Why is it, in the 21st Century, that we are looking at a new form of slavery, so pernicious and yet so hidden, not understood, not known about, and it is growing? It is bigger than drugs, and second only to arms trafficking. People make a lot of money out of this new slavery.
One day I met a young woman who was very extraordinary, and I found out that she had been working in a massage parlor as a sex slave on my High Street, so that I would be walking down my High Street to the tube, my underground station, past this massage parlor where this girl had been working.
She was born, as most victims of sex trafficking are, into quite a poor family. Her father had died. She had very little schooling. She had to go and work in a market because she had to help her mother support the others. And she met a very nice woman -- who had a family -- and said, "You know, I could get you a lovely job working as a doctor's assistant in London. All you have to do is give me your passport. I'll organize the traveling, and we'll go, and you will be able to earn money. You will be able to go back to school." This is the thing that they are offered: hope. And as soon as you hand over your passport you become an illegal person.
So she was taken.
You travel all over the place, and you do not know where you are going, and you do not have access to a phone, and you cannot ring your parents, and mostly your parents are not there for you to ring anyway; and they possibly do not have mobile phones, and you are in a very difficult situation.....And suddenly you land in the city and are told that you owe this person 250,000 pounds, which you are going to pay by working as a prostitute.
She said, "I thought -- at that moment I was this naïve -- that if I said no, I would not have to do it." But it was not possible for her to say no. And from this point, she understood that the world had just shifted on its axis. This is the world that we are looking into at the moment, this sex trafficking world, because you are taken into a place where it is no longer possible for you even to go to the authorities, because you have been told by these people again and again that if you go to the police, they will either do the same thing to you, if you happen to be in a country which is corrupt; or they will kill your parents or your brother or your sister, whoever is still alive in your country. And of course you believe it. You have no education; you do not know what is going on. These people have taken you abroad. They seem to know what they are doing. And you suddenly find yourself absolutely and utterly helpless.
Still, she said no.
But then they beat you and they starve you and they lock you in a room for weeks without anything much to eat, and then when you are in that weakened state, and you know your family is threatened, you are given a plastic bag full of pasties and old thongs and stuff that has been used by other girls who have moved on because they are too old, and you think, "Okay, maybe I have to do this now."
The moment for her that really switched matters was when a woman gave her a wig to wear; she put the wig on, and she looked in the mirror, and she thought, "Okay, maybe I can be someone else. Maybe I will have to be someone else." A lot of these girls say they have this experience of creating an alternative identity for themselves. I understand that because I am an actor, so I know exactly how this works: you immerse yourself in an entirely different personality.
That, of course, puts people who have been through this experience in psychological knot. The treatment they need, the difficulties they have gone through, the hell that they have been in, means it is terribly difficult to treat them. So one of the first things we have to do is understand their story.
When this young woman tried to tell her story -- the fact that she had got out of it and had gone back home -- she at first was not able to tell anybody about it, she felt so ashamed. The shame is deep. Women feel guilty about pretty much everything anyway, and responsible, and think everything is their fault, and that her mother will not accept her. She feels like a complete outcast in her own country and in her own family. She is a refugee from everywhere, even from herself. She has nowhere to go: She cannot even exist in her own body.
Not many people know about this. They do not understand it. One of the reasons they do not understand it is that sex trafficking is conflated with prostitution. It is very confused, a little bit like refugees who are fleeing from a terrible situation are conflated with illegal immigrants. Do you understand what I mean? And because prostitution carries such a stigma, people just go, "Oh, well, it doesn't matter."
The reason this young woman finally spoke was because she were standing around a water cooler and listening to some office girls who were saying, "Well, of course, you know, these girls who say they've been sold, well, I don't believe any of that. They just wanted to come to our country because people have got more money and they can do sex work, and then they go back and they take the money away." At that, this young woman had a panic attack. She tried to say, "Well, you know, it's not really like that for everyone." But she couldn't, of course, say anything, because she cannot tell her story because she is too ashamed about it. So she came to the Helen Bamber Foundation, of which I am Chair,, and Michael, the director, said, "What was it you wanted to say?" And she said, "I want them to know what it's like for just five minutes."
