Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Bulgaria's new "tougher policy" towards illegal immigration

Last week I read this article in Capital.bg (in Bulgarian - title "The Cabinet is preparing a tougher policy towards illegal immigrants") about the Bulgarian government's new policy plans and then I also read the press release of the Ministry of Interior (in English).

First I want to clarify that I will use the more humane term "undocumented/irregular migrant(s)" because no person is illegal, migrant or not. What a person does (e.g. cross a border without the proper documents) may be illegal but the person him/herself cannot be illegal. Sadly, the Bulgarian government and media still use the outdated term "illegal immigrants".

So the first thing I noticed when reading the press release of MoI is the confusing information about the new plans - the title states "for solving the issue with the increased migration pressure", while the first sentence explains that the aim of the plan is to manage "the crisis resulting from a massive influx of asylum seekers". Then the first measure talks about "illegal immigrants", while the second - about refugees. The fact that one policy is supposed to address these very different groups - undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees - is worrying in itself.

Then the first objective of the plan is "... to limit the number of entering people and accelerate the rate of removal from the territory of those who have no reason to be here". Now "having no reason to be [t]here" is a bit of an oversimplification - surely no one just wandered off across the border and reached Bulgaria. But back to the point - the article in Capital explains in more detail - "the government’s goal is to reduce three times the number of people entering the country illegally and at the same time increase three times the number of people who have been expelled from Bulgaria". Reading this target that the Ministry of Interior has set, my first thought is that anyone without the proper documents, including victims of human trafficking, refugees and asylum seekers, will be immediately treated as an undocumented migrant and expelled, without much concern about his/her human rights and personal situation, simply in order to meet the targets, proclaim the new plan as a success and justify the need for more funds, equipment and manpower. This suspicion becomes even more real by another planned measure (mentioned only in the article of Capital), namely, significantly shorter periods for removal of undocumented migrants. The combination of shorter periods and a target of more removals is a recipe for human rights violations. And to illustrate my concerns, I recently read a country study on the position of victims of trafficking in the criminal and other legal proceedings in Bulgaria (not yet published) where I found this short example:
On 30 October 2003, two women, who had been trafficked to Macedonia for prostitution, managed to escape. Two unfamiliar persons took them across the border on foot, but not through the official check point but through the woods, after which they were detained by the Bulgarian border police officers. The victims told their story to the border police officers and were identified as trafficked persons, however, they were transported to the Kyustendil District Court and sentenced in a speedy proceedings for “illegal crossing of the border” – crime under Article 279 (1) of the Criminal Code [...] [...] the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (Sofia) lobbies for the abolishment of Article 279 (1), which is also widely applied in regard to refugees. They argue that it is a simply structured crime easy to prove – the person must be on Bulgarian territory – and the border police officers use it to increase their investigation rate...

If identified victims of trafficking, Bulgarian nationals, can be prosecuted by the authorities for illegal crossing of the border to "increase their investigation rate", why should we expect anything different for foreign nationals, who cross the border illegally as refugees or asylum seekers. And the media often reports on the deficiencies (in capacity, funds and staff) of the State Agency for Refugees, which even at the moment cannot cope with the influx of Syrian refugees and they are forced to wait for months (while living in terrible conditions) before their applications are processed and they are granted refugee status. But like I said, the need to speed up the process in order to meet the targets, is likely to result in ... well, just very sloppy work!

The second measure of the government's plan includes "increased police presence ... in the areas populated by refugees." However, Capital.bg refers to this measure as "specialised police raids in areas ...". Whichever way you read it, it means simply police harassment over anyone looking at least remotely Arab (which are allegedly the majority of refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants). The police is obliged to protect society with all its members, not only the Bulgarian citizens and not only against refugees and undocumented migrants. But by pointing specifically at refugees/migrants as potential criminals and a threat to Bulgarian citizens, the government is actually starting and stimulating the vicious circle of scapegoating, prejudice, suspicion and social exclusion which only leads to more violence. This is the opposite of the intended integration - it's downright segregation!

