Imagine yourself in the middle of the ocean at night. Everything is pitch black and you are in a small boat. You are cold, and the only thing that keeps you alive is your baby son, asleep in your arms. The boat stops moving forward and water begins to flood its base. Fear grips each of your muscles. Feeling the tension in your body, your son wakes up and starts to cry. Every passing minute feels like hours. You remember how you began your journey north several years ago, in hope of finding work and supporting your family. A neighbor in your community promised to help you, but you quickly realized that it was a lie. The abuse and violence began. Finally, a boat appears with the promise to take you to the mainland.
The days that follow are a blur. People take you from one place to another and speak to you in a language that is unfamiliar to you. You sign stacks of papers, thinking you understand what they say: that they will take care of your baby until you can do so on your own; you think that seems like a good idea, you need the help. And then comes a phone call. A phone call that all of a sudden takes you back to your home country, to the horror and the violence of your trip, to the threats and the deals made on the way that you would prefer to forget. The person on the phone tells you that you must work as a prostitute in order to pay off a debt that you did not even realize you had. You want to ignore the call, but you can’t. You know that your own safety, that of your baby and that of your family depend on it. And you give in.
You don’t want to do what you’re doing, but it is your only option. You are always accompanied and rarely get to see your baby son. You talk to him over the phone and tell him to take care of himself. This is the only thing that makes it possible to live through the hardships that you face each day. You tell him that you love him, that you will be back together soon, that you just need to pay back a small amount of money and that you are working hard to earn it. You continue to tell him this until one day you are separated. They take you across Spain, from one city to another, from one street to another, from one club to another… you are rarely allowed to call him. The pain of the separation feels like a knife to your heart.
One day you call the center where you left him and they tell you that you cannot talk to your baby. They tell you he is gone. They hang up. You call again and they give you the same information. Distraught, you lose your papers, you yell, you become furious, you cry…. You are in such a state that your captors agree to take you to him. A woman accompanies you as a translator (and a guard). You arrive and the people you thought were helping you and taking care of your baby tell you that you cannot see him anymore. He is with another family. Upon hearing this, you realize your cruel reality. Only now, it is much more painful, because you have lost your son.
Human trafficking is a continuous violation of the human rights of women and children
Sadly, the narrative above is the true story of a woman from Sub-Saharan Africa. To protect her identity, we will call her Beauty. A couple of years ago, her case arrived at Women´s Link Worldwide, an international human rights organization that uses the power of the law to promote social change that favors the rights of women and children. Among many things, Women’s Link works to guarantee the rights of female victims of human trafficking, particularly those who suffer from sexual exploitation.
The case of Beauty is not an isolated incident. Rather, it is one of many examples of the human rights violations suffered by women and girls who arrive in Europe. They are used, often sexually exploited, and do not receive adequate attention from authorities.
Human trafficking has been explained by the United Nations as:
[T]he transfer of human beings from one place to another within the borders of the same country or to another country for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced labor and begging. […] The consent of the victim is irrelevant because it is usually obtained through deception, threats, the use of force and other forms of coercion such as kidnapping, fraud, abuse of power or taking advantage of the victim’s situation of vulnerability.
The most technical definition is found in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (known more colloquially as the Palermo Protocol.)
Beyond legal definitions, human trafficking is a cruel phenomenon and a form of slavery that destroys the lives, aspirations and dreams of women and girls, who represent the majority of victims. It is very difficult to list the human rights violations they undergo, because there are so many. One could say that all their rights are violated, beginning with the rights to live free from violence; to be protected from slavery or forced labor; to physical and mental integrity; the right to freedom, including freedom of movement; the right to health, including sexual and reproductive health; and the right to fair work and to decent working conditions where one is not discriminated against because of gender. This list of rights should also include the right to life, because the violent reality of trafficking sometimes takes away even this most basic of all human rights.
The obligations of states to protect female victims of trafficking
Unfortunately, human trafficking is also an illegal and lucrative business, just behind drug trafficking and weapon smuggling. Trafficking networks – some vast and extensively organized – deceive and subject millions of people to exploitation every day. Victims should not face this reality alone. They should receive protection from nation-states around the world, as established by international law.
Sadly, this protection does not often reach the victim. We see this in the case of Beauty. The authorities ignore or want to ignore that a woman is a victim of human trafficking.
And many times protection fails, especially in cases like that of Beauty. It fails because of our own prejudices and stereotypes and our inability to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person, to understand another reality that is different from our own, and to comprehend other experiences and other cultures. And what is worse, oftentimes little weight is given to these cases.
In Spain, women like Beauty, who are black and victims of human trafficking for sexual purposes, are still deeply discriminated against by many public officials, including the police, administration and judicial authorities. The discrimination is based on multiple aspects, such as the color of their skin, their gender and their status. The European Court of Human Rights manifested this in the sentence B.S. vs. Spain, when it condemned Spain and recognized the extreme vulnerability experienced by African women in the country.
The authorities refused to recognize Beauty as a victim of human trafficking. Instead, they limited themselves and defined her as a prostitute who did not visit her son enough and who was not able to take care of her child. Without fully investigating her situation, they labeled her as a “bad mother” and rapidly began the adoption process to put her son in the care of a Spanish family.
Although it may seem that many of us have a limited role to play in combatting gross human rights violations such as those Beauty went through, we must at least know that they are taking place. This is not an isolated phenomenon. There are thousands of women, men, boys and girls who victims of human trafficking around the world and in our own countries. The woman we crossed paths with on the street last night and who seemed to be offering sexual services could well be in the same situation: a hidden victim of human trafficking. We should, at minimum, be aware of this issue and be sensitive to it.
(For more information about the human trafficking of women and girls, see the reports prepared by Women’s Link Worldwide on this topic.)
This is a non-profit explanation.