Nov 24 2015

Beyond the Straight Path: Obstacles and Progress for Atheism in Turkey

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By Maria Inês Teixeira*

Having long inspired Middle Eastern countries attempting to pursue a secular government while maintaining Islam as a reference, Turkey is often described as a bridge between civilizations; a functional blend of East and West, preserving the best of both worlds. However, a closer look will reveal a contemporary struggle for women’s rights, freedom of speech and freedom of belief – or, more specifically in the case of belief, the freedom to express a lack thereof. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, representing the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power since 2002, has been internationally criticized for allegedly attempting to build a Neo-Ottoman Era, in which international human rights standards would suffer in favor of Islamic principles. However, despite President Erdoğan’s pledge in 2002 to raise generations of devout Muslims, academic author Volkan Ertit claims Turks are walking away from religion: “The prohibition of selling alcoholic beverages on high-speed trains in Turkey, the desire to ban extramarital sex, the discussion of boys and girls living under the same roof, the statements that the Justice and Development Party is raising a ‘pious generation’…all these are about the relation between the state and religion. But I am talking about the relation between religion and society. Society is not becoming more pious, the political arena is. The two are separate things.” One thus realizes government policy and social behavior are not necessarily interchangeable. In Turkey, they often collide.

Aydın Türk, author of Ateizmi Anlamak (Understanding Atheism) and the blog Turkish Atheist, explains the often negative connotation associated with the concept of atheism: “For a typical Muslim, the claim that someone does not believe in ‘Allah’ is so unbelievable that they always look for a catch. This person has to be either dishonest (a missionary who hides their true purpose), or mentally disabled, or psychologically unbalanced. The belief is that there is no way someone with a working brain would not believe in God. This has been the official view in Turkey, and possibly in the whole Islamic world when it comes to atheism”.

However, the struggle for atheist rights in Turkey is more than cultural – it is legal. The Turkish Association of Atheism, the first legal atheist organization in the Middle East and the Balkans founded in 2014, explicitly attempts to review details of the Turkish Penal Code and understand how it justifies punishment against atheists. Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code, for instance, is frequently used in court against atheists, under the accusation of inciting the population to enmity or hatred: “Anyone who openly denigrates the religious values of a part of the population shall be sentenced to imprisonment from six months to one year.” However, when confronted with the list of lawsuits against atheism in Turkey published by the Turkish Association of Atheism, one realizes that “insulting Islam” is a rather broad accusation, including retweeting atheist poetry on Twitter, translating atheist texts to Turkish, or posting videos about evolutionism. The very website of Richard Dawkins, the iconic British ethologist, evolutionary biologist and writer, was shut down between 2008 and 2011. Furthermore, the website of the Turkish Association of Atheism was also shut down on 4 March 2015 – less than a year after its creation – with article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code justifying this move.

Such events directly violate the eighteenth article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948): “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” [emphasis added]. Apostasy has long been perceived a crime in the Islamic world. In Saudi Arabia, being an atheist is officially considered a terrorist offense. In Egypt, abandoning faith is perceived as an unforgivable decision: in 2013, 88% of the population believed the death penalty was a just consequence for those who had decided to turn their backs on Islam. Pakistan presented similar statistics, with 60% of the population agreeing with the punishment. Rarely does contemporary law in Islamic countries recognize atheism per se as a crime: imprisonment and the death penalty are reserved for those who commit terrorism-related offenses. Considering previous observations regarding the cultural prejudice against atheism and the negative connotation it still suffers, one can understand how easily the atheist cause can be misunderstood or manipulated to signify terrorism, fear and the dissemination of an anti-Islam mindset. However, and as much as the Holy Qur’an clearly supports this perspective, atheism is far from signifying hatred for God. According to Sener Atik of the Turkish Association of Atheism in Istanbul, “Things we say are considered ‘insults,’ though in a secular state everyone should be free to believe whatever they want. Despite this, a journalist in a mainstream newspaper can explicitly write: “It’s the duty of every Muslim to be cruel to atheists.” But we do not have a problem with anyone’s faith, nor are we adversaries of religions. We are only trying to inform.”

However, not representing the most conservative of Middle Eastern countries, Turkey is an ideal environment to explore atheist rights in the Islamic world. A constitutionally secular nation, it currently faces an increasingly strained relationship between Islamic law and the promise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, revolutionary and the president of the first secular Turkish republic in 1923. Additionally, the threat of a presidential system in which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would seize more power than the current constitution allows is imminent: “Whether one accepts it or not, Turkey’s administrative system has changed. Now, what should be done is to update this de facto situation in the legal framework of the constitution,” the President claimed in August 2015. This shift could imply bad news for atheists, in a country where journalists are being increasingly harassed and the index of internet freedom is lower than that of Nigeria.

However, atheism in Turkey is not stagnant. The common perception that Turkey is composed of a 99% Muslim population is condemned by the Turkish Association of Atheism as a cliché: “Although it violates Articles 14 and 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the religion of children in Turkey is stated both on state identification cards and birth certificates issued in Turkey. (…) As we know, religion is not transferred via DNA or genetics. Therefore, such assumptions should not be made by the state or the family of a child. (…) The revelation of religious affiliation or lack thereof automatically creates bias and prejudice for individuals who do not affiliate themselves with the majority belief system, in this case Sunni Islam.” The Association provides further suggestions for reformation, such as creating a more pronounced separation between mandatory education and religious courses, eschewing the practice of forcing minors to participate in religious rites and rituals in public boarding homes, and drafting new laws protecting the rights of religious minorities and atheists and punishing discrimination against them.

The need for these initiatives illustrates that the detainment of and discrimination against atheists and religious minorities is a reality in present-day Turkey. The Association of Atheism, atheist authors such as Aydın Türk and Twitter activists expressing their detachment from Islamic teachings may be the architects of a new destination beyond the straight path.

