The human cost of slave trade
Paul Kalina
23 October 2003

Human trafficking, say a new film, is not a migration matter. Paul Kalina reports.

Each year, about 900,000 women and children are trafficked across international borders, many of them ending up as indentured slaves in the sex industry. An estimated 1000 of these women, mostly from Asia, are "sold" into Australian brothels.

A United Nations consultant recently delivered a scathing assessment of Australia's approach to the problem. Australian authorities, Brian Iselin told a parliamentary committee, stifled the chance of fighting trafficking by treating it as a migration offence.

Until recently, concurs filmmaker Chris Hilton, Australia lagged behind the rest of the world in pegging the victims of illegal trafficking not as victims of a crime but "as migrants to be deported".

On the eve of the broadcast of Dying to Leave, Hilton and co-director Aaron Woolf's brave though often distressing documentary on people-smuggling, Justice Minister Chris Ellison announced a $20 million initiative aimed at helping sex-slave victims and hunting down the criminal elements behind the trafficking.

Sadly for some, the initiative came too late. Hilton hoped to include in his film an account of what happened to 15 Thai women who were deported after a raid on a Melbourne brothel in May. "Those women, when they are deported, are back in the arms of organised crime and could be retrafficked to Australia or some other country or they may be dead. We sent a researcher to Thailand to try to find out what happened to these women but we were unsuccessful in finding anyone," Hilton says.

Dying to Leave focuses on geographically diverse people and their epic journeys. Faris Kadhem, a survivor of the SIEV X tragedy (his wife and daughter drowned when the overcrowded trawler sank), enlisted the assistance of various people smugglers to reach Australia, where he is now a temporary resident. Nina Matveyenko left her home and son in the former Soviet Union republic Moldova for a job in Italy, only to be sold into prostitution soon after crossing the border. Antonio Martinez was the victim of a scam who barely survived a trek through the Mexican desert, his journey ending at a Florida tomato plantation where illegal workers are paid $3 an hour.

The documentary was half-funded by US public television, where it aired several weeks ago with an introduction by Hillary Clinton. Hilton and Woolf worked through benevolent networks, such as the International Organisation for Migration, to find their subjects.

Hilton says his aim was to tell the personal stories.

"That's what moves people. The issues behind it are global and rather dry in a way; they're about economics, the end of the Cold War, topics that only interested people tend to think about. We wanted to interweave those personal stories and then, at points where you wanted to understand the bigger picture, push that through as well."

Many potential subjects were too intimidated to talk. For reasons that soon become evident, Colombian Marcela Palacios, who was forced into prostitution in Japan to pay off a fictitious debt, has been revoiced and her face masked.

Also, says Hilton, "we were surprised Nina would talk. As you see in the film, Italian police guard the refuge where those women live in fear of Mafia reprisals. We decided not to show her son's face. As we were finishing the film we thought about the Japanese Yakuza who had trafficked 400 women from Colombia and got off with a very light sentence. I wondered how long the arm of the Yakuza is."

Apart from acknowledging the involvement of well-organised crime syndicates in the global people-smuggling racket, one of the most distressing perspectives in Dying to Leave is the connection between smuggling, slavery and globalisation. The offer of a lucrative job abroad is used to attract poor and vulnerable women, who are forced into dangerous jobs and made to pay off their debt amid threats and intimidation to themselves and their families. One expert in the film estimates that the "captive labour" market today represents twice the number of people taken from Africa in 350 years of slavery.

"It is modern-day slavery that is born out of the inequities of the global economy, globalisation, trans-national communication, transportation," says Hilton. "It's a very modern phenomenon, but in many ways very old, too. As old as humanity itself."

The problem isn't going away, he laments. "Poor people are dying on the borders of the rich countries of Europe, the US and Australia. And yet those who slip through as a result of organised crime suffer silently behind walls in our very neighbourhoods."

He argues Australia should give visas to victims of trafficking in exchange for testifying against their traffickers, as is the case in other countries such as Italy and the Netherlands.

"In Australia, given our strict immigration policies, I imagine we'd offer temporary refuge if you testify against a trafficker, and then maybe get deported. But then what happens to you?"

It comes down to seeing migration as a human rights matter, Hilton believes.

"The whole migration issue needs to be seen in Australia through a human rights lens, rather than a migration or legalistic lens."

Dying to Leave screens on Tuesday at 8.30pm on SBS


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