Coerced Labour: The Exploitation of Homelessness

When considering modern day slavery, we are most likely to cite victims of sex trafficking, domestic servitude and forced labour: those who, under false pretences of job opportunities or threats of violence, are imported from their country of origin and made to work for their employers for no wage, often living in appalling conditions and experiencing abuse, malnourishment, working for over 12 hours a day. However, what is not often considered is the existence of coerced, exploitative labour within this country of vulnerable citizens, both immigrants and nationals.

The most recent recession led to a huge increase in cases of homelessness, a stretching of soup kitchen and safe house resources, many of those sleeping rough suffering from alcohol and drug addictions. The abundance of vulnerable individuals marginalised from society provides easy pickings for those seeking to exploit. Gangs approach the most desperate with a lure of employment, yet after accepting the offer, workers are coerced into 5am to 11pm shifts for as little as £2-£3 per day. Rather than a gateway out of poverty, such exploitation feeds a vicious cycle: they are homeless because they are exploited, and exploited because they are homeless.

These gangs reportedly target open soup kitchens as well as penetrating indoor food banks, pretending to be homeless in order to gain access to potential victims. Whilst these gangs often work independently for their own ends, many make up ‘recruitmen
t agencies’, supplying workers to larger construction corporations, big businesses thereby complicit in the extortion.

Last year 511 were exploited in this way, however this is a gross underestimate. The new draft of the Slavery Bill aims to reduce evidential burdens with clauses on human trafficking for exploitation as well as slavery, servitude and forced labour. Whilst this may help those victims of forced labour, it will mean nothing for those coerced by the gangs into cheap labour. As it is legally perceived as consensual employment, such extortion will remain particularly hard to prosecute; those destitute are perceived to have ‘chosen’ to be exploited. The gangs and ‘recruitment agencies’ thereby rely on such legal impunity.

Exploitative labour is not just as a problem for the road workers of Jharkhand, the migrant construction workers in Saudi Arabia or the sweatshop workers of China, but as a global problem for the developed and developing world. And for the solution to an international problem, we need an international reaction.

Bronte Philips

International Women: A ‘Pandemic’ of Abuse

Throughout time, across continents and cultures, there has been no crime more greatly persecuted than the offense of being born female. In the name of honour, family, and religion, their most basic rights are habitually abused, the women themselves a matter of property. International women’s day this Saturday provides a chance to shout for those who have no voice.

Nothing on a national level compares to the global scale of violence against women, which the organisation UN women calls “pandemic”. In many countries, women are routinely denied not only the right to education and healthcare, but the right to feel safe, valued and unique, recent studies revealing that 54% of children are not in school – and over 64 million are child brides, more than the total UK population. Female genital mutilation affects 140 million, a figure thought to explain why pregnancy complications are the main causes of death amongst 15-19 year olds.

This year, International Women’s Week calls for change in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where UN forces have failed in protecting women from rape as a weapon of war even within refugee camps. They demand support for women in Egypt who have seen a rise in gender-targeted assault, including highly invasive “virginity tests”. They call for women’s rights in Afghanistan, where honour-killing and self-immolation of girls as young as 14 are frequent consequences of child marriage, the withdrawal of UN troops threatening to worsen the situation.

Yet there are many issues which will not be drawn attention to: women are the greatest casualties of poverty, with 10% of Nepalese (many in their 20s) suffering from uterine prolepsis caused by early child birth and carrying heavy loads. India’s degrading attitudes towards women boosts a thriving sex industry, with 20,000 sex workers working in Kamathipura, many trafficked children – after all, girls under 16 charge four times the price. One woman is raped in India every seven seconds – and these are the statistics we know about.

Those who speak out for women’s rights face even greater risks of persecution. This does not just include the Malalas, the politicians, the journalists, but those who deal with women daily as part of their career – teachers, health and security workers. In Amnesty’s report on Afghan women, a gynaecologist told of how her son had been shot because his mother helped rape victims. Yet even in the most dangerous environments, women’s rights groups provide support and hope for a better future. Despite assassinations of group members, ‘Women for Afghan Women’ has helped more than 8,000 women since 2007. Such movements are lighting candles for women of other communities, creating their own counter-epidemics. The resistance is contagious.