*Maria Inês Teixeira holds a Master of Management and Cultural Studies from ISCTE Lisbon University Institute. She is an independent researcher and currently a recruiter for Amnesty International Portugal.

Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Nov 19 2015

Provocative, honest, fierce: A review of Ai Weiwei’s London exhibition

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By Kim Nelson*

Ai Weiwei’s art situates itself within the cold reality of human rights in China. The very material used within his work is suggestive of the authorities’ hold upon the political and economic freedom of its citizens. In his recent exhibition at the Royal Academy – the largest showing of his work in the UK – important issues have been raised relating to governance, human rights, and freedom of expression within his country.

Weiwei’s art is derived from his own experience of China’s political and cultural history. His father, Ai Qing (1910 – 1996) was a poet sent into exile during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, a time when the arts became the practice of a hidden and oppressed minority. Living within a ‘Democratic’ movement of artists from an early age, Weiwei became an important figure in preserving freedom of expression in China.

In the exhibition, Ai Weiwei presents a diverse collection of his work dating back to the early 1990s. His approach combines traditional practices in Chinese craftsmanship, alongside his own minimalist influences. Ai Weiwei is open to a variety of emerging mediums. As both an artist and activist he has embraced multimedia and has gained a vast and loyal following on Twitter and Instagram (most recently, thousands of people offered to contribute LEGO for a upcoming exhibition in Melbourne, Australia). This is particularly significant in the face of China’s crackdowns on social media in 2009.

Though perhaps speaking from a West-centric perspective here, it seems the most emotive sculptures within the exhibition were those that spoke of real, and often deeply personal situations within the artist’s home country. For instance, one of the most striking pieces in the exhibition, Straight (2008-2012), tells a story of the artist’s response to a specific human rights issue in China. The sculpture is comprised of over 90 tonnes of straightened steel rebar – an otherwise simple building material – stretching across the floor, as one coherent and undulating form. Yet beyond its aesthetic quality, the story of this artwork becomes clear. This sculpture stands as a political monument.

'Straight', by Ai Weiwei.

‘Straight’, by Ai Weiwei. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

The salvaged rebar that formed this sculpture were found in the rubble of the 2008 Earthquake in China’s Sichuan province, which left over 80,000 people dead. In the face of such complete desolation, Ai Weiwei felt compelled to expose the corrupt, incompetent and clandestine nature of the Chinese authorities in response to such a humanitarian catastrophe. One significant criticism launched at the government was the substandard foundations of the school buildings, which could have partly been to blame for the deaths of 5000 school children. Responding to the refusal of the authorities to release any information, Ai Weiwei pursued his own citizens investigation to record and commemorate the deaths of the children who perished in the earthquake. This had a profound effect upon the artist. In a recent interview, he recalls visiting the site and “physically shaking” with the knowledge that there were “so many students under those stones”. In the same exhibition room, a symbol of memorialisation spanned the walls; the name, age and school of each child were documented. Both pieces, displayed together in the same room, had an unsettling effect: the thousands of names on the wall surrounding the steel rebar sculpture indicated the overwhelming scale of the earthquake.

More broadly, Weiwei’s art is both “fearless and uncompromising” in speaking out against the Chinese government. However, in doing so, Ai Weiwei has been subjected to continuous and intrusive surveillance of his daily life. The theme of surveillance is something that the artist also explores in his work. Walking into the seventh room of the exhibition, you can see the sculpture, Marble Stroller (2014), a solid marble replica of his son’s pushchair. The sculpture is as absurd, as it is pointless. Yet, in its own right, is something worth celebrating. While in one sense completely redundant, Marble Stroller remains an object of exquisite beauty and profound implication. In fact, the artist designed this piece after discovering that undercover police were photographing him and his son during visits to the local park. Despite surveillance cameras watching him and his studio twenty-four hours a day, Weiwei’s art expresses both humour and defiance against China’s panoptic power.

The fragility of human rights in China has a significant lineage. Even in the last few years, the number of government crackdowns on dissonant areas of civil society is notable, with lawyersbloggers, and journalists facing arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch have spoken of the significant risk of “police monitoring, detention, arrest, enforced disappearance, and torture” that many activists face.

In 2011, Weiwei was arrested and held in a detention facility for a total of eighty-one days. His piece S.A.C.R.E.D (2012) is a reference to this experience. The sculpture appears as six shoulder-height iron boxes – a product of the artist’s minimalist influence – sitting starkly within the grandeur of the exhibition hall. As a viewer, you are able to look into the box through small apertures that reveal model replicas of the artist’s time in prison. Although the replications are derived from the artist’s own memory, each diorama remains meticulously detailed. As you gaze upon the uncomfortable scenes of Ai Weiwei showering, defecating and eating, you can notice the disturbing presence of two soldiers looming over him, watching and recording every move. The interactive element of this piece is in itself intrusive. The voyeuristic nature of the sculpture reinforces the theme of surveillance that is present throughout his practice.

'S.A.C.R.E.D'. Two Chinese Prison Guards watch Weiwei continuously as he goes about his daily routine. Creative Commons.

‘S.A.C.R.E.D’. Two Chinese Prison Guards watch Weiwei continuously as he goes about his daily routine. Creative Commons.

