On Sunday, UNESCO will mark the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Despite measures to abolish slavery worldwide, human trafficking and forced labour remain very evident across the globe. Poor people, who come to foreign countries in search of a better life, are the most vulnerable. Christina from Myanmar is one of the many who have been subjected to human rights violations.
Human trafficking and slavery are rampant in Asia and elsewhere
In the fall of 2003, Christina came to the US with new dreams in her eyes. In her country Myanmar, she saw little hope. As a member of the Indian minority community and as a Christian in a predominantly Buddhist country, she often felt like an outsider.
Her success at school was the only respite to compensate for the discrimination she was experiencing almost everyday. Then she got admission into an American university. A future full of hopes for her. “I knew that I was going to do well in the school,” she says. “I was 19 and I had plans to finish school in four years, go on Peace Corps, help out people, and come back, do my graduate school. So I had my life planned out already ahead of time.”
Turn of events
But her life changed soon. From a confident student, she became a victim of economic exploitation. She had to work at her aunt’s restaurant in the US.
“For about a month, life was good. And then it started changing gradually," says Christina. “I was pressured into doing a lot of things that I didn’t want to do. First of all, I worked for her business, so I was I already spending time outside the house with her, for her and then I would come home and put up with the family, having to take care of all the chores and things around. It was like 24/7. I was a slave.”
Christina did not resist. Her cultural background demanded an unconditional obedience to elders.
For the university, she had less and less time. And because her aunt’s restaurant was not running well, she had no money for her tuition fees either. As a result, Christina had to stop her studies. With this, she automatically lost her residence permit and was forced into staying illegally in the United States. She was now completely dependent on her aunt:
“I would get up around 6, sometimes 7, if I was very tired. I'd spend an hour on the road just to get to the restaurant, just to make sure that everything was ok before we opened and then go back in the kitchen and then start cooking and cleaning without a break. I mean I would stop to eat but that’s pretty much all I had.”
Verbal and physical abuse
The other employees at the restaurant were given a proper wage. But Christina didn’t even get a cent. Instead, she was assaulted verbally and at times physically. Amid fear of deportation, she did not know whom she could turn to for help.
She might have continued to work for her aunt, until one night, when her drunken uncle became too intrusive. In panic and fear Christina grabbed her belongings and left the house.
Help from an organisation
She was fortunate. Her immediate neighbour helped her and brought her into contact with the relief organization, "Break the Chain Campaign", where she got legal advice and help. Qimmah Najeeullah, the director of the organization, explains:
“I think we all underestimate the power of the psychological version. Often times the trafficker or the employers explain the world to be really different than what it really is. They will say: You see all the violence in the news. Oh! That could be you. And it is natural for you to want to be in an environment that is safe. And if you know it is an abuse and it is a limitation, it is still more comfortable than what you don’t know.”
As a victim of trafficking Christina was actually entitled to a so-called T-visa which could have legalised her stay in the U.S. But she refused to take it, as this could have meant that she stood as a witness against her aunt. She is now married to a US citizen and is a green card holder. She is also looking forward to her return to university.
Author: Claudia Witte/Disha Uppal
Editor: Grahame Lucas