People do not know about this trade. They do not understand what it is. They think that girls have chosen it and it is just one of those prostitution rings. They think about it the same way they think about selling drugs. They do not understand that these persons have not chosen this.
To get to grips with this problem legislatively and politically, we have to understand what it is first; and we are not going to understand it just by describing it in numbers. This is happening to hundreds of thousands of people across the globe, across your country, across my country, across Europe. We have to hear the stories. And we have to hear the stories not just once, but again and again until we understand them.
People do not want to listen to this story. It is like persons who have been tortured, or persons who were in the camps. People do not want to hear these stories, and they do not want to understand. They do not want to see that in their own nice worlds this is going on, that there are perfectly normal people going about paying for these girls.
What I am trying to do is take the lid off this and say, "First of all we have to look. And we have to understand." When we understand, then we are able to make safe legislation, safe prosecutions, and we are able to work intra-state, intra-nationally, and on a global level. But until we all understand what we are talking about, we cannot do that. Everyone knows sort of little bits of this and that about trafficking. But they do not understand the complexity of it, and they do not understand what it does to the victim.
I did not want to make a film. And the reason I did not want to make a film is because you are sitting in a darkened theater and there is a picture up there, and for some reason or other, that objectifies the victim again.
Then I thought ,it needs to be something artistic that you feel viscerally; otherwise you can tell the story, but you cannot feel the story. If you cannot feel the story -- It is too complex for people.
So I gave this young woman seven matchboxes and I wrapped them up in paper, and said, "Divide your story up into seven parts and write on each one a word, and tell the story in seven parts," because Shakespeare did it. And I did the same thing. When we got back together, we found that we had divided up the story into exactly the same seven parts. Then we created seven shipping containers and asked artists to take part, among whom was Anish Kapoor and other film artists-- And we created an installation, "Journey," that you walk through.
What we were so astonished by was the effect of this story told in this way on the 13,000 people who walked through it in Trafalgar Square.
It was as though they walked in thinking, "Oh, yes," sort of vaguely, "Sex trafficking. Yeah, yeah, it's a bad thing." And they came out reeling, absolutely understanding what it was, and wanting to do something about it. Not only that; it was the range of people. I mean, David Cameron, our present Prime Minister, walked through it, came out and said, "Oh." Our Home Secretary, who had no idea of the responses to these asylum-seekers in my country, came out and said, "I didn't realize that we were turning these women away again and again, because of course they have no passports: they are illegal immigrants."
So in my country, England, because we do not have the right legislation, if a woman is picked up, she does not speak English; she has no passport; she has been working as a prostitute; they lock her up in a police cell for three nights; she does not get anything to eat. And then she is put in a detention center and sent home where she has no home. She has no identity. She cannot exist. So what do you do then?
This is happening all over the world. This is our new slave trade. It makes billions and billions and billions. You can make $150,000 off one woman in a year; that is a lot of cash. Of course, children are also involved. The vital thing about getting these women to tell their stories -- getting them into a state where they are able to tell their stories, able to reach past the shame to tell their stories so that we really understand them -- is that they are the only ones who make reliable witnesses. If we want to create great legislation, we need the witnesses to create the cases for the prosecution. This is what is not happening. Children are not reliable witnesses. They are not.
You need these young women; and they need help. They need protection. They need our protection. They need a patch of time during which they receive all kinds of treatment; and it is only then that they are able to start to speak. Even now, this young woman, my friend, finds it very difficult to talk about that time. She feels terribly, terribly ashamed. One of the most important things about this installation, and this way of telling the story so that we all understand it, is that this is something the victim can share in, so that at the end of the week we spent in Trafalgar Square, this young woiman came; she was there.