In Ai Weiwei’s work, the relationship between art and politics becomes intrinsic. As the artist says: “if we have to examine my art or my politics, I think the two are inseparable”. Of further interest has been the reaction that his work has generated in the UK. The claim by the UK’s Chinese Ambassador that the success of Weiwei in Europe and America is the sole product of his political defiance to China, suggests that the voice of the Chinese state continues to discredit the artist’s own political and professional integrity. However, this claim by the Ambassador remains an obtuse insight into how Western audiences perceive the apparent universality of human rights. Although the focus on China is unsurprising, Ai Weiwei’s art and politics speaks more broadly of the values that all nation-states should adhere to. But this is all more challenging after the recent visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to the UK, who was given a royal welcome by David Cameron with the hope of striking important bilateral trade deals. Ai Weiwei openly criticised the UK government’s willingness to “sacrifice very essential values for this short-sighted gain in business”.

In many ways, Ai Weiwei is a voice for people who continue to fight for human rights within their countries. His work stands as an important reminder of the fragility of these values in the face of such uninhibited and coercive state power.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy in London continues until 13 December 2015.

*Kim Nelson is a MSc Human Rights student at LSE, and an editor of the LSE Human Rights blog. 

Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Nov 16 2015

‘In conversation with Amartya Sen’ at the LSE

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Amartya Sen. LSE Archives.

Professor Amartya Sen. LSE Archives.

By Leila Nasr*

Engaging, composed, and timeless: these are the words that come to mind when reflecting on Professor Amartya Sen’s most recent public lecture at the LSE on 6 November 2015. Well publicised and highly oversubscribed, the talk – chaired by Professor Nicholas Stern, IG Patel Professor and Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE – attracted a range of students, professionals, academics, and media personnel who came together to get a glimpse of one of the world’s most prominent development thinkers.

Born in 1933, Professor Sen is an economist, philosopher and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics whose career has been dedicated to the examination of pressing issues, including the economics of welfare and justice, social choice theory, rationality and collective choice, economic freedom, and more. He is Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, and has previously held positions at Jadavpur University Calcutta, the Delhi School of Economics, Oxford University and, of course, the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he remains an honorary fellow. Accordingly, he concedes almost humorously that he has never held a serious non-academic job in his lifetime. As his words begin to flow through the auditorium, one gets the feeling that he wouldn’t rather have it any other way.

The topic of the event was Professor Sen’s newest publication, The Country of First Boys: a collection of essays in which he discusses some of the most fundamental issues facing India, and the world, today, including illiteracy, hunger, freedom of speech, inequality and exclusion. The conversation took shape around four key themes that Professor Stern drew out from his most recent book as well as his life’s writings.

The first of these themes was the notion of multiple identities – i.e. the notion that an individual is made up of various characteristics and components that work in unison to create the whole being. Cautioning against those who may selectively emphasise an individual’s or people group’s particular characteristics over others for their personal or political gain, Professor Sen said that we should remain aware of the ‘politics of partition’, which serves to divide and alienate minorities (citing the examples of refugees and Islamophobia). In light of this, he went on to stress the importance of a better understanding of the multiplicity of identities, so as to foster improved social cohesion and inclusivity in the long term.

Following on from this, the discussion focused on Professor Stern’s next question: what should drive and guide us when thinking about development policy? In response, Sen remarked that policy makers should remember that inequality is relative. Specifically, he noted that income inequality is less systemically problematic than the education and freedom inequality that often underpin this. Professor Sen went on to explain that inequality and deprivation are not universally understood but, rather, these concepts are contextually dependent (e.g. poverty in Canada, for example, is not understood or manifest in the same way as poverty in India), and should be dealt with accordingly.

Moving on to a question about the role of growth and human development in making policy, Sen replied: “The distinction that is presently being made between growth and human development is a ‘fake horse race’.” Here, Professor Sen concisely articulated his view that investing in people is not only a story of economic growth, but is also an equally important story of individual and social progress. He went on to offer the example of Japan where, upon realising that they lagged behind the United States in terms of national development, invested considerable resources in education, healthcare, and market support throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, enabling them to arrive at a point whereby the country now produces more literature than anywhere else in the world. On a more personal note, Sen added that this changed his own thinking and engagement with predominant lines of economic thought, leading him to appreciate this notion of critical human development as economic freedom.

The conversation ended with a sharp yet warmly welcomed change of direction, turning to a reflection on Professor Sen’s personal life, provoked by a question concerning his early engagement in schooling, and the role that his father played in teaching him Sanskrit, as well as teaching him about the Bhagavad-Gita (one of the most foundational texts of Hinduism). Sen nostalgically remarked that this period of his upbringing allowed him to gain an important independent understanding of how to essentially determine ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ for himself, external of any need to prove the existence or non-existence of a deity upon which to found one’s ethical behaviors (as is has been common throughout mankind in one way or another).

Following the one-on-one conversation with Professor Stern, the discussion was opened up to the crowd. Questions focused broadly on Indian nationalism and the changing tide of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well as the most controversial topic in Europe at present, refugee policy. Professor Sen gave meaningful responses to each question, despite the limited amount of time, noting that to confront these crises head-on, there needs to be a fundamental recognition our global identity (this tied back into the first theme regarding multiple identities and their potential to comprise a force for good). Such recognition, he said, will better equip us to treat such people groups with respect and dignity.

While Professor Sen is not physically imposing, it is clear that he remains one of the foremost development thinkers in the business, offering the packed auditorium critical and ultimately practical reflections on identity and development, with a healthy dose of humour and personal insight.

The conversation was one not to be missed, however, if you were not able to be there in person, be sure to listen to the LSE podcast of the event.

*Leila Nasr is a MSc Human Rights student at the LSE, and is Lead Editor of the LSE Human Rights Blog.

Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Nov 12 2015

In Flanders Fields, where poppies wilt? A critical commentary.

