Journalism on Human Trafficking by Liam Flaherty

by tuftsigl
Jan 15

Today I was able interview two very enlightening professionals dealing with the issue of human trafficking: Toos Hemskerk, a professional social worker and director of the INGO Not For Sale in the Netherlands, and Maarten Abelman, the head of the Dutch Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children.

I met Mrs. Heemskerk at her restaurant in Amsterdam, Dignita (Latin for worth/dignity/self-respect), which at first appeared to be a normal café. It wasn’t until she pointed it out to me to I began to understand that most everyone working there, in the kitchen and at the counter, were survivors from sex trafficking. Mrs. Heemskerk explained how many of these trafficked men and women who make it out of the red-light district and are given the Dutch B-8 visa for being survivors of trafficking (there were 250 afforded in 2013) end up going to the safe-houses, where they are given food, water, and counseling, but no way to prepare for integrating effectively into society. Many are taken at young ages, mostly from poorer regions in Eastern Europe, and have no legitimate job skills or qualifications to move into casual work. Work, furthermore, brings a sense of purpose to one’s life, which is especially important for these victims who are often depressed and suffer with PTSD. As Mrs. Heemskerk pointed out, “When you nothing to do, then you get more depressed.” What Not For Sale does in the Netherlands is train survivors of sex trafficking with technical skills to help them pursue careers and develop new lives for themselves. The work is largely culinary, both running the café on the outskirts of Amsterdam and selling soup at their shop in the red-light district. Over the past 3 years, they have trained 120 women of 39 different nationalities, with 13 women working for them when we talked. The skills that these women gain there can guide them further in their careers, as they offer diplomas upon completion of a three stage training process as well as linguistic training in both Dutch and English, computer training, and training in resume writing. When asked what the most satisfying part of her work is, Mrs. Heemskerk responded, “To see that they build up their own lives again… I want them to become independent. They are so strong in so many ways, and that should be the strength to build up their futures.” I paid Mr. Abelman a visit at his office in the Hague, the Netherlands’ political center, where he meet me in the lobby of his office building. We had an hour discussion, where he explained many of outstanding questions I had about the legal premise of Dutch anti-trafficking and the purpose of many of their initiatives.

The Dutch rapporteur is a system of independent government institutions that do extensive research and inquiry, where they then publish their reports for parliament. Mr. Abelman has been the head of the Dutch Rapporteur of Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children since 2012. According to him, 70 to 80% of their recommendations are being followed by parliament. He talked extensively about the difficulty of finding accurate data on the subject, partially due to the extensive and versatile nature of the crime, but also because of ambiguities surrounding it. In many cases, even when someone is clearly being exploited, they may not want to be found, making it even more difficult to quantify. In the example Mr. Abelman used, if a worker on a ship is making 5€ a day, he’s clearly being exploited, but if that money is the sustenance for his family back home, then he’s desperately not going to want to be found by the police. The issue is so multi-faceted, that often times it’s difficult to pin-down.

Our conversation was very enriching for me, and we hit on a variety of different subjects related to human trafficking. One of the most interesting questions to me, which has been difficult to analyze due to the inadequate amount of information about it from most every institution I’ve talked to, is of the effects of the migration crisis on human trafficking. Mr. Abelman didn’t have the quantitative or statistical answers I was looking for, but he did explain how the possibility is certainly present. With the visas that the Dutch government affords to asylum seekers, they are not allowed to work, but are given food and shelter in refugee camps. It’s certainly possible that some of these people seek work under-the-table, where they are easily exploited due to their lack of knowledge of the language, the culture, and their legal rights. He explained, furthermore, how the Dutch government has been combating this by having police security around the shelters, training the workers and volunteers at the shelters in how to spot trafficking, and educating the immigrants of their legal rights under Dutch and European law.

The issue of human trafficking is certainly not going to be eradicated, in the Netherlands or elsewhere, but the Dutch government and NGOs have took substantial strides in reducing the severity of the issue both locally and worldwide. The Netherlands is one of the global leaders in combating trafficking in persons, and many of their initiatives hold substantial precedent for the rest of the world. This can be seen most clearly in Europe, with the new Dutch presidency of the EU making anti-trafficking one of its corner-stone policies and organizing conferences such as the anti-labour trafficking conference Team Work! from 18 to 19 January. The issue is certainly not being ignored in the current political climate, but there is still much to be done.

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