As an international community, we cannot continue to support an environment where women’s issues can remain silent. There is a difference between what is culturally relative and what constitutes the systematic abuse of human rights. Without imposing any ‘western’ priority, we must support the women looking to change their society – from the inside out. They need our voice, your voice.

Bronte Philips

The Death Penalty: Not a Dead Issue

Adultery, fraud, treason, blasphemy, sorcery, drugs-smuggling, arson. All offences for which, depending on where you live, what you did, who your father was and what colour your skin is, you can be injected, stoned, hung or beheaded completely legitimately, with the cold authority of the state. You don’t even have to have committed any of the above; you can be killed for planted evidence or even no evidence at all, under the lies of the prosecutor or a confession beaten out of you. And you can languish on death row for 20 years waiting for the day to come when they give you a number and a bare cross, or dump you in a ditch. People might even watch.

Iran, Iraq, USA were the most prolific executing countries in 2012 after China, whose figures on the death penalty are regarded as a state secret – meaning there are believed to be thousands killed every year that we don’t even know about.

With Belarus as the only European country still attached to the death penalty, you’d be forgiven for thinking the UK exempt from the issue, as a country elevated above and distanced from the practice of institutionalised killings. Everyone has a right to life (Article 3, 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and everyone has the right not to be tortured, or subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment (Article 5). Can we truly respect these crucial values, knowing that elsewhere they are systematically broken? Surely “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Martin Luther King Jr.).

There are few more perverted abuses of human rights than fiddling with someone’s end date. Hakamada Iwao, now 77, is the longest serving death row inmate having waited 45 years, with many of those years in solitary confinement. According to Japanese practice, an inmate has no known death date – for Iwao, every morning could be his last.

Despite the horrific abuse between death sentence and death punishment, even if you firmly believe victims need vengeance, even if you deny the evidence of the death penalty’s failure to deter and even if you believe there exist crimes that only death can rectify, people are flawed, bigoted and corrupt, thus contaminating even the most rigorous justice system with errors – deliberate, as well as accidental. An execution is an error that can’t be undone.


Yet this is without considering that the majority of countries using the death penalty operate executions under already skewed justice systems, for political convenience, using unreliable evidence, or for crimes unworthy of the word criminal. In China, there are 55 capital offences, including fraud, jailbreaking and embezzlement. In Africa, Mauritania, Sudan, northern Nigeria and southern Somalia, you can be killed just for being gay. Only last year, North Korea publically executed around 80 people, many for watching smuggled TV shows. In Iran and Iraq, two of the largest executing counties, frequently death sentences are carried out based on ‘confessions’, a strategy otherwise known as beating the accused until they sign their own death warrant.

Yet it isn’t just far flung, lesser developed judicial systems that get it wrong. In the USA, 142 former death row inmates have been exonerated; that’s one innocent inmate released for every ten that have been executed. Indeed, plea-bargaining, poor or unreliable representatives and even the location of the crime create a lottery effect of who lives and who dies. In many states, the colour of your skin is a matter of life or death: of those sentenced to death in 2012, 60% were of ethnic minorities, a group making up just 36% of the population.

The death penalty should not be condoned for any crime, be it homicide or homosexuality. Whether or not a person is guilty or innocent, blood-thirsty or remorseful, sick or misguided, the absolute degradation of personhood that constitutes a systematic killing on behalf of the state is an offense against human rights the modern world should not be willing to tolerate, let alone contemplate.

Bronte Philips

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Thumbscrew

He was getting medical care for his son in Tijuana, northern Mexico, when they arrested him. Blindfolded, he is taken to a military base. Struck in the ribs, forced to walk on his knees, kicked, punched in the stomach. A plastic bag is put over his head to provoke near asphyxiation. Stripped, he is forced to lick clean the shoes of other detainees. Then he’s forced to sign a false statement. The authorities see the wounds; they do nothing.

You sit down and pick up a pen. ‘Dear President…’ Something about the government. Something about the Istanbul protocol – you take another biscuit – the international community, medical examinations, independent investigations… the letter meets the others, it’s put in the letterbox, you go home.