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By Leila Nasr*

At this time each year, in predominantly Western countries, we are met with a sea of red poppies pinned on lapels and hung on key chains to mark the anniversary of World Armistice Day, which signalled the end of the First World War. A long-standing international tradition for many in the UK and a sentiment that is shared in Australia and New Zealand’s ‘ANZAC’ day as well as the United State’s’ ‘Memorial Day’, among others, the wearing of the poppy symbolises a solemn respect for the military personnel who lost their lives during WWI, and it has arguably been extended to include all service men and women who have died fighting more recent wars, to whom we are expected to award our highest respect.

It is deeply unfortunate, then, that this symbol has today been coopted to symbolise much, much more than our soldiers themselves likely bargained for. As will be outlined below, when we hold the fragile sentiment of remembrance up to the light today, it emerges as highly selective, politically strategic, and largely counter-intuitive when we push past the emotion-filled rhetoric and critically engage with its underpinnings.

Selective regret and the ‘moral hierarchy’

The service men and women whom this national day commemorates surely put their lives in harm’s way to fight off some of the most brutal global ills our world has witnessed, and I agree that the tragedy of their war-induced deaths should be remembered with solemnity. Indeed, this agreement is precisely why I refuse to commemorate Remembrance Day or wear a red poppy: because solemnity is certainly not the primary motivation behind the occasion today. With this in mind, my first contention with the concept seems somewhat obvious: why doesn’t this same regret extend to every loss of human life in war? Why must we be endlessly pressured at this time of year to patriotically exalt and extol those holding the guns, yet entirely ignore the civilians who stare down the dark barrel on the other side, or indeed the humanitarians who stitch up the wounds that war leaves behind? Instead, on November 11, we often unthinkingly emphasise an active avoidance of empathy toward those the state requires us to put to the back of our minds, in order for their next war to remain plausible.

This reality speaks to what Richard Jackson has aptly termed the “moral hierarchy” of war. This is the burgeoning notion tucked underneath the silky petals of the red poppy that some victims of war (i.e. the ones doing the killing) are more worthy of our admiration than others. This peculiar awarding of gratitude relative to political expediency undermines the very ideals of national unity and collective identity that headline our newspapers at this time. Beyond this, they serve to actively create a fraudulent collective memory, frequently employing powerful nationalist rhetoric which itself has provided some foundational justifications for the same wars we are said to be commemorating.

Another day at the office

It is this embedded nobility factor that is used so well by political elites when it comes time to justify the next war as they return to their offices after having dutifully laid their red wreath in the morning hours. This ‘political hijacking’ of Remembrance Day has even been expressed by a number of war veterans who disagree with the premise of the concept today. Examples include Harry Leslie Smith, who has openly spoken about the poppy as something politicians use to justify and promote wars today that, in his view, are eroding democracy. His view is shared by a number of other veterans who fought in the Falklands and Northern Ireland conflicts. To be sure, just moments after having mouthed the words “never to be repeated again”, our elites get back down to business, signing weapons deals with dictators, trade agreements with terrorists, and inviting those accused of being war criminals to indulge in a cup of tea on home soil.

Contradictory politics aside, the Royal British Legion – the major charity associated with the promotion of Remembrance Day and the red poppy appeal – is also not immune to such criticisms. The Legion has openly acknowledged that the idea behind the red poppy today is not as blemish-free as they perhaps intended it to be. According to their spokesperson, Robert Lee, these criticisms are “a fair cop”; however Lee went on to note that, despite this, the Legion is “not a warmongering organisation”. I therefore find it disconcerting and outrageously contradictory that some of the organisation’s most important financial sponsors include Lockheed Martin, the worlds biggest arms company, as well as BAE Systems, whose support for the Legion has been likened to “King Herod sponsoring a special day reserved to prevent child cruelty”.

Patriotism, shaming and critical thinking

Here I’d like to pause and stress that, despite my strong personal view on the subject, I believe – perhaps even more strongly – that people should be free to do exactly as they please; to wear a poppy or not, to attend a commemorative service or not, and to be free from the demonisation of that (hopefully informed) choice. Unfortunately, this is not the reality we see today, as the social pressure to wear a poppy seems to grow exponentially the further we get from WWI, with anyone who doesn’t wear one at risk of being labelled “insensitive” or “unpatriotic”.

This concept has been embodied in recent years by sportsman James McClean, who plays for West Bromwich Football Club. Born in Cregan, Northern Ireland, McClean has publicly drawn attention to the fact that, for him and many others with roots in Northern Ireland, the red poppy is a sign of disrespect to those who still live in the shadows of The Troubles and the Bloody Sunday Massacre.

This is not where the story ends. For consecutive years, McClean has been booed by British crowds during pre-game lineups for his refusal to don a poppy. Is it not exceedingly ironic that, with one breath, we praise the ‘freedom’ that the soldiers fought for, yet with the next we demonise the person who exercises that same notion of freedom by consciously neglecting to participate in the poppy-wearing tradition? With this in mind, it seems that Remembrance Day has become an exercise in nationalist self-indulgence to the exclusion of those who dare to hold a critical alternative view.

Another important example here is last year’s launch of the poppy-themed hijab, which, according to a 2014 Daily Mail headline, “British Muslims [are] urged to wear as [a] symbol of remembrance”, as if to prove that they’re ‘with us’. Implicit in cases similar to McClean’s, the poppy Hijab and other examples, is the idea that the act of associating oneself with the poppy has emerged as a test of loyalty linked to a bizarre definition of ‘Britishness’.

Commemoration, not degeneracy

As John Wight has asserted, today’s red poppy rhetoric is one that implicitly allows the important actions of otherwise good men and women to be “slaughtered on the altar of national prestige and degeneracy”, reducing them to mere “cannon fodder” for the purposes of the political elite. Real war is wretched, not glory-filled or noble. It is gruesome well before it is heroic in any and every sense of the word. By emerging as a symbol of national vanity that is increasingly associated with the commemoration of militarism and tactless patriotism, the red poppy is a symbol that has, in many ways, become representative of a cheapening of the repugnant truth of war, and has surely also cheapened the loss of life itself that we claim to be remembering.