Another planned measure, not mentioned in the press release but already under-way, is the construction of a 30-kilometre fence on the border with Turkey. 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Bulgaria is building a wall to prevent people from coming in, as if we don't remember what the consequences and human costs of the other wall were... The measure was already criticised by the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks who insists that Bulgaria cannot deny entry of Syrian refugees and that walls are expensive but don't do much good.

Lastly, in the past few months there have been a number of instances of hate speech and hate crimes against undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Only a week ago there were three anti-immigrant rallies in Sofia in the same day, organised by different right-wing, nationalistic and football fans groups, including one parliamentary political party, which shouted racial slurs and carried slogans that I don't even want to describe here. The media had a big role to play here too by allowing deranged politicians (again, from a parliamentary party) to describe the Syrian refugees as "terrorists", "man-slaughterers", "AIDS-carriers" who want to turn Bulgaria into a Muslim nation. 

It pains me to say that what I thought was a humanitarian crisis (the influx of Syrian refugees) to which Bulgarians would demonstrate compassion and hospitality, has turned the bigger part of society into raging, blood-thirsty hate-mongers. Bulgaria has always prided itself with the fact that it did not follow Kosovo and Bosnia in the 90's and that in the centre of Sofia, within one square kilometre, there are an Orthodox church, a Catholic cathedral, a mosque and a synagogue which coexist peacefully. Now it seems that the "infamous Bulgarian tolerance" (as the politicians like to call it) has simply vanished, just at a time when it is actually needed! 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Моят имейл до Антония Първанова - член на Европейския Парламент относно участието й в Brussels call

Европейското женско лоби (European Women's Lobby) отдавна води кръстоносен поход срещу проституцията. Последната им инициатива е Brussels Call - Together for a Europe free from Prostitution, чрез която се опитват да привлекат и членове на Европейския Парламент (ЧЕП-ове:) на своя страна. За щастие засега са само 40-тина, основно от Швеция, Дания и Франция, но кой знае докъде могат да стигнат.. Някой друг път смятам да размишлявам по-надълго за проституцията и правата на проституиращите, както и за псевдоморалистичните, аз-знам-по-добре-от-теб-от-какво-имаш-нужда кръстоносни походи, но сега само ще сложа писмото си до Антония Първанова, Ивайло Калфин и Мария Неделчева - българските евродепутати, които подкрепят тази малоумна инициатива.

Уважаема госпожо Първанова, 

Дълбоко съм разочарован и загрижен от Вашето участие в Brussels Call - инициатива на European Women's Lobby, която цели, чрез подвеждащи или направо лъжливи твърдения, още повече да маргинализира и стигматизира проституиращите жени и мъже, да ги лиши от малкото възможности за социална и здравна грижа и да ги направи още по-уязвими към насилие и експлоатация. Аз вярвам, че усилията ни трябва да бъдат насочени към борбата срещу трафика на хора и принудителния труд (не само в проституцията) и към закрилата на човешките права на всички хора и особено на най-уязвимите групи, каквито са проституиращите. В този процес трябва да бъдат чути и самите проституиращи, тъй като те най-добре знаят от какво имат нужда и как да бъдат защитени правата им, а не да бъдат заклеймявани като безпомощни жертви, които трябва да бъдат спасени, като хора без собствено достойнство и без право на избор. Трафикът на хора просперира най-вече в нерегулираните или слаборегулирани трудови сектори, каквато е секс индустрията, но също така земеделието, строителството, ресторантьорството и т.н. Да твърдим, че борейки се с трафика ние трябва да се борим с проституцията е като да тръгнем на кръстоносен поход срещу, например, строителството, земеделието или миграцията. Вместо това аз вярвам, че трябва да се концентрираме първо върху предоставянето на превантивна информация на уязвимите групи и второ - по-добрата регулация на тези сектори. Криминализирането на които и да било аспекти на проституцията (самите проституиращи или пък техните клиенти) прави секс индустрията само още по-невъзможна за регулиране и участниците в нея - още по-уязвими към насилие и експлоатация. Дебатът за проституцията трябва да се води без истерични псевдоморализъм и религиозна етика и на базата на реални, разумни и академични изследвания и данни. 

