Monthly Archives: October 2016

The “Traffickingdom” of Cambodia: Rose Ahier

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As we drove through the dusty, bustling streets of Siem Reap, bare-footed children ran after our vehicle and began knocking at our window, eager for money. The word “corruption” hadn’t held much meaning to me until I saw it prevailing through Cambodia in every aspect. And it was impossible to ignore. Even when eating out in a restaurant, mothers eyed us as their children sat at our feet, begging and weeping “no food”. Neon-lit karaoke bars blasted tasteless pop, full of 14 year old girls awaiting their nightly income. The high streets teemed with promoters from the local brothels. It was a hard hitting reality that Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking.

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The Facts

Cambodia is perceived to be the most corrupt country in South East Asia[1]. With over a quarter of its population being illiterate[2] and 18.6% living below the national poverty line (less than £1 a day)[3], forced labour and sexual exploitation affects lives every day. The young working in brothels are sex slaves; they receive no money, only food, and armed guards stop them from running away and inflict torture. One of the common myths about human trafficking is that it only affects women. This is not to say we should ignore the female victims of debt bondage who get sold as possessions to brothels. However, there needs to be more awareness for the men subjected to forced labour through the agriculture and fishing industry, and children as young as 5 years old who are sold as sex slaves, making up 1/3 of trafficking victims in prostitution, as these are present and on-going issues.

How did it end up like this?

It was only 50 years ago that Cambodia gained its independence from France in 1953, and had a booming population of 7 million. On the 17 April 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized the Capital City, Phnom Pehn, and began the massacre of 2 million lives. Led by Pol Pot, leader of the Cambodian Communist party, the government began a radical experiment to create an agrarian utopia; Cambodia was to be “purified” into an extreme form of peasant Communism.
The Khmer Rouge aimed to create “Year Zero”, and saw cities as a cause of capitalism that therefore had to be demolished. The ideal was a perfect agrarian society, where everyone is a peasant and equal, and society functions via a shared, communal system. There were to be no crimes, deceit, trickery, or Western influence. The ‘new people’ were those who were educated: doctors, teachers, even people who wore glasses, which were seen as a sign of intelligence and “the root of all capital evil”. They were all killed. Education was banned because it was thought to clutter minds with useless information, and distract people from being simple and hardworking. For this reason, all forms of media, religion and money were abolished. Science, technology, medicine and mechanics were also all viewed as forms of evil. The new society, “The Angkar”, was to be self-reliant, without law and order, resulting in the production of surpluses of rice. This incomprehensible genocide was out to bring Democratic Kampuchea to its past.

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“To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.” (Khmer Rouge slogan)

Anyone living in a city was immediately driven out and forced into slave labour in the “killing fields”. For those who weren’t immediately executed for being foreign, educated, religious or disabled, workdays were 4am until 10pm harvesting in the rice fields. After the rice was harvested, it was immediately confiscated in trucks and the workers were left to starve, meaning many died from overwork, malnutrition, disease and often suicide. Anyone who was a threat to the Angkar was killed because the Angkar owned everything and private ownership was abolished. Families were split up and never reunited. The Khmer soldiers forced men to work for their lives and then they raped their wives and children. Corpses lay across the villages so disease spread fast.

Looking Forward

The overwhelming effects of this mass devastation still taint the Kingdom of Cambodia today. From 1975, 260,000 refugees fled to Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, or were settled in the States. Families were lost and Cambodia became known as “the land of orphans”. An entire generation of people were wiped out, and today over 50% of Cambodia’s population are under the age of 21. These people are hopeful and are eager for prosperity. Although the poverty rate in Cambodia has more halved in the past 10 years[4], it still exists and people are close to slipping back into it. 90% of teachers were killed under rule of the Khmer Rouge, thus a generation of Cambodians grew up illiterate and the education system today has been developed from scratch. Cambodians are fleeing as illegal immigrants to Thailand as if through an open dam, due to Cambodia’s low salaries and unemployment in order to feed their families. As a result, children are abandoned and enter poverty. The lack of education makes it hard for parents to find jobs and make a living: daughters are sold to brothels to pay off debt. Children are seen as property of the family, to which they must contribute. The lack of education means many are deceived and cannot make informed choices, leading to abduction and abuse by human traffickers. It is unfortunately an easy profit despite violating the victim’s rights. The Government of Cambodia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking due to the corruption in the judiciary and police system, therefore there is an increasing demand for NGO’s to provide services and meet the country’s basic needs.