A man came out of the last container -- looking rather threatening but also a bit drunk or something; she went up to him and said, "Are you all right?" He said, "I'm so frightened: it could have been my sister. It could have been my -- I just can't" -- He could not find the words; then he took her by the shoulders, and said, "How is she? How is she?" Not knowing, of course, that the person he was speaking to was she. And she said, "She's fine. She's okay. Thank you very much for your concern." This also -- us understanding the problem -- means that the shame and the stigma can start to be dismantled, and that is terribly important.
So my goal, or our collective goal, is to create a "Journey" in America and take it to all the small towns where these things happen. It has multiple applications. It is a great educational tool, not just for ordinary persons on the street; it is for politicians; particularly for the police; for army bases; for places where prostitution is rife; for truck stops and places like that. This is why it is not good enough to do a film or a play or be in an art gallery. You have to be on the street -- our streets -- because the street is where this is happening.
It is not "over there." You have a huge number of people in this city who are slaves, who are being forced to perform sexual acts with 30 people a day, and not being paid; and not being properly fed, but who are being traumatized to within an inch of their lives.
When this young woman started to work, the first person who came to her was a man who wanted a blow job. I cannott think of the Latin word for it. All I can say is I told this story at a UN conference, and there were lots of different, obviously, countries represented there; and it was a UN building in Vienna, with all the translators; and as soon as I said the word "blow job," they all went absolutely insane.
Anyway, this young woman, she did not know what that was. It had to be explained to her by this gentleman, who was thinking, "Oh, my God, I'm dealing with an amateur."
I do not think it is going to work just to go around saying to people. "There is a new slavery." Lots of people are being bought and sold. We have got to understand what this actually means. We were doing a presentation at the Royal Society for Architecture, I think, in London; and there was an American man in the audience who objected to our using the word slavery. He said, "You cannot call it slavery because we had slavery, and it was much worse, and it was" -- And I said, "Look, it's not a competition. If people are enslaved, they are enslaved, and I think that you can use that word."
I suppose we should not be surprised that in an age of rampant consumerism you can buy a child for less than a designer handbag. But I am appalled, and I will not rest until this thing stops. So I ask you with my grateful heart to help us in whatever way you can. And now, if there are any questions, please just ask.
Q: Should we be prosecuting the users of the services? And the second is, you're effectively the architect of a cathedral that you'll never see completed. How are you going to ensure that the process continues until it is completed?
A: Different countries in Europe have responded to that in completely different ways. So, for instance, I was at -- you know, where everyone -- What's it called when everyone comes and speaks endlessly all day and nothing gets done? A convention. That's it. I knew there was a word for it. This woman came from Sweden, where they have criminalized buying sex -- any buying of sex is not allowed. We feel that at some point or other the customer has to be criminalized somewhere. Otherwise, how are we going to get to grips with it?
But the difficulty is prostitution -- and the prostitution lobby, where people have chosen to do it and that is their main method of earning mone -- so that of course it drives everything underground and makes it much, much more dangerous, and it is already pretty dangerous. However, you see, another difficulty is that in Holland, where prostitution is legal, trafficking is rampant. So at the moment, global legislation is completely -- we are at opposite ends of the scale, and we do not know yet what works.
So the legalization of prostitution or the criminalization of the customer have not provided us with any solutions. But they have to at some point. There are no answers because people are doing different things in different countries. In our country, we are trying to criminalize customers who pay for sex with people who have been trafficked. But that is very difficult, you see, because how can you tell? A lot of trafficked persons are told that they must never say anything, and most of them do not speak the language anyhow. So it's very difficult. There are lawyers who are dealing with that who we can refer you to.
As for the cathedral, I do believe that it is not so much a cathedral as something that you are passing from person to person. It is a cobweb. It is subtler than a cathedral. I do not really want to build a cathedral. I just want to persuade you that what I have seen is real and terrible and that you can do something about it.