Позволявам си тук да добавя и апела, подготвен от организации защитаващи правата на проституиращите:

I am very concerned at your support for the Brussels Call, a series of initiatives which will endanger sex workers; push them into criminality; increase risk and is not supported by any research or sex workers’ organisation. Today the European Women’s Lobby released a statement which contained a number of untruths and stigmatizing statements with your name attached in support.
  • Between 80 and 95% of persons in prostitution have suffered some form of violence before entering the system of prostitution (e.g.,rape, incest, paedophilia).[1]
  • 62% of women in prostitution report having been raped.[2]
  • 9 out of 10 women in prostitution would like to exit the system of prostitution but feel unable to do so.[3]
  • 68% of women in prostitution meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the same range as victims of torture undergoing treatment.[4]
  • According to Interpol, a pimp earns 110 000 euros per year per prostituted person.
  • Nevada, where procuring is decriminalised, sees the highest rates of rape compared to all US states.[5]
[1] Melissa Farley et al., ‘Prostitution in five countries: violence and post traumatic stress disorder’, Feminism and Psychology, 8, 1998.
[2] Melissa Farley et al., ‘Prostitution in five countries: violence and post traumatic stress disorder’, Feminism and Psychology, 8, 1998.
[3] UK Home Office, Paying the price, 2004
[4] Melissa Farley et al., “Prostitution in five countries: violence and post traumatic stress disorder”, Feminism and Psychology, 8, 1998
Not a single one of these statements is supported by peer reviewed and accepted research. Melissa Farley has been discredited and has been disallowed from giving expert evidence in Canada and New Zealand. Academics in New Zealand filed a complaint against her, so problematic are her methods and conclusions. 
The statistic attributed to the UK parliament is in fact not found anywhere in that report, which indicates a lack of knowledge on this topic the Europeans Women’s lobby has.
You also put your name to the statement “Prostitution is violence against women” which denies the human rights of a sex worker to consent to sex, as well as making it more difficult for an oppressed and marginalized group to access support services. If your job is defined as violence it is very difficult to get help when you are actually on the receiving end of violence. This reached its apotheosis with the murder of a sex worker by her abusive ex partner in Sweden. 
The Pro Sentret report in Norway showed that criminalisation of clients leads to increased risks, rapes, violence, less time for screening, and lower condom usage. Economists have shown that it leads to lower prices, and sex workers being forced into changing their behaviour, with less time for risk management. That you support this is worrying in the extreme, and indicates little knowledge of, or concern for, the lives of sex workers.
The statement also claims that trafficking and sex work has decreased since criminalisation was introduced in Sweden. This is a complete fabrication which even the Swedish government does not claim. There are no pre-criminalisation statistics, and no evidence sex work has decreased. The lives of sex workers have become more difficult, which is seen as a victory by those who oppose sex work for religious/political/moral reasons. A 2011 study explains why a decrease cannot be claimed.
If you do genuinely care about sex workers, rather than supporting a campaign that will endanger them, I ask that you put your voice behind decriminalization on the New Zealand model. More information can be found out about their successful harm reduction and empowering of sex workers here.
To speak for sex workers instead of listening to them means you are ignoring the voices of an oppressed group, I hope this letter makes you reconsider and that you will contact sex workers groups in your country to learn more about what they want.

С уважение, 
Б. Герасимов

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Trafficking in persons: Labour exploitation

I wrote this article originally in Bulgarian for dnevnik.bg: http://www.dnevnik.bg/analizi/2013/08/29/2127523_trafik_na_hora_trudova_eksploataciia/


When we hear  "human trafficking", the first image that usually comes to mind is that of a tied, chained woman, beaten, bruised, in tears... and so on. We think of a young, naive girl who was kidnapped or deceived, sold, bought, forced to prostitute herself somewhere in Western Europe. In Bulgaria this image is probably complemented by the fact that the girl is poor, illiterate and Roma, who may have even been sold by her family or consciously decided to work as a prostitute in the West but pimps found her, began taking her money and beating her... and so on. This picture can be completely realistic, of course, and I don't intend to disprove it. But I would like to show why it can also be harmful and to turn your attention to one of the less known faces of human trafficking: labour exploitation.

