Kiribaba is a nine year old boy with sad eyes and an ill-fitting t-shirt who lives in a tent in Sri Lanka with his extended family across the street from the Indian Ocean. At night the synthetic tents are too hot, so he sleeps on the cement foundation where their house used to stand. Five years before the tsunami claimed their home, Kiribaba’s mother migrated to the Middle East to work as a domestic laborer. She's not been heard from again.
Her story, and her son's, is common.
The World Bank reports that migrant labor accounts for about 7% of Sri Lankan GDP--unofficial remittances from migrant laborers could double that number. Many Sri Lankans leave their country in search of work because there is none to be found at home.
In Sri Lanka, remittances primarily from housemaids working in the Middle-East are the second leading net foreign-exchange earner after garments and are an important balancing element in the current account, usually offsetting around 60 per cent of the trade deficit." (here)
While there is little to no research that connects human trafficking with migrant women who serve as domestic laborers, I heard anecdotal evidence to the contrary. In addition to their earnings, returning women bring stories of abuse, rape, exploitation, and the suicides of their countrywomen who could not take anymore. Some women, like Kiribaba’s mom, may never return.
I met Kiribaba and his little brother a few weeks ago on a trip to the
Indian sub-continent. I was in search of information about the
dimensions of human trafficking and introductions to local efforts that
combat this evil.
I work for Geneva Global (www.genevaglobal.com); we are a professional services firm that provides independent research and thoughtful insight to donors. We look for the most highly effective implementers in the second and third worlds and recommend their life-changing projects to our donors for funding. My job within the company is to develop relationships with our client donors, and as we prepare to launch an anti-human trafficking fund, I needed to meet the local heroes who have survived and responded to this evil.
I am fairly well-traveled in the developing world, and so I know that things never quite go as planned. That said, I was still irritated to arrive 3 hours early for a flight to India on SriLankan Air and learn that due to our failure to reconfirm our confirmation, our tickets were sold to someone else! We were stranded in the Colombo airport overnight.
My colleague and I found a “quiet” place on a tiled mezzanine overlooking the boarding area, pulled a few chairs together, and shut our eyes in a determined effort to sleep. While we fought to sleep, a nightmare was organizing below us in the boarding area. Weeping women separated themselves from their husbands and children and lined up to board a flight to Kuwait. Some of the younger women were carefully watched by older men to make sure they boarded the plane. We hypothesized about these suspicious relationships. I imagined that many of these illiterate women were in a similar situation to Kiribaba’s mom. Their search for honest compensation may well end in Kuwait in modern slave-like conditions.
In my yellow plastic chair in the middle of the airport on this island far away from home, I started to contemplate the dimensions of evil that I had heard and read about regarding the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who are trafficked every year. Those facts and figures took on faces and futures as I watched these women line up in the airport.
I spent the last several weeks traveling in India; a witness to the detritus of evil. Over the next few days, I want you to hear stories of people's daughters and sons who have been sold to work for others, I hope you will bear a little of their sorrows, and finally, I invite you to share with me in my discovery of the destructive power of good.
© 2005, Heidi Metcalf.
Editor's Note: Heidi recommends Gary Haugen's Terrify No More f or further reading on sex trafficking.