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Battling the trade in misery

Trafficked fishermen return to Cambodia in January after being made to work without pay on Thai fishing boats for more than two years.

Every day, I am reminded of our shrinking world.

The speed at which desperation and hope can be transmitted across the globe is amazing.

Articulate survivors of human trafficking inspire us, while the tragedy of their plight evokes compassion.

The pain of those who are deceived into situations of exploitation is tangible; it can be measured in physical and mental scars, time away from loved ones, and the loss of trust and hope.

Revealing stories prompt responses to injustice and remind us that people should not be used as goods for sale, highlighting the need for laws that really work.

But this is not enough. Human dignity is worth fighting for, and involves more than just a legislative response.

We all have a role and responsibility in ending the suffering of trafficking victims. Governments can legislate and implement, but indifference cannot be outlawed.

Being witness to unfolding stories of tragedy acts as a spur to those who fight for change.

I found this many years ago working with children in Cambodia as young as 10 who had been trafficked into prostitution.

For a period, one in four victims that World Vision supported in a shelter was HIV-positive. 

We supported several children through the last stages of their lives.

I recall the challenge of unclear legal status, discrimination and stigma in helping children return to their families and communities.

It was painful but necessary work, and I respect those who stood with the poor when it would have been easier to turn away.

Pain helps the body protect itself by responding to distress. The danger is that distress is ignored or not recognised, increasing the trauma.

The same is true of a country. Martin Luther King Jr, in his quest for change, observed: “Morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated.”

It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless – and action to this end is needed on the dark practice of trading in human lives.

The good news is that governments are increasingly active in their response.

Delegates from the governments of Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam came together with partners in Hanoi last week during the Co-ordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative against Trafficking (COMMIT) meeting, reviewing actions they have taken to help trafficking victims.

Greater recognition of human need has been achieved since COMMIT was agreed between the six countries in 2004.

I well remember the first official repatriation from Cambodia to Vietnam in the late 1990s, which took 11 months to complete in the absence of protocols and procedures.

This challenge has been met with greater co-operation since then, with government agreements on repatriation now in place.

But in spite of this progress, budget shortages, insufficient staffing and inadequate service delivery are still areas for further action.

The recognition of human dignity that underpins response has broader ownership and extends beyond government responsibility.

That is not to say governments should be excused from their roles as duty-bearers accountable for a country’s commitments. It is to say that responses to address must extend to all of us.

The question we should all ask ourselves is, “How can we link our dignity to the dignity of those in need?”

History shows that indifference results in poor treatment of those less able to protect themselves.

Actions that build the well-being of all for the benefit of all involve many actors.

The private sector can choose to apply principles of corporate social responsibility to review their supply chains and ensure they are free from trafficked labour.

Consumers, likewise, can choose to buy products and services that are free of trafficked labour.

Campaigns on fair trade have resulted in people being prepared to pay more for products to ensure they are free from exploitation.

Opinion-formers in the media have a role in building awareness, as do faith-based leaders in the community.

They can share knowledge on laws, the right of protection that extends to all, and highlight need if a group is targeted by traffickers.

Young people also have a role as they become active in society.

A youth movement in Australia called Vision Generation (V Gen) has mobilised its peers to influence the Australian government on its response to trafficking, both in Australia and globally.

Young people from Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam have communicated effectively with their governments on issues of migration and human trafficking through the Mekong Youth Forum.

One young person had the chance to share stories directly with high-ranking  officials during last week’s COMMIT meeting and present the recommendations of the gathered young people from six countries.

Sharing stories like this provides the impetus to drive change.

When actors at many levels hear these stories and value the dignity of others, we become a source of hope for change to drive away the darkness of trafficking.

For more information on human trafficking, go to

Laurence Gray leads World Vision’s Advocacy and Justice for Children in Southeast Asia.



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