Angel Colon couldn’t stand up to his torturers, his imprisoners, the government. But thanks to thousands of similar letters, on 15 October 2014 the Mexican Federal Attorney General agreed to drop charges and release him unconditionally. Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese mother sentenced to death for her refusal to denounce her Christian faith; after over one million joined the Amnesty campaign, she was released, now living in New Hampshire.Two years ago, Mikhail Kosenko was committed to a closed psychiatric hospital by a compulsory treatment court order for his role in the Bolotnaya Square protest. He is now released. Nabeel Rajab, a prominent Bahraini human rights activist jailed for calling for anti-government protests, was released on 24 May. There are hundreds more success stories; all it takes is a brief Google search.

In December 2013, more than 2.3 million letters, emails, SMS messages, faxes and tweets were sent in Amnesty’s “Write for Rights” campaign, beating last year’s record of 1.9 million actions; and this year, the recently launched ‘Stop Torture’ campaign is seeking even more. Whether its letters of support for the family, the community, the survivor or to those directly responsible, Amnesty is a name to be feared and respected; whether it works, or doesn’t. In the words of Belarusian Ihar Tsikhanyuk, a drag artist and LGBTI activist beaten by police for being gay: “When I’m left with no hope to fight, I’ll get a letter and the light of hope appears again,” he said. “I remember I’m not alone”.

It’s not a popular opinion to have these days – most would rather absolve their guilt in cynicism – but people power is important, relevant, unifying. And it’s effective.

Bronte Philips

Palestine: When Aid Is Not Enough

The 139 square mile territory of the Gaza strip is what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon calls “destruction beyond description”. 2170 dead on both sides during a 50 day bombardment in a brutal crackdown on ‘Hamas operatives’: 97% Palestinian, principally civilian, 500 children. 4 billion tons of lingering rubble: mosques, ambulances, beaches, schools of towering concrete flattened by ‘targeted’ drone attacks. One in five have access to water only once a week, the electricity only functioning for 4-6 hours every day, the sewage system demolished. Hospitals still standing are beyond full capacity, running on faulty equipment with an acute shortage of drugs for an acute overflow of casualties.

This is Gaza, two months after the assault. Only last Tuesday did building materials (scrupulously raided in search of arms) pass through the crossing with Israel. It wasn’t until a week ago that the international community pledged aid towards reparations.

Whilst the pledges in total amounted to £3.4 billion, if the last ten years have taught the Palestinians anything, it is that it is one achievement to raise the money, and yet another to collect it; the billions pledged in aid after the Operation 2008-9 were never received. Palestine is controversial. And this time the destruction is worse – much worse.
Firstly, the £3.4 billion is not just for Gaza; many countries included contributions already allotted for Palestine. Additionally, there are border blockades: Israel’s stranglehold still restricts goods entering Gaza, meaning the process of actually getting aid-materials in will be tortuously slow. At the Egyptian entry point, Egyptian authorities have refused to allow aid through, claiming the access point only sustains people (denied refugee status in Egypt), not urgent medical supplies.

Food is also scarce, the secret import tunnels into Gaza demolished and the trickle of food through the border and the 6-mile fishing area not enough to support the population; the 65,000 homeless have nothing to pay with. Yet even with one-off aid, without a lift in the crippled economy any sort of recovery will be slow. And who’s to say the area won’t be flattened again in a few year’s time? Aid to Israel has not been reduced.
So, what else? Yes, 130 different countries including Britain have voted for Palestine’s recognition as a state. But if the UN continues to preserve Israel as immune to International Law, possession of statehood will be irrelevant; the people of Gaza will not be protected. Meanwhile, 65,000 Gazans are facing a winter without a roof.

Bronte Philips

Easier to Smuggle than Cocaine

Under the label of ‘human trafficking’, modern day slavery is easy to sanitise. Whilst now not endorsed by governments, the practice of human trafficking continues to spread rapidly on a global scale, operating effectively under the streets, under immigration controls and under communities, affecting countries of deportation, transit and destination. But modern day slavery isn’t based on attitudes towards gender or race. It exists and grows for the same reasons that any other business exists: supply and demand. Where there continues to be a demand for cheap labour, sex slaves and domestic workers, and a large supply of vulnerable individuals, there will be those who seek to benefit from the gap in the market.

Human trafficking is the largest growing illicit business and, according to ILO (International Labour Organistation) estimates, the second largest source of illegal income worldwide, exceeded only by drugs trafficking.

