Iceland is not immune to Human Trafficking
Freedom is a relative concept.
A global pandemic seemed unthinkable a few months ago as we celebrated the dawn of a new decade with extravagant fireworks and exuberant parties. But now, we have quickly adjusted to a new reality and a restriction on some of the freedoms we take for granted. Some of this is voluntary, governed only by social pressure and respect for others, such as keeping distances of two metres, choosing to put our social lives on hold and being willing to wait in a queue to enter a store to buy essential groceries.
For others, the decision was out of your hands- whether needing to enter compulsory isolation or quarantine after contracting the virus, or living in a country where a strict lockdown is enforced by the police.
Despite the inconvenience, we knew our freedoms were being restricted for the common good, and just as temporary measure for the sake of public health.
If you have been frustrated at having to live under severe restrictions in this season, then imagine if your freedom of movement and even freedom over your own body was taken from you, through no fault of your own, and you had little hope of ever getting it back.
Tragically, this is the situation facing hundreds of thousands of trafficking victims worldwide, including some living here in Iceland.
When I have conversations with fellow Icelanders, they are often surprised to hear trafficking a problem in Iceland. After all, we are a progressive society with a small population, but with a big voice when it comes to human rights and equality.
Sadly, Iceland is not as utopian as we like to think. The reality is that right now, as you read this, there are people living in modern-day slavery, quite possibly in your neighbourhood.
It might be a construction worker from Eastern Europe who is living in cramped accommodation with other workers, having had his passport taken and threatened with deportation by unscrupulous bosses unless he works incredibly long hours. The pay is very little once extortionate “accommodation costs” and other questionable fees are forcibly deducted from his payslip.
Or it might be a teenage girl that had come to Iceland with the promise of a job, only to find the job was stripping and performing sexual acts for private clients. With the traffickers’ threat of something terrible happening to her family back home if she tries to leave, she feels little choice but to stay and comply.
Or maybe it is the backpacker recruited to work on a horse farm, paid in cash only. When he arrives he finds himself working night and day without a break, and the threat of homelessness and withdrawal of wages if he tries to challenge the regime or speak to a union.
It could also be a foreign wife of an Icelander, thinking she was moving here for love, but instead is at home as a domestic slave for her husband and his clients.
Or the young Romani girl with learning difficulties and no knowledge of Icelandic or English, who was manipulated by a relative to travel to Iceland during the summer months to beg outside a supermarket with a sign saying “homeless and a family to feed”.
Hopefully in reading these scenarios you can see that part of the problem when it comes to our lack of awareness of these issues is wrong assumptions about how trafficking takes place.
In the Hollywood movie Taken, Kim, a teenage girl from an affluent background, travels to Paris where she and her friend are kidnapped in broad daylight and trafficked. Her father, played by Liam Neeson, spends the rest of the movie desperately looking for Kim throughout Europe and single-handedly hunting down the traffickers. Although it made an entertaining movie, it gave an entirely false picture of the reality of human trafficking, but one which seems to unfortunately linger in the public imagination and distract from the rather different reality.
The fact that Kim and her friend were from privileged families made them the least likely victims of trafficking. Traffickers exploit the vulnerable, usually through manipulation and coercion and hardly ever though daylight kidnapping. In assuming the dramatic, we numb ourselves from the hundreds of people around us who have been manipulated and threatened into compliance by traffickers who rely more on psychology than brawn.
At Stop the Traffik, it is our goal to make sure these hidden victims are not forgotten, but given a voice. The fight against trafficking is not easy, and in Iceland it´s not so much about breaking down doors and freeing slaves as learning to have our eyes open to see things which we may not previously have noticed.
I work at a hostel which was designed by a top designer, with so many quirky pictures and ornaments. I have been working there four years and still keep noticing things around the place which I had never seen before- maybe a picture of a terrier, or an antique doll. It’s only when I sit in a new place that I notice things that had always been there, but hidden in plain sight.
We want to raise awareness, and give you knowledge to spot victims of trafficking that you would not previously have noticed. One of our goals is to help educate you about what signs to look out for so you know when you may have seen a trafficking victim. We are not suggesting that this will be a very regular occurrence, but the more people that are looking out for potential victims, the greater the chance of them finding freedom and of traffickers being brought to justice.
We also want to raise awareness in Icelandic society at a more strategic level, working with the police, social services and other organisations to help improve our national response to this issue, whether in prevention work or reaching out to victims.
Trafficking also goes deeper into our lives and decisions than we are probably aware of. Even trafficking that takes place outside of Iceland finds its way into our lives in unexpected ways. Modern-day slave labour might well have contributed to the products you buy, whether it’s in your chocolate bar, the mobile phone you are reading this blog on, or your latest outfit. It’s only with knowledge and awareness that we can start to make informed choices to combat trafficking. We want to raise awareness in Iceland of how our choices in what we buy can reduce demand for goods produced with the help of slaves.
As the COVID-19 pandemic fades, and borders are opened up again, please remember that this will once again create new opportunities for trafficking, both in Iceland and around the globe, and make a decision to get educated so you can begin to make a difference.
Over the next few months we will be writing a series of blogs that we hope you will find useful and informative on the issue of trafficking, with a particular focus on Iceland. Please like our Facebook page to keep up to date with our posts. Now coronavirus restrictions are being lifted, we will also give more regular updates on what we are doing and how you can join in!