Q: I was interested in reading the case studies on the Bamber website about the experiences some of these individuals have had in the UK and the number of instances where the UK legislative process or judicial process is really not set up to deal with the victim effectively. So since Cameron went through, has anything happened legislatively?
A: Yes, it has. When one of these women comes to claim asylum, she has to make a statement, and then the Home Office has to react to that statement, and they will give, as it were, a reply to that statement. And what was very interesting to me and very interesting to our Home Secretary, who was Jacqui Smith at the time, was that they have very good guidelines for interviewing people who say they've been trafficked. The guidelines say things like, "You are interviewing someone who says they have been trafficked. It is very possible that they will not remember dates, for instance, very clearly. Most women who have been trafficked cannot remember the faces of the men that they had to service on the first day of their work. They cannot remember anything about it, because that is the moment at which you sort of remove yourself from the situation. So strange things happen to memory, and also, of course, you are in this sort of condition where you may well have told a lot of lies; you have been told never, ever to tell the truth or speak to anyone in authority because they will not help you.
So the guidelines are very ggod: you get the home office person saying, "You state that you were trafficked on" -- which is in fact not true, and that is then used to keep the person out. So that my whole box in the installation was about the language of rejection, which is exactly what we were talking about, where people say, "No, no, no. It may say this, but you are lying; therefore, we do not believe you."
So, yes, absolutely, they are looking at that legislation, which is why I want a Journey in the Home Office, because that section of our civil society does not understand the complexity. So they think that if someone's telling a lie that -- They do not understand why someone wouldn't say, "Yes, I've been trafficked. It was awful. Thank God I'm here. Will you help me?" It's not as simple as that. It's never as simple as that with those people.
Also, the training has to ramp up. We have a special trafficking unit in the Metropolitan Police in London; they have a much better understanding of -- We have just been fighting not to have that closed down and have the Metropolitan trafficking unit packaged up into vice, and then it all goes back into the 1940s, where it's drugs, girls and -- you know.
Q: Aren't there boys, men also involved?
A: Yes, of course. Trafficking, especially in the East, absolutely. Young boys. Lots. It is across the board. You will find 90% of persons who are trafficked into sexual slavery are female, girls and women. It is a vast percentage, and it differs across countries. But it is between 80% and 90%, so that is why the focus is on women. Where the vulnerabilities occur, it is very often women: they are at the bottom of the pile, and they are easier to buy and sell because they have no status, you know? It is always the girls who get sold first.
Q: One thing which struck me was, here we have a someone who apparently takes the passport off this woman. Now, if I had an inside team, I'd like to say, for God's sake, give me the original name that's on the passport. Let's tell the immigration authorities to watch out on the computer watch for this person using this passport -- who may or may not be this person -- and let's track, if we can, the procurers.
A: One of the most difficult problems that we have, which is the world is littered with many borders, and all our borders operate differently. Some borders, as we know, are more porous than others. What happens to those papers, is that the girl will give up the passport, but then she will be brought into the country using a completely different passport or other papers, so it is very hard.
However, what you put your finger on is that we need cross-border cooperation, and the officials there have to understand the type of people who might be doing this job, the look of the people who might be doing this job; this is all the information we need to get from these women, because border patrols and border agencies are a vital part of this, and that is why they also need this information: what is really going on, because it is not a surface industry. It is happening under the surface, if you see what I mean.
Q:: The idea of the installation is fabulous, because if you look at the way people's attitudes have changed towards smoking since 1964 -- So the other aspect of the legislation is people's attitude. You talk about the girls feeling ashamed. The procurers should feel ashamed. And so I was wondering what the next step is.
A: What you're saying, which I think is right, is that we have to make it a public health issue, like smoking, because it is a public health issue. It is about the health of our women and girls; It is about protecting the public. It is not about anything else. The public health issue thing is also useful when you are talking to civil servants, because they understand that language, and sometimes you have to be careful about being too inflammatory.