The stereotype
It is neither surprising, nor a coincidence that this image that I described springs to mind most often when we hear “human trafficking”. For years NGOs and state institutions, which try to bring attention to the problem and to run prevention campaigns, have been concentrating on trafficking for sexual exploitation and targeting their campaigns, images and messages to young girls. The reason is that NGOs (both in Bulgaria and around the world) working on the problem of violence against women began raising awareness about human trafficking and naturally focused on the economic and sexual exploitation of women. Their initiatives influenced the government institutions which readily accepted that civil society can “take care” of these problem. Media, on the other hand, take on the idea and multiply it tenfold. Their priority is the old and tried motto “sex sells”. Besides, prostitution in principle, whether voluntary or forced, is a controversial topic which raises interest, polarises society and, in the end, brings readers, hotline calls, TV shows, debates, etc. After all, the image (or story) of a young innocent girl turned into a “sex slave” by fat bearded men is a lot stronger than that of a child picking cocoa beans, a seamstress in a textile factory or a construction worker (I will come back to these images later).

However, there are a few problems with this stereotypisation. On one hand, the people who see these campaigns, images and messages, are filled with indignation that there can be so much cruelty in this world, with pity for the “poor victims” and maybe the good intention “to do something about it”, but not with attention and alertness to the real problem. These images are so terrifying that our mind automatically decides that “this can’t happen to me”, that this only happens to other people – to women and young girls, to the poor and unemployed, to the Roma, to the uneducated, the careless, the naive...

Most people would not identify with this image because they wouldn’t think “I am uneducated, careless and naive and I should beware not to become a victim of trafficking”. In this situation all participants are “the others”, while we, the general public, are on the side, passive observers who have nothing to do with the whole process. On the other hand, the professionals who could come in contact with victims of trafficking in their work (police officers, border police, social workers, etc) also remember this image from the campaigns and the media and more rarely manage to identify victims who don’t fit into it.
The police knows where there are brothels in a city and makes raids there, social workers watch out for bruised women in the company of shady men, in other words – everyone looks towards the prostitutes. Lastly, but most importantly, on a world scale sexual exploitation is not the most common form of human trafficking.

According to data of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) presented last year, from 21 million people who are in a situation of forced labour (which equals trafficking) in the world, the victims of sexual exploitation are around 22%, while the victims of labour exploitation – 68%. The data for the European Union is only slightly different – the victims of sexual exploitation are 30% compared to 70% victims of labour exploitation. But in April this year, Eurostat published data about the identified victims of trafficking in the 28 member states plus Iceland, Montenegro, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and Turkey. While the ILO data was collected using a research methodology, that of Eurostat is about the actually identified victims in the studied countries and they show that 62% of them were trafficked for sexual exploitation and only 25% for labour. This huge difference in the data of ILO and Eurostat perhaps only confirms what I said above – that institutions and NGOs identify the victims of sexual exploitation a lot more often, because this is what they know and this is what they see.

Labour exploitation
We’ve been hearing for a long time about the terrifying working conditions in the Chinese branch of Foxconn, which produces and assembles parts for different electronics, including iPhone and iPad. Recently The Guardian published an article called “The woman who nearly died making your iPad”, in which it tells the story of the 17-year-old (at that time) Tian Yu who jumped off the fourth floor after she had to work 12 hours a day, six days a week for minimum payment and in bad living conditions. Children and adults in Uzbekistan are forced through threats by the state to pick cotton for little or no payment. An international campaign is requiring Kraft and other chocolate producers to stop buying the cocoa produced with child and forced labour in Cote d’Ivoir.

And if you’re thinking now that these things happen only in the “uncivilised” world of middle and east Asia or Africa, let me give you a few more examples, which are geographically and culturally closer to Bulgaria.