Author’s note: this commentary is not intended to be a final word on the topic; rather, I hope the points contained herewith will contribute to the creation of an ‘enabling space’ for an honest public discussion that we have thus far largely been unable to have.

*Leila Nasr is a current MSc Human Rights student at the LSE. She has previously worked in the aid and development sector in the Middle East, and has a ‘particular interest’ in everything under the sun. Her dissertation should be a hoot.


Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Nov 9 2015

LSE Refugee Awareness Week

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As the refugee crisis in the UK and around the world deepens, many Londoners are making their voices heard in the face of inadequate governmental action on the issue. While parliamentarians debate back and forth about the future of thousands fleeing war and persecution, civil society is actively joining together under the umbrellas of hundreds of local campaign groups nation-wide to push their representatives toward greater action. Despite the UK government agreeing to settle some 20,000 refugees within the UK over the next five years, campaigners want more and are working tirelessly to ensure that even more refugees are resettled, faster.

In line with these growing social pressures, Refugee Awareness Week has come to The LSE right on time, and will run from today, Monday 9, to Friday 13 November. The entire LSE community and those beyond are invited to attend and participate in a number of events organised by the LSE’s Amnesty International Society, which seek to educate and empower people on the issue of refugees.

At the beginning of the academic year, members of the society joined together to decide on four key areas relating to human rights that they felt were most important to raise awareness about: the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, saving the Human Rights Act, the rights of LGBTQ+ people and the impact that mass surveillance has on us all. The aim of the week is to offer a variety of opportunities for interested individuals to engage in refugee issues, whether through generating awareness, raising funds or rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in a local or national campaign.


A panel debate on the role that the media plays in shaping people’s understandings of the current and ongoing refugee crisis. Speakers will include an expert academic, a journalist, an opinion writer and the director of a relevant NGO.

Monday 9 November, 6.15 – 7.30pm
LSE 32 Lincoln’s Inn, Room G.03

A campaign workshop run by Citizens UK, an organisation at the forefront of the UK’s civil society response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Participants will acquire key campaigning skills that will enable them to engage with their local councils to pressure them to commit to the government’s refugee resettlement scheme.

Wednesday 11 November, 4-6pm
LSE Room TW2 3.02


Film screening of God Grew Tired Of Us, the 2006 winning film at the Sundance Film Festival which tells the story of three of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”, a group of some 25,000 young men who fled the conflict in Sudan during the 1980s. The film details their experiences as they settle in the USA..

Thursday 12 November, 6pm
LSE Room PAR 1.02

A student-run stall that will showcase statistics, information and stories about refugees across the world, and particularly within the UK. Funds will be raised for the Islington Migrant and Refugee Centre charity.

Throughout the week from 11am to 4pm
LSE in front of the Student Centre

For more information on Refugee Awareness Week events, go to

– Daphne Giachero, LSE MSc Human Rights Student

Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Nov 5 2015

Mexico: Between a Dangerous Democracy and a Democracy in Danger

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"Mexico woke up" by Katka Kincelová. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

“Mexico woke up” by Katka Kincelová. Creative Commons.
Some rights reserved.

Jose Angel Garcia V. is an Associate Tutor at the Politics Department of the University of Sheffield and the Director of the New Politics Institute. He has a special research interest in public security policy and democratisation processes.

A government on its knees”: that is how Gil Ramos describes Mexico’s current administration. With an average of nearly 100 homicides per day, seven journalists killed in eight months, an epidemic of disappearances of social activists, students, and civilians, and hundreds of human right violations, it is difficult to counter this statement. In fact, as Bunker and Sullivan have asserted, Mexico’s current situation may fit the definition of a failed state. Contrary to the “Mexican moment” envisaged by Times magazine a year ago, Mexicans are living in an increasingly insecure environment, witnessing noticeable corruption of public institutions, and experiencing ‘ungovernability’ in numerous municipalities. Thus, far from the democratic dream of progress, citizens in Mexico are immersed in a dangerous and still-fragile democracy.

Beginning with the execution of 22 people in Tlatlaya, the past twelve months have been flooded with cases of human rights violations that have shaken Mexican society. Importantly, the extrajudicial killing of a number of unarmed criminals in June 2014 demonstrated that the army was not carrying out its operations with any strict sense of respect for human rights. Despite the Minister of the Interior’s promise to “prosecute this crime to the very end,” the atrocity proved to be only a symptom of the disease affecting the Mexican government and society.

Human rights violations in Mexico, an eye opener

Just three months after the massacre in Tlatlaya, the international community was shocked by the news of the kidnapping of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, in the state of Guerrero. In this case, on the night of September 26th 2014, students from a rural teaching college were attacked by the municipal police of Iguala upon the orders of the town mayor. Three students were killed that night, and forty-three were abducted and handed over to the rouge organisation “Guerreros Unidos” (United Warriors). Worldwide attention and condemnation of the event, and the evident collusion between criminals and government officials forced Mexico’s federal government to request international assistance with the investigation. It was then, when international forensic teams identified DNA fragments of one of the kidnapped students at a municipal dump, that government closed the case and pronounced the students dead in January 2015. However, it is due to the increasing distrust of the country’s judiciary system that this conclusion continues to be rejected by relatives and by the wider society who, far from living in the just and democratic environment of which senior government officials talk, experience injustice on a daily basis.