Amnesty International defines human trafficking as “the possession of people by improper means, such as force, threat or deception, for the purpose of exploiting them”, improper means defined by UN Protocol as anything from “violent coercion… abduction… fraud… [or] deception”. Human trafficking covers many forms of exploitation, from sex work (including prostitution of minors) to enforced/domestic labour, and even the non-consensual removal of human organs.

There are many instances where victims are forcibly trafficked, abducted, or else threatened by torture or violence against their family; indeed, 23% of rescued victims last year were children. However, the far greyer area of human trafficking occurs when consent is engineered. According to an Amnesty report (‘False Promises’), there is an epidemic of what they call “trafficking for forced labour”: poverty-stricken workers, under the illusion of a better life for their families in the ‘promised land’ states of the Gulf or Malaysia, end up working 21 hour days under the threat of sexual abuse, little food and an even smaller salary. Their passports are confiscated, and their loans taken out to buy the one-way ticket to paradise act as metaphysical shackles, effectively enchaining them to a lifetime of labour, misery and anonymity. Equally, women promised careers as dancers or even university education become sex workers in the red light district of Amsterdam or prostitutes in British brothels.

There an estimated 27 million adults and 13 million children around the world today (the total population of Argentina) who are victims of human trafficking. And these are only cases we are aware of – human trafficking will continue to increase in scale as drugs traffickers turn to human trafficking as a higher profit, lower risk enterprise. After all – 15 terrified sex workers are less easy to detect than 15lbs of cocaine.


Yet despite its scale, the crime remains quiet within the media. We are all content to believe that such cases only occur within less-privileged, more densely populated areas of the UK. But slavery isn’t an outdated problem – only last year, a cross-county raid uncovered ring-leaders of a sextrafficking gang operating on the streets of Cambridge, rescuing numerous women taken from south-east Asia.

Amnesty International aims to halt the abuse of human rights caused by human trafficking by putting pressure on governments to prevent the ‘promised land’ illusion, and by aiding groups such as the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, which measures the UK’s involvement within the issue. To support their efforts, the Cambridge Amnesty group meets every Sunday at 5pm at the Gatehouse, Clare College.

Bronte Phillips

originally published by TCS –

Afghanistan: Women’s Rights

The plight of Afghanistan is one as complex as it is sorrowful. After decades of conflict spanning from Russian invasion, through American proxy war, civil war, Taliban domination and the War on Terror, the state of human rights is as crushed and mangled as the flattened buildings of Kabul. In light of the imminent U.S. withdrawal of troops from the country, concerns for the protection of women’s rights have become increasingly serious.

To promote awareness of the issue, Cambridge Amnesty hosted a film screening of the documentary ‘A View From A Grain of Sand’, directed by Meena Nanji on her second visit Afghanistan with the primary aim of comparing life under Taliban rule to conditions after the regime’s expulsion. It retells the horrors of the great power shifts within Afghani decades of conflict by following three women drastically impacted by the reign of the Taliban: Sharpiray, a teacher in the permanent refugee camp of New Shamsitu, Dr. Rooena, a doctor in the same camp, and Wajia, a member of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), a women’s campaign group for equal rights, education and healthcare.

Under Taliban rule, as the film documents, strict laws such as the banning of women’s activity outside of the home without accompaniment by a ‘mahram’ (close male relative/husband) were enforced with severe punishments in an effort to create their interpretation of an Islamic state. Yet the intent behind Nanji’s lack of censorship of Taliban brutality (including clips of public executions) is not to shock for the sake of being shocking: this is the harsh reality of Afghan life within a country branded the hardest place to be a woman.

And yet the documentary serves a purpose in exposing a context unknown and unimaginable for many: a not-too-distant history of a pre-conflict, pre-Taliban, progressive Afghanistan. Clips of women walking through the lush gardens of Kabul in swinging sixties miniskirts and engaging in lecture debates possess an all-too bitter contrast in comparison to shots from under burqas of women beaten in the street for wearing noisy shoes. The Wahabi Islam of the Taliban on top of years of conflict appears to have completely erased such a liberal identity from Afghani history.

