community amongst our residents.... It's really important we keep everyone busy and interested in moving forward to achieve their goals."

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