Regrettably atrocities like Ayotzinapa and Tlatlaya have stopped being the exception, and have instead become an emblem of Mexico’s dangerous and fragile democracy. Two events perfectly evidence this unfortunate condition. First, the violent murder of reporter Ruben Espinosa and social activist Nadia Vera on August 31st this year in Mexico City, a place considered to be one of the most liberal and open metropoles of the Americas. Although some rushed to support the hypothesis of robbery whilst almost considering stupid any other line of inquiry, both Espinosa and Vera had previously blamed the Governor of Veracruz for anything that might have happened, raising important doubts within society. Adding insult to injury, just ten days after Espinosa and Vera’s murder, Miguel Angel Jimenez, a social activist who led search parties looking for the remaining “missing” students of Iguala, was shot dead in his taxi.

These cases not only reflect the ineffectiveness of Mexico’s judicial system, but also remind us of the importance and fragility of democratic values and human rights, including freedom of the press, freedom of association and, above all, the right to life. The promise made by President Peña Nieto to “deliver both the progress Mexicans need and deserve and the socio-political model in which pragmatism and respect of liberal values coexist” seems to be more distant than ever in light of these cases. Rather than being an example for other countries to follow, Mexico is an eye-opener to the fragility of new and corrupt democracies. Domestically, this new ‘democracy’ is clearly causing disillusion within society, as 57% of Mexicans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country—a statistic that should not surprise us as criminality has augmented in certain parts of the country. For instance, the kidnapping rate in places like Tamaulipas has reached the alarming figure of 40 per 100,000 inhabitants. More worrying is that and only 3% of those incidents are met with a sentence. Internationally, Mexico has become an example of a country where the rule of law continues to be disregarded as, in the words of Freedom House, civil and political rights in Mexico continue to be systematically violated. Indeed, this is why the organisation Fund for Peace International has placed a “warning of failure” on the country.

What’s next in Mexico’s democracy?

Democracy, Dussel says, cannot be justified if it does not secure life.” Paradoxically, the events described above demonstrate how some municipalities, states, and national authorities in Mexico seem to be determined to challenge this assertion. In this vein, Perez is right when saying, “problems will not be solved on their own.” This is why society needs to awaken, become more politically engaged and demand more accountability and responsiveness from the state; otherwise it is likely to remain trapped between criminal organisations and the threat of failure. A participative democracy, many would say, is the way to strengthen the legitimacy of government institutions and, thus, provide a suitable path to address many of the problems of the state. Marching, voting, and shouting—as my colleagues in Sheffield and LSE have done—are some ways to ensure that Tlatlaya or Ayotzinapa do not happen again. However, change will not be immediate, and democracy is a continually evolving process.

Just two decades ago, voting was pointless in “Mexico’s perfect dictatorship.” It took several years, lots of money, and many lives to achieve an electoral democracy where voting does change a government, does change politics, and can change the country. Next year, citizens will elect a governor in Veracruz—the riskiest place for journalists in Mexico—as well as in Oaxaca, Tamaulipas, and Sinaloa, three of the most violent states in Mexico. As in any other democratic election, these ones will evidence society’s level of political interest in local and national problems.

More importantly, in the middle of the states’ violent situation, these democratic exercises represent a social tool for change by giving citizens the right, and perhaps even the obligation, to vote against those politicians, political parties and practices that contravene society’s interests and demands. The upcoming elections might not be the immediate solution to the states’ problems, but they are one of the mechanisms by which citizens, and not only the government, can start making their own “dreams of progress” a reality.

Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Oct 23 2015

Britain’s Immigration System and its Modern-day Slaves

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Helene Cardona is a recent M.Sc. Human Rights student at L.S.E., specializing in gender and international migration. She will begin working with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva next month.

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U.K. Border Agency at London Heathrow Airport.

U.K. Border Agency at London Heathrow Airport.

The threat of enslavement for asylum seekers does not decrease upon arrival in the United Kingdom. The rules for claiming asylum, often unknown to seekers, emphasize the importance of hastiness. As the government guide explicitly states: “your application is more likely to be denied if you wait.” A late claim carries the unintended consequence of arousing doubt and suspicion, putting asylum seekers in a vulnerable position. This “suspicion” can result in the rejection of asylum claims, which diminishes security on the one hand, by removing police protection, while magnifying the vulnerability and susceptibility of asylum seekers to be victimized by those with sinister intentions. Unfortunately, this tragic cycle is a common occurrence in the proliferation of modern slavery in the U.K.

Slavery is prevalent in the U.K. Mainstream rhetoric, however, often casts the issue as exclusively foreign and industrial, cloaking the high number of instances of domestic slavery. The media coverage of Rohingya refugees off the coast of Thailand this summer points to this tendency. The horrific accounts of migrants, from Burma and Bangladesh, held in camps before being sold to fishermen in Thailand sparked global outrage. While mainstream news coverage of the “jungle prisons” in Malaysia aired non-stop, social media was also inundated with seemingly endless photos of refugees on fishing boats. The coverage of this story serves as a stark contrast to the abhorrent absence in the conversation of modern slavery occurring within U.K. borders. Here, stories of enslavement are underground; the numbers of victims who are known to the authorities belies the actual number of people enslaved in the U.K., mostly for sexual exploitation and domestic labor. What is certain, however, is that the number of trafficking victims is rising to no apparent end. From 2012 to 2013 alone the number of reported instances of enslavement grew twenty percent.

This cloaking of truth forms the motivation of my focus on the situation faced by asylum seekers in the U.K., and especially how British immigration policy can make them more susceptible to trafficking and enslavement. People are trafficked when they are deceived or transported forcefully to be “bought, sold, and exploited.” News reports of the Mediterranean refugee crisis have revealed that many asylum seekers use the service of smugglers to reach Europe, making them more vulnerable to human traffickers.

