Ministry with survivors of human trafficking

Tracey Edstein met Sr Margaret Ng at a recent conference. She invited her to share something of her work with survivors of human trafficking. 

It was at a Josephite gathering in 2004 that I first heard about the plight of
young women and children who had been tricked into coming to work in Australia and had ended up being sold into sexual debt bondage. I felt a strong call then to look at the issue of human trafficking. In 2005 I came to Sydney from Perth to see what could be done to address the needs of trafficked people. This resulted in the establishment of the Josephite Counter Trafficking Project which
offers culturally sensitive support to survivors of human trafficking.

Arriving in Sydney, I found myself floundering as I had more questions than answers. I attended training courses run by Project Respect in Melbourne, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the Union of International Superior Generals (UISG) in Thailand − courses for religious working at grass roots. To familiarise myself with what was happening in Sydney I also attended court cases.

I started to develop networks locally, nationally and internationally, with others working on the issue of human trafficking to learn about the needs of those who had been trafficked (mainly from the Asia Pacific Region) while they were waiting for a witness protection visa.

It was important for government, non-government agencies and individuals to work collaboratively to protect those who had been trafficked to Australia. This occurred with the establishment of the first National Round Table meeting as part of the Government’s consultation process with stakeholders regarding human trafficking.  This included issues such as a more humanitarian visa framework, better training for prosecutors, safe, suitable and sustainable housing. Over the years I have made submissions to the Government requesting the renaming of the Criminal Justice Stay Visa for Trafficked people – the same visa given to criminals awaiting deportation.

Instances of human trafficking

One Easter a penniless mother and child were placed in a motel with no cooking facilities. I cooked for them over the long weekend. This was an issue raised at the annual advocacy visit to Canberra to address parliamentarians and government agencies. Since then the contract for support of victims of human trafficking has been given to the Red Cross.

Weekly visits have been made to Villawood Detention Centre where I met women who had been trafficked into brothels. I also met men and women who had been trafficked into the labour force. They had been arrested and detained for working illegally in a vineyard. However, most people wanted to return home quickly, to start working.

One of the ladies from Villawood Detention Centre was referred to the Federal Police and she has been granted a Witness Protection visa. It was also during my visit to Villawood that I discovered women who were victims of domestic servitude.  Domestic servitude also occurs in embassies in Canberra.

One weekend I received a phone call from a cook who had come on a 457 skills visa.  He worked long hours, was underpaid and had not received wages for three months. He had burnt his hand but his employer refused to let him go to the doctor. He was referred to me by a friend who had been in Villawood and knew about my ministry. I referred him the very next day to the Immigration Department and to the Fairwork Ombudsman in Brisbane. He and his wife returned home and have received their back pay.

Many survivors of human trafficking are traumatised and depressed, often suffering a loss of self-worth as they try to make sense of what has happened to them. Their passports are taken away, ostensibly for safe-keeping. Guilt and shame prevent them from speaking of their experience to their families. I am often asked, “Why has this happened to me?” Some resort to self-harm, alcohol or drug addiction. One lady showed me a scar on her wrist telling me that she had cut herself to take the other pain away. Endorphins alleviate the other pain.

Vulnerable women and mothers are targeted by traffickers who visit market places or villages to entice them with offers of a good education and a better life for their daughters, money to feed the family and good jobs. Why don’t they leave? They are in a foreign land, unaware of their rights and often don’t speak English. They are not free to leave because of fear of threat or harm to them and/or their families.

A student thought that she could soon buy a car for university. She was sold into a brothel for $15,000 and was told that she had to work to repay a debt of $45,000. Her passport was taken away and she could not leave because of her fear for her father’s safety. He had signed the contract and the traffickers knew where he lived.

Another lady was lured with the promise of a good education and $100 a week to help pay bank debts. Her father died when she was 12 and she left school and worked to provide for her siblings and her blind grandfather.

As Co-ordinator of Josephite Counter-Trafficking Project (JCTP), it has been a privilege to journey with
men, women and children who are survivors of human trafficking, accompanying and providing services such as informal English classes and enculturation programs. I enjoy working in partnership with the Salvation Army which provides safe accommodation for trafficked women. I visit weekly, providing culturally
sensitive support. Mentoring occurs incidentally as we share stories of how things are done in each one’s country of origin. My ability to speak Chinese, Indonesian and Bahasa Malaysia, albeit at an elementary level, is helpful.

During my visits to the Safe House we celebrate our diversity through food and sharing of cultural expectations. When trust is established the women feel free to express their frustrations and needs,
knowing full well this is held in confidence. Their experience is validated and they are encouraged to speak to their case managers, should the need arise.

Most people will not believe that slavery exists today, or could exist in Australia. Lately in the media, you may have been watching more exposé stories of modern day slavery, taking place all over the world and even here in Australia. It is real and in recent years there is growing awareness of the serious issue of forced marriage for young girls or boys and women in Australia. They have to obey their parents and some are in danger of physical harm. The biggest loss for the individual is that of being disowned and estranged from family.

I have travelled across Australia giving talks to schools, parishes and in the community to raise awareness of human trafficking in Australia and the impact of our demands for goods and services
on the lives of children who are sold into slavery, eg in the cocoa, textile and seafood industries.

Parish Against Trafficking of Humans (PATH) in Enfield was established by a dedicated group of parishioners in 2015 to try to eradicate human trafficking through prayer, advocacy, awareness-raising activities and support for trafficked people through fundraising.

Today, as members of the global village, we are challenged to look at what we can do to ensure that men, women and children are Slaves No More But Brothers and Sisters in Christ (Pope Francis).

The plight of children who have been exploited and abused is poignantly encapsulated in the following poem by Professor Eddie Mhlanga.

I cried when Mama died
There was silence
I cried when we were thrown out
There was silence
When will you be silent?
Till I be silent?
Do you love me?
You told God you care about me!

How can we be silent and not act? Together we can make a difference.

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Margaret Ng rsj Image
Margaret Ng rsj

Sr Margaret Ng is a Sister of St Joseph, and co-ordinator of Josephite Counter-Trafficking Project (JCTP). 

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