Whilst women’s rights in Afghanistan under the relative protection of UN forces has offered a number of the 80% of Afghan illiterate women aged 15-24 an opportunity to attend school, the artificial installation of such rights by the international community without an accompanying culture shift has caused many activists and an even greater number of Afghani women to fear for their lives and rights after UN withdrawal. Suspicions that Karzai’s fragile government, still permeated by civil war barons, will compromise these rights during the peace process with the Taliban are ever increasing, as quiet reversals in policy occur more and more frequently: cuts in the number of council seats for female representation, and a criminal code redraft protecting perpetrators of domestic violence. This stands without mentioning the increased evidence of a culture of violence on an individual level – a culture including acid attacks, beatings and killings as well as suicide attempts and self-immolation inflicted by the women themselves. And the recent decision to reinstate the punishment of public stoning for adulterers in the redraft of the penal code (article 21 & 23) only provides a sad confirmation of these suspicions: women are not seen as worthy of protection even within the eyes of the government. The spectre of brutal Taliban human rights abuses looms over the Afghan people like a waking nightmare.


Yet the picture ‘A View From a Grain of Sand’ presents is not an altogether hopeless one. Nanji’s direction is closely tied to the efforts of RAWA, within the country itself as well as in the dusty refugee camps now permanent settlements for many Afghanis. Nanji’s protagonists present a powerful image of the grit of Afghan women as they jeopardise their safety in fighting women’s rights abuses.

All of this is, of course, does not mute the degree of tragedy in the failure of the UN exit strategy. However, a less than successful international military intervention and an anti-female sentiment entrenched by decades of conflict does not give the global community a license to ignore the struggles of the Afghan women. Helping end the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan does not have to involve a grand imposition of Western democratic values; the Amnesty International campaign focuses instead on supporting and protecting those involved in campaigning for women’s rights, and most importantly of late aiding women to get engaged in the peace process. Giving these cries a voice, outside as well as inside Afghanistan, must become a fundamental role for the international community to play in ending the brutal abuses of women’s rights – a vision inherent to ‘A View From a Grain of Sand’, and a role crucial to the Amnesty campaign.

Bronte Phillips

originally published by TCS

Michaelmas Cage Event – Sign Up Now !

This Michaelmas, from 14th – 16th October, the Amnesty Cage will emerge once again from hibernation to draw the startled attention of passers-by, perching on King’s Lawn in all its ancient and somewhat shabby glory. We need you to make it work! Cambridge Amnesty members have been spending their days and nights manning the petition stall and huddling behind bars for at least fourteen years. From one angle, that’s something to be proud of. From another, it illustrates just how longmany injustices still drag out.

One such injustice we continue to highlight this year is the detention of Shaker Aamer, a British resident and father of four who has been held since 2002 without charge in Guantánamo Bay. Despite President Barack Obama’s executive order of 2009, which committed the US Administration to closing Guantánamo within a year, 171 men are still held there. Shaker Aamer is the last British resident left in Guantánamo Bay, and despite calls for his return by the UK government, he remains in indefinite detention. This constitutes a serious human rights violation – one which by February 2012 will have continued for ten years.

Shaker Aamer must either be given a fair trial in US federal courts or released back to his wife and children in the UK. To make sure that he is not forgotten, and to keep the pressure firmly on the US government to end this travesty of justice, we will be getting petitions signed by the public and letting as many people as possible know what’s going on. Stand up for human rights, meet new people – and enjoy free biscuits!

To date, only one Guantánamo detainee has been transferred to the US mainland for trial in a civilian court; trials by military commission do not meet international standards of fairness.

Aamer is originally from Saudi Arabia but is married to a British citizen and has four British children. He had permission to live indefinitely in the UK when he was originally detained in Afghanistan by Afghan forces in the autumn of 2001.

Through his lawyer, Aamer has alleged that he was badly beaten and subjected to death threats in front of an MI5 officer as well as US intelligence officials while being secretly held and interrogated in Afghanistan in early 2002. In February 2002 Aamer was transferred to Guantánamo Bay. There are allegations that he was again tortured there, and he has spent long periods of his incarceration at the camp in solitary confinement.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen sums it up: “Shaker has already had nine years of his life stolen from him, he says he’s been horribly tortured and he’s still sitting in a cell without any form of due process.”

Sign up here! Note: the purpose of the form is not to collect people’s availabilities, but rather to let you decide which slot you intend to attend. Signing up to more than one slot is possible and encouraged, but you are invited to attend all those to which you sign up for if possible !