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Informed solutions to Australian slavery

  • 22 June 2009

The Stolen controversy at this month's Sydney Film Festival underlined how difficult it is to even acknowledge that slavery exists.

The film alleges that 38-year-old Fatim Salam is a slave, and that slavery is a significant problem among western Saharan refugees. Salam has lived in a refugee camp in Algeria since she was three years old. Members of the Sahrawi Polisario Front, which runs the camp, brought her to Sydney to deny she is a slave, and to denounce the film.

Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH) is the anti-slavery advocacy initiative of Australia's Catholic Religious orders. Its purpose includes informing the public that slavery exists today, not only in countries like Algeria, but right here in Australia.

ACRATH says women and children are continually trafficked to Australia from Southeast Asia, South Korea and China. Some leave their homelands voluntarily to work in brothels, while others are forced or deceived into coming. They are slaves, but often do not see themselves as such. They are reluctant to seek help, due to lack of trust, self-blame, or 'training' by traffickers.

Suppression of information about the conditions of these workers allows the slave trade to continue. Traffickers have also been helped by the paucity of advocacy groups equipped to expose their activities, as well as the lack of resources for promotion of what is being done.

ACRATH has an excellent website, packed with useful and accessible information about slavery in Australia. But nobody visits. The site's forum has been online since last year, yet at the time of writing there were zero posts.

The Federal Government is doing its bit. It has allocated $250,000 each to four groups including ACRATH, to help eliminate human trafficking.

While the work on ACRATH's website is yet to bear fruit, it should be noted that the lobbying efforts of ACRATH and similar organisations helped to persuade the Government to introduce a range of improvements to its support for victims, which were announced by Immigration Minister Chris Evans at last Wednesday's National Roundtable on People Trafficking. These include the provision of permanent visas.

In welcoming the changes, Human Rights Commission President Catherine Branson QC referred to a woman who was trafficked to Australia and who had, for years, been left with an uncertain immigration status.

'She said she didn't have the words to describe how happy she felt — that having a permanent visa meant that she could have security and certainty now,