x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Human bondage disguised as freedom of opportunity

Human trafficking and forced labour are often framed solely as an issue of economic migration, but for me it is also evidence of the dismal consequences of the failed promise of a more financially prosperous, globalised world.

Andre da Loba for The National
Andre da Loba for The National

I first met Fatima when she was 12. Along with another girl, she was studying the Quran with the daughter of a friend. Later I was shocked to learn her story.

At the age of 10, she had been taken from the ashes of war in Somalia and brought to this country as a domestic servant. To this day she does not know if her parents are dead or alive, or if her village even exists. For now she is making her way in life as best she can.

Seeing her now walk down a Deira street in an abaya and brightly colour hijab, Fatima looks like a typical, confident young woman on her way to greatness.

Although she has never been to school, she learned to read Arabic while babysitting the children under her care. She once complained to me that even if she wanted to get married, men want only an educated woman, which clearly she is not. Still, she still has hope for her future, or so it seems.

Fatima is part of the story of human trafficking. In her case it is linked to what the International Labour Organisation (ILO) says is a traditional practice in many regions of Africa of placing children in foster care with relatives in distant cities. While parents are promised education for their children, the UN agency found that both boys and girls were frequently ruthlessly exploited as domestic servants, as agricultural workers or, worst of all, in the sex industry.

The problem is not just an African one. The ILO estimates that at least four out of every 10 victims of forced labour worldwide are children. This is what happened to Fatima, and I have no clue how to help her.

Sometimes I dream of finding an American who will marry her and give her a secure future. Taking her to a shelter doesn't seem to be an option. If I did, more than likely she would be sent back to Somalia, perhaps to starve and die. I am afraid of making her situation worse.

Human trafficking and forced labour are often framed solely as an issue of economic migration, but for me it is also evidence of the dismal consequences of the failed promise of a more financially prosperous, globalised world. The statistics are merely estimates, but even these, both human and financial, are mind-boggling.

The ILO calculates that in 2005 the profits from using enforced labour worldwide were US$44.3 billion (Dh158bn), of which the largest share - $32bn - came from the victims of trafficking.

This is not just an issue in the developing world. Take the case of Loren, whom I met here at an Eid party. Since she was from Pennsylvania and I from New Jersey, we struck up a friendship.

She would come over at weekends and we would swap stories. That is when she told me how she escaped being sold into the sex trade for $1,500 in New York City.

At the time Loren was a teenager; living on her own and trying to make her way in Pennsylvania's underground economy. She was working as an unlicensed cab driver but also as a recruiter for strip clubs, finding girls for a local dealer whose trade was drugs and the sex industry.

It was while making a trip to New York that one of the girls asked Loren if she would consider working as a prostitute. She rejected the idea but the woman insisted. Soon after, she found herself locked in an apartment, beaten, and listening to her kidnappers trying to sell her off.

Waiting for the right moment, she managed to escape by jumping from a window. Loren can still remember her shock when, beaten and bloodied, she asked to borrow a mobile phone from a woman passer-by to call for help and was refused.

In the end, she met two African men who helped her buy a ticket home. Later she converted to Islam and moved to the UAE.

Loren's story is another aspect of the complexity of human trafficking, especially in the sex industry. In his 2003 book TheNatashas: Inside the Global Sex Trade, the Canadian journalist and human-rights activist Victor Malarek observes that the pernicious use of sex in advertisements and on television, and easily available pornography, has increased the demand for commercial sex.

It is ironic that the US government, in the latest Trafficking in Persons report, published annually by the State Department, recommends that the UAE should reduce the demand for commercial sex. If America can't do this - or protect the Lorens on its own doorstep - how does it expect other nations to comply?

It does not help that the issue is often framed in orientalist fantasies or myths of white slavery in the Arab world. In fact, according to the ILO, one per cent of human trafficking is in the Middle East.

Then there is the question of who is to blame for human trafficking. International mafia organisations and criminal gangs are the obvious culprits, but what about governments who turn a blind eye to the abuse of their citizens because it is easier to pocket their remittances rather than create jobs in their own countries? Then there are the security services and law enforcement agencies who arrest the victims while letting traffickers and their clients escape without serious punishment.

In some countries, the police are the problem rather than the solution. In this year's award-winning documentary The Price of Sex, the Bulgarian photographer Mimi Chakarova highlights the plight of young eastern European women who are lured abroad with promises of well-paid hotel and retail jobs but find themselves sold into slavery.

When one young woman was asked why she did not seek help from the authorities, she explained that after visiting a local police station, she recognised many of her customers "but now they were in uniform".

Not all is hopeless, though. Last week the UAE and India announced the launch of a new website designed to simplify the hiring of domestic and blue-collar workers. Crucially, the database should go a long way to break the grip of unscrupulous recruiting agencies who lure workers abroad on seemingly well-paid contracts, who then discover on arrival that these have been amended with longer hours and less pay. A small step, perhaps, but one in the right direction.

In the end, human trafficking is a complex issue of development, poverty, psychological ills and pure greed.

Two years ago, the film Taken told the fictional story of a young woman abducted by Albanian sex traders and the efforts of her father, a CIA agent played by Liam Neeson, to free her. Confronting the leader of the gang, Neeson's character is told: "This is a business. It's nothing personal."

To me, this is the mission statement of those who deal in the global trade of humans, which now surpasses the North Atlantic slave trade tenfold. Human trafficking and forced labour is a by-product of globalisation, a pretence of having the freedom to seek your fortune, but where you must pay up front first, with money and possessions and sometimes with your life.

Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE