Sunday October 30, 2011
Into the lair of traffickers
By HARIATI AZIZAN
Siddarth Kara could have made a lot of money on Wall Street but after completing his MBA at the Columbia Business School in early 2000, the former investment banker decided to go down another path.
“DRUG trafficking generates greater revenue, but trafficked women are more profitable. Unlike a drug, a human female does not have to be grown, cultivated, distilled or packaged. Unlike a drug, a human female can be used by the customer again and again.”
— Siddarth Kara, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery
AT a crossroads in his life, Siddarth Kara became haunted by the words of a 13-year-old Bosnian refugee he had met when he was 19.
“Her name is Alma. I was volunteering at a Bosnian refugee camp in 1995 where many refugees told me about how the Serbs went into their villages and executed the men, and raped the women and girls before trafficking them to the brothels across Europe,” recalls Kara, now 37.
Alma only spoke to him on his last day at the camp, he says. “She tugged at my sleeve, pulled me aside and started to tell me about how the Serbs had killed her dad and taken her mother and older sister away. She said she had hoped to see her mother and sister again but after hearing the stories the other refugees told me, she was afraid of what might have happened to them.
“She then said, ‘I want people to know what happened here, what my mother and sister went through. Please tell our story when you go back to the United States.’”
Kara says it was a lot for him to handle back then. Years later, the harrowing tales of the Bosnian women came back to him and he decided that the time had come to tell their story.
With savings from his earlier corporate career, Kara embarked on a research trip that took him to the villages of Myanmar and brothels of Thailand and shelters for victims in Moldavia and Mexico.
He conducted over 270 interviews with sex trafficking victims as well as their traffickers, customers, families and the activists working on the issue.
In between interviews, he returned to the US to get more money to fund his research.
Pondering on how to best convey the stories he had collected, Kara decided to tap into his finance, economics and law background.
“I’ve been to more than two dozen countries and heard the frustrations and observations of the victims. I wanted their voices to be heard – personal stories always help to raise awareness in people – but I also wanted to get a discourse started with academics and policymakers. For that, an analysis is needed.”
The outcome was Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, which mixes narratives of the victims and a detailed account of his (Kara’s) journey with a business analysis of the phenomenon. It was published in 2009 and went on to bag the 2010 Frederick Douglass Book Award for the most outstanding non-fiction book on slavery and anti-slavery movements.
Sex Trafficking is the first in a series of three books Kara is writing to provide some analysis about the mode and function of modern-day slavery or human trafficking in the world today. His second book, which looks at bondage labour in the South Asian continent, is currently under peer review and will be published soon.
While he jokes that he sometimes misses his former Wall Street salary, Kara is resolved to devoting his life to research on human trafficking. In 2009, he was appointed the first Fellow on Human Trafficking at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy. He currently advises the United Nations and several governments on anti-slavery research, policy and law.
Kara was recently in Malaysia and Singapore to share his knowledge and experience with the local authorities and agencies. In Kuala Lumpur, he met with the Home Ministry’s National Anti-Trafficking-in-Persons Council, the A-G Chambers and the Bar Council.
He fields questions from The Star in an interview.
> To most people, slavery was abolished in the 19th century, so the term “modern-day slavery” is alien. What does it really mean?
Yes, the use of the term in the modern context can be a little confusing as it is often misused to sensationalise the issue.
Slavery in its original context refers to the legal rights of ownership of another person and the exercising of power over that person based on that right of ownership.
Slavery does not exist any more but a similar exploitation is happening today – people are being coerced into labour and services through violence and threats while their personal liberties are restricted.
> Human trafficking is also seen as a faraway problem by many, especially in developed countries like the US. How can we change their perception?
I think the first thing to clarify is that it is not a problem that is far away; it is a problem that affects almost every country in the world. More importantly, human trafficking is intricately wrapped up in the global economy.
Numerous products have supply chains that are tainted by all sorts of labour exploitation, forced servitude and human trafficking – fish, coffee, tea, rice, apparel, minerals, the list goes on. So, human trafficking very directly touches everybody no matter where you are in the world, because we are living in a global economy and using the same products.
> Although sex slaves represent only a small portion of modern-day slavery, you chose to focus on sex trafficking in your first book. Why?
Sex slavery is by far the most profitable form of slavery. Even though only 4% of human trafficking victims are sex trafficking victims, they generate almost 40% of total profits in human trafficking (estimated at some RM292bil a year). Sex trafficking is also exceedingly barbaric – sex slaves suffer various forms of torture from whips, cigarette burns to starvation as well as innumerable counts of rape – some are raped 10, 15, 20 times a day.
> Is there anyone else you met and interviewed for your book who marked you deeply?
You’ll be surprised, I remember almost all of them. Name a country I’ve been to for my first book and I can tell you who I met and what their story is.
There are many girls I met in the shelters of Western Europe and Asia who I wish I can meet again to see how they are doing. The lucky ones get back home and try to get their lives back on track but unfortunately many get re-trafficked.
> Were you in any danger during your research?