At the same time, the British government continues to tighten its immigration control, especially with regard to refugees (recall its response to the Calais crisis). These policy changes detrimentally impact asylum seekers. The Home Office, the government agency responsible for processing immigration and asylum claims, is marked by a culture of disbelief, resulting in a monumental burden of proof placed on claimants. Put bluntly, the U.K. appears to use as little effort as possible to fulfill its obligations under international law to welcome asylum seekers and evaluate their claims in a fair way. The increasingly strict immigration system has resulted in asylum seekers relying on illicit channels more than in the past to make the journey to the U.K. It has therefore magnified their susceptibility to trafficking and enslavement. The rights of asylum seekers to obtain the state protection is echoed throughout various international human rights mandates. Yet the U.K. immigration system pushes vulnerable people into the arms of traffickers by forcing them to undertake illegal and dangerous journeys in order to claim asylum.

Home Secretary Teresa May

Home Secretary Teresa May

In addition to magnifying the vulnerability of asylum seekers to trafficking before making a claim, the immigration system is problematic for another reason. It actively undermines the protection of asylum by disenfranchising those who have managed to make a claim here. At the beginning of August, the Home Office made the decision to end benefits for asylum seeking families with children whose claims have been rejected. Support for this policy is based on the grounds that the U.K. is not a land of “handouts” – charged rhetoric with recognizable connotations. However, there are two salient objections to the new benefits requirement. Firstly, the aforementioned culture of disbelief at the Home Office leads to wrongful denials of asylum. An astounding 30% of claims rejected by the Home Office are subsequently granted during appeals. Secondly, these families receive (and are denied) benefits because they have children. The rights and duties of the State to protect the well-being of vulnerable people, especially children, is reflected in domestic legislation, as well as many of the international agreements signed by the United Kingdom. We must implore those who advocate for the removal of benefits to consider the deplorable message sent to the international community when one of the wealthiest countries in the world pushes children into poverty and disenfranchisement. It should be noted that the U.K.’s policy failures in eradicating child poverty is widespread, as child poverty expected to rise by nearly a third this decade.

When claims are rejected asylum seekers in the U.K. become illegal immigrants. They face both social exclusion and the loss of governmental protection. As such, asylum seekers find themselves at greater risk of enslavement. Many asylum seekers with rejected claims choose to remain in the U.K. – a decision riddled with hardship and uncertainty, as the threat of being detained and deported is always looming. They arrive having fled persecution and instability in their home countries, yet the opportunities offered here provide little hope for economic mobility. Jobs for illegal immigrants are low-paying and the power of employers is magnified, creating an open door to abuse. The cycle of vulnerability continues as the threat of detainment deters illegal immigrants from going to the authorities.   The likelihood of enslavement is amplified when working illegally, especially in an environment where organized slavery is steadily rising and police protection is fundamentally absent.

The rhetoric of the British government, championing a strong stance against modern slavery, is superficial. Its increasingly restrictive immigration policies reveal a complex paradox. Although this year saw the adoption of the Modern Slavery Act to prevent human trafficking and forced labor, many other policies actually contribute to the proliferation of modern slavery in the U.K. As such, it must be made clear that modern slavery is not exclusively a foreign issue; it is is rising steadily in Britain. The ongoing detainment of peoples, rights, and truths in the U.K. reveal the ever-present need for widespread reform in the efforts to protect asylum seekers.

This piece was published as part of the Anti-slavery Series, October 2015.

This piece was published as part of the Anti-slavery Series, October 2015.

Posted by: Posted on by Ethan Geringer-Sameth Tagged with: , , ,

Oct 23 2015

Why Does Including Modern Slavery in the S.D.G.s Matter?

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Laura Vidal is a social worker with a masters degree in human rights law and policy. She is currently employed by The Salvation Army Australia’s Freedom Partnership to End Modern Slavery.

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The Global Slavery Index estimates that over 35 million people are enslaved today. Far from a remote problem, we are all connected to people in slavery through the clothes we wear, the food on our dinner table and many of the other products and services we consume. People all over the world have their labor exploited for the benefit of distant others. For this reason, including the eradication of modern slavery in the Sustainable Development Goals (S.D.G.s) is essential to its achievement worldwide because it raises modern slavery to the purview of globally-connected actors.

Global Slavery Index

Following the Millennium Development Goals, established in 2000 to halve poverty by 2015, the objective of the S.D.G.s is to eradicate extreme poverty worldwide by 2030.  In order to achieve this, 17 specific targets have been agreed upon by participating U.N. member states – goals ranging from protecting the environment and ensuring sustainable ecosystems, to reducing inequality and promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth through dignified employment opportunities and conditions.

While United Nations mechanisms are often criticized for not having enough teeth, the adoption of S.D.G.s – formally announced in August 2015 – points to a far-reaching alignment of national and non-governmental agendas to combat the multivalent roots of poverty and social vulnerability. Agreeing upon transnational goals is important pragmatically and ideologically. Owen Gaffney of the Stockholm Resilience Centre writes, “Setting goals works—in a complex world, organisations and countries can align their agendas and prioritise funding.”  Without such cooperation, measures to combat poverty become cellular and may be diluted by national interests. According to a report by the U.K.-based Overseas Development Institute the S.D.G.s “represent the closest humanity has come to agreeing [on] a common agenda for a truly inclusive future where no one is left behind.”  This is particularly relevant because, for the first time, the eradication of modern slavery has been articulated as a problem facing all of humanity.

Modern Slavery as a Development Issue

Including modern slavery in the S.D.G.s means addressing the underlying factors that contribute to the vulnerability that place people at risk of enslavement. According to Adrian McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, vulnerability predominantly includes “material poverty, but it can take other forms such as vulnerability to threat of physical violence or, increasingly, being forced to migrate.” Coupling these with the systemic discrimination faced by low-wage workers results in large groups of people in danger of exploitation and enslavement.

