Thousands of migrants have perished off the coast of Libya since January. Hundreds of thousands of people enter Europe each year, and similar amounts enter the United States. These people, both irregular and regular migrants, are among some of the most vulnerable for human trafficking schemes.
David and Julie Brown worked with migrants in Northern Africa, fighting both human trafficking and poverty.
“Anything is better than where they came from”: The Irregular Migration Crisis and human trafficking
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On April 18, 2015 the world witnessed a tragedy. Just seventy miles off the coast of Libya, almost 1000 migrants were left treading water when their boat capsized. Less than 30 of them would survive the night. Days earlier, almost 400 migrants had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Who were these people? Why were they on boats that couldn’t make the journey? How desperate are they? Where were they going, and why was it so important to them that they would risk their very lives?
Some of those questions are easily answered. Some are not. They were irregular migrants, people trying to reach the European continent by any means. They did not possess proper papers or immigration documents. They probably didn’t possess much at all, having spent much of their money on their ill-fated voyage across the sea. Almost 10,000 people, just like those who drowned, have made it Italian shores since January of this year. But a one-way ticket to Europe can be costly, and dangerous. Over 3000 irregular migrants have died in the Mediterranean Sea since January.
Irregular migrants are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Human smuggling, although not the same as human trafficking, often preys upon vulnerable people who then arrive on the European continent poor, and often in debt. David Brown, a TIP Hero from 2008, talks about the refugee highway. The flow of people from Central and Sub-Saharan Africa through West Africa, into Northern Africa. The goal is clear and simple: make it to Europe. As Philip Hyldgaard put it several weeks ago, “…they believe that Europe is full of jobs and that anything is better than where they came from.” Ultimately, many of these people end up in vulnerable situations. Vulnerable populations are ripe for exploitation by human traffickers, and can often end up in situations of forced labor, or sex trafficking. During the month of April, we focused on genocide, and conflict, and the effects that has on people and on human trafficking. This month we focus more generally on migrants, and the people who are working to help those who fall prey to immigration-related human trafficking schemes.
The Heroes: A Pastor and his Wife, a NGO Worker, and the Daughter of a prominent Politician
David Brown and his wife spent 9 years living and working in a source country in West Central Africa. Moving back to the US for a brief period, they quickly headed to North Africa. Working with a protestant church there, they began to help an extremely vulnerable population that kept coming through their doors: undocumented migrants. Julie, a trained nurse, extended what medical care she could provide, and David provided food, medicine, and whatever other supplies they could find. These people, undocumented migrants, were on what David Brown called the ‘refugee highway.’ Fleeing from something, they were headed towards what they thought was a better life. Too often, they ended up in large refugee camps or settlements. Too often, they ended up dead.
When I met the Browns, in 2014, they told me story after story of undocumented people who ended up being trafficked. Human trafficking, by its nature, preys upon people who are vulnerable to exploitation. Whether it is women who are forced to sell themselves in order to provide for their families or just to cross a border, or people who try to find work as domestic servants and end up in slavery, undocumented peoples are vulnerable because they are easy to control. Afraid of the police, often for good reason, they have no recourse when they are exploited. David and Julie Brown were that recourse for many immigrants. One story they told me was of a young girl who tried to find work as a domestic servant. She ran away, after being enslaved, and knocked on their church door on Christmas Eve. That girl is now a hairdresser, and is free from enslavement, because of the Browns dedication and work with the people that no one else would help.
In 2004, Wahyu Susilo founded Migrant Care, a prominent Indonesian NGO that works on behalf of the estimated 4.5 million Indonesian migrant workers around the world. In fact, Migrant Care is directly responsible for the rescue of another TIP Report Hero, Elly Anita. Elly Anita was promised a job in Dubai, but was then trafficked into Iraq. Trapped inside the office of her employment company, she finally managed to escape via help from the Indonesian Embassy, who put her in contact with Migrant Care. Once freed, she returned to Indonesia and began to work for Migrant Care. Mr. Susilo began to advocate for victims of human trafficking and forced labor as early as 2000, and his voice has been influential in shaping policy in Indonesia and providing direct services to victims. Migrant Care is involved in providing legal services to victims, in spreading awareness about migrant workers and forced labor, and in helping Indonesian migrant workers to escape the trap that is so often set for them: that of slavery.
When people are desperate, they will take a job opportunity. They may take that opportunity even if it sounds too good to be true. Migrant workers are sent all over the world, often through legal channels. In order to enslave, traffickers may confiscate their documents, or use the fact that they are unfamiliar with their destination country’s language, customs, and laws. Susan Ople is well aware that migrant workers are vulnerable to this type of exploitation. There are an estimated 10 million Filipinos who live and work overseas legally. They are called ‘Overseas Filipino Workers.’ Susan Ople, and the Blas F. Ople Center, work on behalf of these workers to make sure they avoid recruiting schemes, that they are treated fairly, and that they do not end up being exploited or trafficked.
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“We had friends on that boat.”
This feature began with the recent story of a boat that capsized off of the Libyan coast. As I thought about that story, another came to mind. I first met David and Julie Brown in November of 2014. We sat at a Starbucks in Atlanta, Georgia, and talked about their work. Each story broke my heart, and each story highlighted the incredible courage the Browns have displayed in their work. Midway through our conversation, David began to tell me a story of a small zodiac boat that sank off the coast of Northern Africa. Thirty of the thirty-five occupants survived. Julie Brown turned to me and said, with tears in her eyes: “We had friends on that boat.”
Right now, there are thousands of people in Northern Africa who are turning to their friends, co-workers, and loved ones, and telling them that they had friends on the boat that sank just several weeks ago. The people who drowned off the coast of Libya, and the almost 3000 who have drowned since January, were people with families, with children, and with parents. The 10,000 that have made it may or may not be in a better situation than what they left. They are desperately fleeing famine, disease, conflict, or just poverty. They expect a better life. In order to obtain that life, they are forced to put themselves in situations that make them vulnerable. They are vulnerable to all types of exploitation, including human trafficking.
But it is not just the undocumented migrant which should worry us. As Susan Ople or Wahyu Susilo would tell us, even legal migrants may be vulnerable to exploitation. Our world is increasingly becoming one without borders, where people move and work between countries and continents. This trend will only continue, and as it does we cannot ignore the plight of the migrant. Our governments must be sensitive to their cries as they create policy, and our civil society must help people to understand, and to help those in need. Fighting against human trafficking is fighting for human dignity, regardless of nationality.