I had a few close calls with traffickers and exploiters, which was dangerous, but I took extra care with my interviewees because I did not want to put anyone at risk. I could escape but they couldn’t; if it was exposed that they had spoken to me, they could have been severely punished.
> What were the other challenges you faced during your research?
It wasn’t easy to get to the places where people might be exploited, figuring out who the victims of trafficking are, and tracing them. You have to go to places again and again to see what is going on and how to get access.
One place that I’ve wanted to go to for many years is Nigeria. It took me almost six years to get the right connections to go there, which I did last January.
> How was the response to your book when it was first published?
It was by and large positive because it was really one of the first attempts to provide an analysis of the issue. Previous books and reports have focused more on the narrative and anecdotes as they were mainly trying to raise awareness and share with people that bad things were happening.
I’m trying in my series of three books to provide some analysis about how it is happening, the mode and function of trafficking and slavery in the modern context. Without an analysis, we cannot have a proper debate and discussion on what laws and policies to craft to address the issue.
> In the book, you highlighted the need to look at sex slavery in an economic context to eradicate it – by addressing the demand and supply side. How can we cut demand?
We need to penalise exploiters and consumers economically. Sure, you can still try to change their attitude – sensitise them, raise their awareness of how this is not okay – but it is not going to change anything soon. With the number of men who think it is okay to purchase a 12-year-old girl, for example, it will be difficult to change their minds. But if you punish them economically, they might think twice before making any purchases. Even if they think it’s okay, it will not make any economic sense to them any more and they will stop.
> How can we cut the supply?
The supply is driven by forces that have existed for centuries, like poverty, bias against gender and ethnicity, lawlessness, corruption, population and displacement. Many find it difficult to resist when traffickers come in with offers of opportunities to earn, because their other option is starvation.
Unfortunately, we cannot solve world poverty so easily. It will take a long time, but in the meantime we cannot just wait to solve the human trafficking problem. That is why I believe we need to focus on the demand side first and punish the exploiters. If you dry up the demand, you can dismantle an industry.
> Some countries feel that the US is imposing their values where human trafficking is concerned.
I don’t think that this issue can or should be seen as an imposition of values. We have a shared value that people should not be held in bondage and servitude. It is really not a cultural thing.
The exact way of combating the issue, from one country to another, will be different due to differences in resources, law and economy and this is where we need sensitivity when dealing with it across borders.
There cannot be a standard blanket approach on how to combat human trafficking in the world. However, there are basic elements that we need to agree on – the protection and care of victims, and punishment for the traffickers.
> Why did you not include Malaysia in your research?
This is primarily due to my limited time and resources as well as contacts. I have met many individuals trafficked to and from countries south of Thailand, including Malaysia, so I hope to conduct extensive research here some time in the future.
> In your opinion, how is Malaysia faring in the fight against human trafficking? How can we improve our efforts?
In Malaysia, there are encouraging signs. When the plane touched down in KLIA, there was an announcement in the cabin that drug and human trafficking are serious crimes in Malaysia.
That’s the first time I’ve heard it announced like that anywhere in the world.
The government officials I met are aware of the issue and are genuinely interested in combating it, and I can’t say that about all the countries I’ve been to.
There is also receptiveness to learn new ways to combat trafficking and to better understand the problem.
Perhaps what is lacking is real research into the human trafficking situation in Malaysia. Real research needs to be done to understand the scale, scope, and function of human trafficking to/from/within Malaysia.
This will give us tools – suitable laws and policies – to specifically target the human trafficking activity here. For one, Malaysians are being trafficked too.
Another point is that I think the crimes of smuggling in persons and trafficking in persons need to be further clarified under Malaysian law, especially under the 2010 amendment to the 2007 Trafficking in Persons Act.
There is a confusion (in the law) that may make it more difficult to identify and protect victims, and ultimately prosecute offenders.
> How would you rate public awareness on human trafficking in the world now?
People, in any country, are much more aware now than when I started my research 11 years ago. Then, when you mentioned human trafficking, many think it has something to do with vehicular traffic violation. Now it is different.
In the US for instance, there is more coverage in the mainstream media. It is covered by news and featured on TV shows like CSI and Law and Order as well as in Hollywood. movies.
> In your opinion, how has the rising public awareness translated into real action against human trafficking?
Real action is still a challenge, especially since not all awareness is good awareness. Awareness needs to be tied to some understanding of what is actually happening, how human trafficking is happening, and what we can actually do about it.
That has been the gap – tying the awareness to the arguments and actions of lawmakers and policymakers. That is what I am trying to do with my work.
> What can the ordinary person do?
The most important thing is that the consumers need to say ‘I want to know.’ That is the job of the ordinary consumer, to demand for information that the product they are buying is clear of these violations and exploitation.
> Since it is such a big problem, is it possible to fully eradicate human trafficking?
Bigger battles have been fought and won through sheer human will in history. Imagine the force of human will it took to break the shackles of colonialism around the world. Human trafficking is much smaller in scale. With enough resources, political will and sustained effort, it is possible to have a global framework to combat human trafficking.