Smoking -- What we did was, we made people invest in themselves in a different way, and that will be one of the ways in which we willll have to work. We will have to get these areas in which people have no investment in these children who are being bought and sold: you learn to invest in those "worthless things" that you just sell, you know, because they are not worth anything. Therefore, women and children in that situation have to be regarded as a resource. We need to work on the public health issue, and also the resources that we are throwing away the same way we were throwing away our lives when we were smoking.
Q: I live in the Middle East. The place that I live, unfortunately, is one of those sites which engages in the kind of trafficking you are talking about. You talk about the trafficking in the West and you talk about your own experience in Britain and elsewhere. Would you consider coming to places like the Middle East where trafficking is voluminous, constant and at a very, very high level? And would you be open to saying the kinds of things that you have said today?
A: Of course. But what I really want is to be able to start it here, because I think America has an extraordinary energy: If you want to kick something off, this is the place to come. But my dream, absolutely, is to go wherever the problem is most difficult. And what is great about the installation is that you can then invite local artists and local people to have a part in it, have a stake in it; and then redefine the story and tell the story again. It is extraordinary how universal this story is. It is always the vulnerable. You know where these people come from and why they are as vulnerable as they are. So there is a universality to the story, but at the same time, wherever you go with it, you can make it very relevant to the place you are in. And that is my great dream.
I think if we do have a success, if it really does work, and if we find that it helps to influence legislation and galvanize peoples to work together, I think that we will be helped by governments. It was the Spanish government that brought Journey to Madrid. They have a huge problem in Spain, as you can imagine. So at a governmental level, I that is terribly important. I mean, that's my intention. The cobweb is a big old vast one, and I have been in it for four years now, and I cannot imagine that I will not be talking about this until I'm 85, like Helen. Well, let's hope not, actually: I hope we are going to get slightly further with knocking on heads before then.
Q: One of the things I find shocking is that most of the drug traffickers have found dealing with humans is so much more profitable that they are now giving up the drug trade for human trafficking.
A: Yes, it's much easier to walk a human being across a border than hiding drugs.
Q:: And the penalties are nonexisting in most places, unfortunately.
A: Exactly. So we have to put the fear of God into people who are thinking that they are going to do this, because prosecutions at the moment are very rare, and the prison sentences are very short. So that is not going to help, because as we were saying, here is this woman, this very respectable woman with her own family and children, so she presented a completely normal façade, and she had been herself trafficked once.There are a lot of women traffickers, and all of them have been trafficked themselves, so you repeat the crime.
Q: Realizing it is a global border-control issue, is there a certain country that is doing exemplary work that we should know about? Also I love the idea that it is a global health issue: the Global Business Coalition that works on AIDS/HIV, are there synergies in working with global health organizations in the work that you do? Because it seems as if that is a real driver to push it through to the global community and take it out of the stigmatism of prostitution.
A: That is a good idea, especially as you are dealing with the same kind of stigma. I have done a lot of work with the AIDS battle as well, and one of the greatest things you have to address is the stigma.
As for whether there is a country, I think the country that has got the farthest on tackling the issue is Italy. They were the first people to put in this three-month protection for women. If they come and they say they have been trafficked, then: nothing. They are not put into prison because they have not got a passport. They are spoken to and helped, and over those three months, you can ascertain exactly what the story is.
There are blurred edges sometimes. Sometimes women have said, "Yes, I will come and do sex work;" they have agreed to do that, and then have discovered that it is sexual slavery, not just sex work. Of course, there are people who say, "Well, they chose it anyway, so who cares?" because prostitution is also so stigmatized.
But Italy has had such a huge problem, that they were the first to put in place this three-month period of recuperation; and as a result, they have a much better level of prosecution. What I do not know about is their border, but it is certainly.
Q: There are certain countries that are more involved in this trade than others, and there are certain criminal groups that are more involved, and I just wondered if that was true and if there is some way to direct more attention to those places.
