48 Slaves: Mindful Ignorance

There has been a shift in how officials view the crime of trafficking in persons; whereas it was once considered an immigration issue, more and more enforcement agencies are approaching it as a human rights violation. Efforts toward prevention of human trafficking and prosecution of traffickers are in flux. Outreach to victims is a major part of the new paradigm; young trafficked women who end up in prostitution are no longer treated like criminals. Immigrants whose papers were confiscated by their slavers no longer have so much to fear from immigration or police officials if they manage to escape or find rescue.

Public awareness efforts are also booming. Because let’s face it: there are too many people who don’t know slavery still exists today. Even the peripherally aware have no idea of the sheer scope, the numbers of trafficked persons or the profits from the sale of their flesh.

Over the last week I was fortunate enough to see “Not My Life,” a documentary about human trafficking and modern slavery around the world. Our local branch of the World Affairs Council rented out an entire theater and offered free admission to the public in order to get as wide an audience as possible. The packed house settled in for a disturbing 80-minute journey into a few realities of human suffering in the slave trade. I’d read much of what the film portrayed and though I wasn’t surprised by the facts, I was touched by the faces of those who are actually enduring this type of bondage. Tears came to my eyes more than once, but I actually gasped out loud only once — when a young woman told how she was first sold as a virgin only to have her owners sew up her vagina and sell her virginity over and over. After the film but before the credits, the screen cleared and three simple words appeared in white letters on a black background:

“Now you know.”

Over the last few weeks since I started this blog, I’ve talked about it to friends and acquaintances. Some read my posts eagerly and were interested in the topic. Others read the first one and didn’t come back. At first I was puzzled by this until I began to discuss the topic in general with others who had never read “48 Slaves.” Almost every time the other person would express revulsion and sympathy, followed quickly by discomfort, then avoidance and/or denial. Perhaps the most indifferent response I got was along the lines of, “Well you know, you have to have shoes and clothes and stuff. What’re ya gonna do?”

In most cases it took an average of 2.5 minutes for the other person to change the subject.

Many people feel sympathy and a macabre fascination with tragedy. We’ll slow down to gawk at traffic accidents, or watch the news for images from catastrophic events. But those same individuals will deliberately don blinders when it comes to slavery. We don’t want to see the truth. We don’t want to know. Because once we do, we can no longer claim ignorance. We have a responsibility to act.

Maybe they don’t hear because we’re bombarded by words and statistics on a daily basis. After a while they lose all meaning. No facts or figures can measure the harm this trade inflicts on countless souls. No words could possibly convey the horror these people face every day. We lack a realistic mental image to give the words any real impact.

So let me help you with that.

It’s easiest, perhaps, to spot the children. Young girls in brothels, or begging on the street, or carrying guns in an army, or working to mine that shiny gold you wear around your neck are immediate red flags that shout “Something is wrong here!”

The adults are harder to recognize. For all we know, slate quarry workers, miners in Ghana or brick workers could be legitimate laborers, though the conditions in which they toil are usually distasteful.

Even the conditions alone can be a clue bat for the obtuse. Toilet facilities and sleeping quarters tell a story all by themselves.

There are hundreds more online. Google “human trafficking” or “modern slavery” and select the “images” category. Many of the photos are part of blogs or news articles that detail the issue in a variety of ways. Fair warning — be prepared. If you can look at the hopeless faces in these images and not be affected, you may just be part of the problem.

Drema Deòraich (from 9/13/13; some original links no longer functional)