My reflections

I went out to work with a NGO called Cambodian Hope Organisation (CHO), whose primary aim is to restore Cambodia and help create strong hope-filled communities. Our work was based in Poipet, an area located on the Thai-Cambodia border, renown for trafficking and gambling, and where child trafficking is an increasing problem. Traffickers target children and cross into the Thai border illegally through rivers and rice fields, where they are exploited for labour, sex, begging and drug smuggling, and seen as purely a source of income. However, this is illegal and extremely dangerous, as a local we were working with testified to us that early that day 13 people were shot by police when trying to cross the border in a minibus, yet their death was passed off as a road traffic accident. By increasing the possibilities and opportunities in Poipet, children and their parents are less likely to be enticed over the border to Thailand.
One of the projects we worked on was school-on-a-mat, a free primary education service that provides education and a safe space for children at risk of exploitation while their parents work over the border in Thailand. Keeping the children in school not only gives them an education but provides future employment opportunities and discourages the children from begging on the streets or trafficking. CHO also promote awareness of child trafficking through visits to public schools, churches and village authorities on the border, running two education programs in child trafficking and domestic violence. Local children and their parents also receive lessons in trafficking recognition, which further decreases their vulnerability. It is essential that it is not merely the human traffickers who are targeted, but the establishment of preventative measures that are sustainable for the wider community.

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To conclude, political corruption from over 40 years ago still means humans have lost their self-worth today. It is hard to witness the brokenness of a country filled with such potential, but the people of Cambodia aren’t giving up. We shouldn’t either.

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Rose Ahier

 

References:

  1. Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index
  2. 2008 National Population Census
  3. Cambodia Country Poverty Analysis 2014, Asian Development Bank
  4. http://www.worldbank.org/

 

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Keep your rosaries off my ovaries: Poland’s fight for reproductive rights

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Women’s rights are human rights. This statement might seem obvious, but considering the extensive restrictions that police the female body, it is apparent that women continue to be viewed as possessions that can -and should- be moulded, shaped and spoken on behalf of in order to fulfil varying sets of cultural and religious ideologies.

Recently, negative reactions to the proposed total abortion ban in Poland saw the cities of Warsaw, Gdansk, Wroclaw, Lodz and Krakow erupt in protest on what was dubbed as “Czarny Poniedziałek” (“Black Monday”). Over 30,000 participants gathered throughout the predominantly Catholic nation on the 3rd of October wearing black, in a stand against the proposal of a new abortion law supported by the current PiS (Law and Justice) Government. Many women also refused to attend school and work in imitation of a strike that occurred in Iceland 40 years ago. In 1975 an incredible 90% of the female population of Iceland boycotted their usual jobs (including paid employment, domestic duties and childcare), in order that the male population experience the extensive workload that burdens women on a day-to-day basis.

Less than one week after the protests in Poland, it appears that campaigners have managed to collectively steer an almighty U-turn that has not only radically changed public opinion on abortion rights there, but has made its mark internationally as women’s organisations, student groups and others worldwide stand in solidarity to support these women. It has also resulted in a wave of campaigns that call for the liberalisation of Poland’s already restrictive abortion rights.

Women are currently granted the right to terminate a pregnancy in the event of rape, incest, a threat to the mother’s health, or if the baby will be born permanently handicapped. The new proposal intends to entirely prohibit the practise, excluding only if continuing with a pregnancy would put the woman’s life in “direct” danger.

With many Polish women already travelling to Germany or Slovakia to have the process carried out illegally, it is deeply troubling to consider how these figures would rise in the event of a total ban. Making abortion illegal will not prevent its practice, but would see more women travelling abroad and seeking unsafe illegal terminations. It was also revealed that, as part of the new legislation, women would face 5 years in prison for having an abortion, doctors involved would also face jail time, and, most disturbingly, women who suffered miscarriages would be subject to “investigation”.

A violation of human rights, this proposal is just one example of how women’s bodies are controlled and monitored. The restriction of women’s free choice in what should wholeheartedly be their decision regardless of the circumstances is no new occurrence, but in this case the uniting of women under a common interest of standing up for their reproductive rights has set the wheels in motion to push the Polish authorities a small way towards liberation.

Whilst I hope it isn’t entirely necessary to detail the reasons as to why abortion should be a case for individual choice, and whilst I wholeheartedly believe that women shouldn’t ever have to justify their personal decisions to have an abortion, here is a reminder of just three reasons why banning it is an ugly restriction of human rights:

Rape:

Personal autonomy is violently snatched away during and as a consequence of rape; to continue violating the rights of a woman following an incident like this is nothing short of inhumane.

Money:

What if you were in poverty, struck with the knowledge that you are expecting a child, when you already know you are without the means to look after it and give it the life it deserves? What if you were on such a low income that the only option was to seek an illegal, unsafe abortion?

Women can’t help being women:

As much as society likes to blame women for, um, being women, surely a woman has the authority and conscience to make the right decision (regarding her own body) for her and her family.