A: It is true. Each, as it were, of the first-world countries -- if I can call us that -- are the buyers: the customer-countries are serviced by the countries from which most of the women come. A lot of the women who come to our foundation are from Eastern Europe -- Albania, Latvia, Moldova, and so on. They just happen to be coming from them at the moment; that is the "fashion." Literally, it is as though it goes, "Oh, they're all coming in from Nigeria now." It is very strange. Presumably the networks talk to each other: they were tapped in Sweden. They said, "Avoid Sweden. Go to Germany." And of course, your fellow countries in the south, South American countries, have a big influence in that regard. So yes, absolutely.
The movement of trafficked persons, if you look at a UN map of it, the movement is so complicated -- and it happens inside your states as well -- so you'll have people who have been trafficked in this country from state to state, and the problem with that, actually -- just to get slightly legal for a minute -- is that it is not called trafficking. It is only called trafficking if you buy someone from one side of the street and take her to the other side of the street. You get into very complicated legal territory, which is why, again, we all need to understand what's going on and say, "How do we work together?" And the only way you can do that is by presenting it to people in a very visceral way. Does that make sense?
Q: One of the great problems in trying to deal with this in America, as you know more than anyone, is our immigration service: that if you can motivate a woman who has been trafficked to go to law enforcement, their reward will likely to be to be deported. How do you address this?
A: Well, the first thing you have to do is describe it. As soon as the politicians and the civil servants who came through Journey understood what had happened to this girl.... It was very ironic, because the night before, she decided to run away from this brothel that she was being kept in in Soho, and there was a raid the night before. So 19 girls were rounded up. None of them could speak English, and the police had no choice, because they are illegal prostitutes. They go to prison. They get banged up in police cells for three nights, then taken to the detention center, and then they get deported.
But as soon as those civil servants understood that that was what had happened, then they understood that the legislation had to change. Then they understood that we needed a human trafficking unit in the police. The police are one of the first ports of call for this kind of educative experience, because these organizations are often quite macho, so the whole sort of prostitution thing takes on a whole different tone, which is why you need a specific unit in every state.
Every country needs a specially trained human trafficking unit and officers who are trained in how to talk to someone who says they have been trafficked: how to understand the lies, and how to understand the deceptions and evasions, and how to get to the truth. And it is a long and difficult process, but you put your finger on exactly what the appalling truth of it is now: that if they are picked up, they are sent back to a place where they as they were no longer exist.
You know what this did when she went home and she finally thought, "I can't" ? She sold herself back. And she said to herself, " I'm no good for anything else." We just had a girl come into the Foundation the other day. She had been in that world for ten years, and the thing that really got me about her story was that she came from a little place in Albania, and she had been sold into marriage when she was 16. This chap had put her to work. She had managed to get herself out of it. She had gone home. She had got away from him, and he turned up -- because he knew the family. He walked in and said, "You know why she ran away? She was working as a prostitute." And her mother pushed her through a glass door, and said, "You can't ever come back into my house again." The girl said, "Why are you listening to him and not me?"
Nobody listens; they do not want to hear.
You have to listen. You have to know what is going on, and then you have to make sure that the bad things stop, and you have to take action. The thing Helen said to me, probably what drives me now, is that every generation has to redefine human rights and make them work.
You cannot rely upon having decided that the world should be a just place, or that slavery should not exist. We all know that slavery should not exist. You cannot just write down something a generation ago and say, "There is our constitution" -- and then just leave it. It does not work. Helen Bamber started her work as a human rights activist when she was nineteen in Bergen-Belsen in 1945, when the war ended, with the Jewish Relief Unit; she is now 85. She spent years and years trying to repatriate people -- and meeting with extraordinary resistance. Finally this young woman finds someone who understands: Helen -- She understands the refugee, this woman, what she has been through; and she helps her to piece herself together again.
This address was delivered to the Hudson New York Briefing Council at the Four Sreasons Restaurant, in June, 2010.