The disaster that has engulfed the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan is catastrophic enough but there are added, long term dangers that are not captured by the television cameras recording the devastation.
For the past three years I have been researching and writing my latest book, a thriller that focuses on the international crime of human trafficking. The statistics are stark; the facts horrific. Well over 20 million people a year are trafficked globally, bought and sold on as domestic slaves, sex slaves, forced labour and even as organ donors.
One in five of those trafficked globally are children. Two thirds are women. The most vulnerable members of already poverty-stricken countries and a lucrative source of income for the mostly organised criminals who know that human beings represent the second most profitable commodity after drugs.
When you get a chaotic situation such as that in the Philippines right now, it makes it all the easier for those criminals to swoop like carrion on fresh meat, snatching children and young women from the ruins of their lives and condemning them to even greater misery.
As the relief effort kicks in and the authorities fight to regain control, these easy pickings are in danger of passing under the radar. In the UK, an aide to Justine Greening, Britain’s international development secretary who is helping coordinate the British response to the crisis, expressed concern for the women and children of the Philippines in an article in the Daily Telegraph today:
“After previous emergencies in the Philippines, we have seen an increase in violence against women and girls and in particular the trafficking of girls.”
This increase in violence in the aftermath of a disaster is not confined to the Philippines. Women and girls in all areas afflicted by crisis are vulnerable, whether those are natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes or in conflict zones such as Syria.
Human trafficking is a crime that cuts across political and religious belief. It is a humanitarian outrage – a slur on all our souls. That men, women and children are brutally treated as slaves in the 21st century is nothing short of barbaric. My work might be fiction but the hard truth behind it is happening right now and probably far closer than you think.
The next time you bite into a low priced piece of fruit or have your nails done cheaply in a Vietnamese nail bar, stop and think for a moment about the labour that supplies you with those luxuries. They might be wallet pleasing but at what price?
In cramped houses and flats all over Europe and beyond, people are held against their will and forced to perform acts that degrade and, ultimately, destroy them. Soon some of those wide-eyed Filipino children you’ve seen on your television screen will be joining them. As Justine Greening suggested, it’s time to have a coordinated international approach to such disasters, a strategy that puts the safety of the most vulnerable first.
Human trafficking will flourish as long as we all turn a blind eye. The paymasters will continue to count their millions in profits from a crime that can be carried out with such ease. And the rest of us will count the cost in terms of a society that is irrevocably cheapened by our refusal to see what is in front of us right now.