By the looks of it, the women of Poland are not giving up the fight and protests continue throughout the country, with the ruling party leader returning to the board room to further discuss the legislation.

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Image result for my body my rights

Humanity, has it really got any?

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Guest poet and musician Eddy Morton of the West Midlands expresses his thoughts on the Syrian crisis in this powerful piece:

Humanity, has it really got any? It must be an oxymoron

Where will it end, heaven Knows
A Syrian doctor in a German Town
His two children their minds destroyed
By guns and tanks and bombs and savagery
As their father battled to stem the flow of blood,
Casualties and dead, swimming around
The shattered ruins of Aleppo, his once home town

Humanity, has it really got any, it must be an oxymoron

It’s not hard to follow the tracks of their tears
Through the desert of a hundred years
A Tragedy in a sea of faces on an ancient Greek shore
People ask, Why are they coming here, what are they fighting for?
History the great orchestrator, the baton wield
The alchemist of war and the Magister of polity
Plays four dimensional chess in a multi-dimensional world
The cogs turn, the moves are made, the machine grinds on its gears

Humanity, has it really got any, it must be an oxymoron

Somewhere In the Cradle of Civilisation
The colour book, palm topped Babylonian paradise
Of Thesiger’s Marsh Arabs, BOAC and psychoPathe Newsreels
We were always pouring petrol on the fire
Oiling the wheels of war and privilege
Small wonder that Middle Eastern minds
Turn to Religion and revolution
And sends its children in a wave of fatal retribution

Humanity, has it really got any, it must be an oxymoron.

 

Eddie Morton

European Refugee Crisis: A Call to Action

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Ben Grant-Foale calls for a revision of foreign policy to foster compassion, empathy and tolerance.

Imagine being forced from your home. Without warning you must step onto a boat and leave your country and all that you hold dear. After days of travel you finally arrive in a strange land. You have no ties to this place and are completely reliant on the generosity and kindness of its people. But you are not even allowed to find a job until you are recognised as a refugee. It is difficult to comprehend the sense of trepidation and anxiety you would feel, but this is the inescapable reality for millions of people. Too often we see the refugee crisis through the prism of dehumanising statistics and fail to engage with the plight of individuals. Of course it is important to recognise the massive scale of the crisis, but it is also imperative that we put ourselves in their position to fully empathise.

The goal of politicians such as Nigel Farage is to limit our capacity to do this. To peddle his nationalistic narrative he employs falsehoods and provocations that present immigrants and refugees as the source of the world’s ills. His ‘Breaking Point’ poster in the run up to the EU referendum was a prime example, casting refugees as parasites that would overwhelm Britain. This sort of scapegoating has been used throughout history. We are all guilty of stereotypes and Farage’s unseemly tactics are an ugly extension of our tendency to assign characteristics and behaviours to different people, resulting in prejudice and fear. Donald Trump also employs these tactics, promising to ‘build a wall’ around America and ban Muslims from entering the United States. The incoherence and hatred of these policies become irrelevant when people feel as though their national identity has become diluted by the foreign ‘other’.

David Cameron also fed this prejudice, dismissing refugees as a ‘bunch of migrants’ in an attempt at political point-scoring against Jeremy Corbyn. Such callousness reveals the rationale behind his decision to only allow 20,000 refugees to enter Britain within the next five years, despite Germany accepting one million in 2015 alone. And it was only after the dead body of Aylan Kurdi washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean that he agreed to help any refugees, showing his cynical approach to the crisis.

Although the European Union promised a compassionate response to refugees, the outbreak of deaths in the Mediterranean has challenged their commitment. Research from Lorenzo Pezzani has found that the Italian government’s decision to end the Mare Nostrum rescue mission and switch to the EU border force Frontex has led to more deaths. Various reports found that the number of rescue missions dramatically decreased and the training and equipment were of a poor standard. The quality of the rescue boats were also shown to be woefully inadequate, as 400 people died due to overcrowding on 12th April 2015.

Our current Prime Minister has also failed to adequately respond to the crisis. During her time as Home Secretary Theresa May took a hard-line approach to refugees, refusing to guarantee citizenship to asylum-seekers. One of her first acts as Prime Minister was to scrap the post for newly arrived Syrian refugees, showing that the crisis is not even a marginal concern for the government.

It is now our moral imperative to try and shift our foreign policy in an outward-looking, compassionate direction that embraces respect for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity and gender. Our response to the refugee crisis should be a platform on which we attempt to do this. Only then can Britain justly say that it has lived up to its much-vaunted principles of tolerance and decency.

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Photo by Freedom House (flickr, Public Domain)