In 2009 one of the biggest cases of trafficking for labour exploitation in Europe was uncovered. OSCE and ASTRA (a Serbian NGO) alerted The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) about 700 workers from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia who were hired by the Azerbaijani company SerbAz to work in construction in Azerbaijan. Upon their arrival in the country, the workers received tourist visas and their passports were taken by the employer. They never received legal work permits, which immediately made them undocumented migrant workers. Since the summer of 2009  their salaries were always late and reduced and in October they received no payment at all. Apart from that, they lived in terrible conditions, without water, food or medical services, which also led to two deaths. According to workers’ testimonies, besides receiving no payment, they were subjected to systematic physical and psychological abuse. After October, SerbAz began organising the sending of the workers back to their home countries in such a way as to cover all traces of exploitation. Trade unions, international organisations, NGOs and consulates helped in the repatriation and assistance process. Some of the returned workers reported that SerbAz then employed 50 workers from Bulgaria. The Bulgarian trade unions were informed and information materials were published in Bulgarian language, but there are no indications that the Bulgarian workers were exploited too. The authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Azerbaijan began an investigation. (source: ITUC).

In 2009 and 2010 several Czech companied hired hundreds of workers from Vietnam, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia for tree planting and other forestry work in the Czech forests. These companies were subcontractors of Less Forest, one of the biggest forestry companies in the Czech Republic, which had won a tender from the state-owned “Czech Forestry”. For months the employees did hard physical labour of 10-12 hours a day, six-seven days a week. Instead of the promised 800-1000 Euros a month they received nothing or very small advances which weren’t enough to cover even food costs. When the employees decided to stop working or to report their situation to the police, they were threatened with violence. According to La Strada (a Czech NGO), up to 1500-2000 workers may have been exploited. This is a typical example of human trafficking because it has the elements of deception, coercion through threats of violence and deportation, withdrawal of wages and abuse of position of vulnerability (many of the workers, especially the Vietnamese, had taken loans to come to the Czech Republic). “I thought I was coming to civilised Europe but I don’t believe anymore that I can receive any kind of justice”, says one of the Vietnamese workers. In 2010 lawyers, with the support of La Strada, filed over 60 lawsuits on behalf of the victims. The first conviction became a fact only in 2012 and the main difficulties come from a misleading interpretation of the Czech law on combating human trafficking and the insufficient knowledge of the prosecutors and judges on the topic of labour exploitation. A documentary was made to raise awareness for the case. (source: La Strada)

In 2008 the court in Laufen, Germany, sentenced a 48-year-old disabled woman to one year and three months in prison for the exploitation of four Romanian women. The women worked 13 hours a day, seven days a week as cleaners, cooks and maids in a holiday apartment complex, although they had no valid work permit for Germany. Instead of the agreed salary of 850 Euros for a 40-hour week, the women received no payment at all. They did not speak any German, had no social contacts and were accommodated in a makeshift room with no beds and normal sanitary conditions. (source: German Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and the network KOK).

In 2011 the Dutch Labour Inspectorate found that a mushroom-growing company had been exploiting 70 Bulgarian workers, who also had no legal work permits. The workers had to work long hours every day, sometimes also in the weekend, and with dangerous chemicals for a net payment of only 3 Euros an hour, which is less than half of the minimum hourly wage. In addition, they complained about the bad living conditions with six people having to sleep in the same room. The police arrested two Bulgarian middlemen who tried to thwart the investigation. (source: Nu.nl)

How many slaves work for you?
Human trafficking is sometimes called “modern-day slavery”. The victims are held in submission, isolation, beaten, threatened, manipulated. Once they fall into this situation they become someone’s property.

I began this article with the campaigns against trafficking for sexual exploitation and how we usually think of trafficking as a problem mostly related to prostitution. And while most of us probably would not use the services of a prostitute, especially if they suspect that she may be forced into it, to think about labour exploitation means to look at ourselves and how the goods and services that our consumer society loves collecting so much, may have been produced with forced labour. This means that trafficking flourishes not only because of those others – the fat bearded men, loverboys or members of organised crime. We, the users, the consumers, bear our responsibility too.

The website Saveryfootprint.org calculates how many “slaves”, i.e. people in a situation of forced labour or exploitation, were necessary to make the products we have in our homes. The methodology is prepared together with the US Department of Labour and ILO and is based on information about the processes through which these products were made and investigations in countries known for their use of forced labour. The supply chains of more than 400 of the most popular consumer products on the market have been studied.  
Although chances are that far not all clothes, jewellery and electronics that we possess and use in our everyday life, are produced through exploitation, the website gives us enough of a reason to think about our behaviour and how we can be more responsible.