The anti-slavery target in the S.D.G.s falls under the goal to “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” Given that poverty is a leading cause of vulnerability, addressing modern slavery in the context of development makes sense.  More than that, the anti-slavery goal identifies broad discrimination in employment as a fundamental cause of human disempowerment.  This, in turn, signals that a robust strategy for labor rights is essential.

From Prosecution to Prevention

The inclusion of modern slavery in the S.D.G.s indicates that addressing modern slavery has been moved out of the isolated realm of criminal justice. Such approaches focus on the need to prosecute and punish violent criminals who physically exploit the labor of individuals. Whilst it is important to continue to hold accountable those who unscrupulously exploit other people for personal gain, we cannot be truly serious about eradicating modern slavery if we view it solely as the result of deliberate criminal activity engaged in at the personal level. The S.D.G.s compel us to view slavery as a complex economic and social system, globally sustained and perpetuated by a complex range of actors. They acknowledge that modern slavery is not an isolated phenomenon and elevates responsibility for its myriad forms to the level of the global community.

In light of this, it is difficult to accept that the inclusion of its eradication in the development agenda has taken this long. Nick Jackson of Corporate Citizenship, a corporate responsibility consultancy group, writes that the inclusion of this target is “an indicative move away from aid towards trade, growth, jobs and the self-sufficiency and dignity of individuals, communities and nations.”  This points to a growing acknowledgement that modern slavery is part of a constellation of problems associated with economic vulnerability. Slavery is often the result of job instability that stems from entrenched gender and racial oppression, and international economic systems that have exploitative effects. The U.K.’s anti-slavery commissioner said that “it impedes health, economic growth, and rule of law, women’s empowerment and lifetime prospects for youth. It results in a huge loss of remittances to developing countries.”

Brick kilns in India employ the highest number of unpaid women in the world.

Brick kilns in India employ the highest number of unpaid women in the world.

At the national level, slavery is a significant barrier to the well-being and economic prosperity of populations at large. Victims of modern slavery experience restrictions in access to education, freedom of movement and the loss of a sustainable income. In terms of human trafficking, the inclusion of modern slavery in the global development agenda requires source and destination countries to create opportunities for individuals and communities so that they are no longer vulnerable to slavery as a means to survive in a globalized economy.

According to the U.S. State Department, the international framework for addressing human trafficking and slavery includes a “3P” approach: Prevention, Protection and Prosecution. While criminal justice approaches have tended to focus on prosecution, the inclusion of ameliorating modern slavery as part of the S.D.G.s fits unequivocally with the ‘Prevention’ aspect of this model. The S.D.G.s motivate governments and organisations to consider slavery prevention with new energy and direction. It draws us away from a highly concentrated investigation-and-prosecution model and calls for a greater responsibility on governments to invest in disrupting the economic conditions that create a fertile environment for slavery.

To end modern slavery worldwide we have to be truly serious about investing in humanity – in the life of every individual to ensure that they have the means to build sustainable livelihoods and prosperous communities. This means that inclusive employment objectives and strong social protections must be incorporated into U.N. objectives and other international cooperation efforts. This is why the acknowledgement of modern slavery as part of the global development agenda is so encouraging. We are widening the scope of activity, reaching a greater number of organizations and initiatives, and uniting as a global community. Together, if we holistically address the complexities that surround modern slavery, we have a shot at ending it.

This piece was published as part of the Anti-slavery Series, October 2015.

Posted by: Posted on by Ethan Geringer-Sameth Tagged with: , ,

Oct 22 2015

The Aftershocks: Migrant Workers Vulnerable to Exploitation in Post-earthquake Nepal

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Laura McManus is an ethical supply chain consultant specializing in modern slavery in Nepal. She is currently completing research for a joint project with photographer Monica Jane Frisell that examines the lives of Nepali domestic workers.

Sam McCormack is a researcher at the Walk Free Foundation. Her work on government responses to modern slavery in the Middle East and Northern Africa can be found in the Global Slavery Index.

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Former child laborer, Reshma, is preparing for her second trip to the Middle East for domestic work. Photograph by Monica Jane Frisell.

Former child laborer, Reshma, is preparing for her second trip to the Middle East for domestic work. Photograph by Monica Jane Frisell

On 25 April 2015, a devastating earthquake struck mid-northern Nepal killing more than 9,000 people and injuring a further 23,000. Thousands of families from the 14 most affected districts, many of whom were in a precarious economic position prior to the disaster, remain displaced after their homes and livelihoods were destroyed by the quake.

The same day, unaware of the chaos unfolding back home, 23-year-old Nepali domestic worker Kamala* was struck her own devastating blow. Having travelled to Qatar one week earlier, she faced the daunting task of ironing her employer’s thwab (an ankle-length white cotton shirt commonly worn by Qatari men). Kamala, from a remote village on the outskirts of Nache where there is no electricity, had never seen nor used an iron. After she accidently burned a small hole in the cotton, her enraged employer taught Kamala a swift and lasting lesson – holding the scorching iron to her upper arm, he melted her skin.

Kamala is one of the many thousands of women from Nepal who travel to the Middle East and North Africa (M.E.N.A.) each year for employment in food services and the retail trade, and in private homes as housekeepers, caregivers and nannies. These roles, generally rejected by the local population for being dirty, dangerous or difficult, contribute to the transmission of billions of dollars in remittances to Nepal, equating to a staggeringly high 30% of GDP.

While remittances are largely used to improve the lives of dependent families, too often this comes at a risk to the welfare of migrant workers like Kamala, who routinely face exploitative working and living conditions. In some cases, their experiences amount to human trafficking and forced labor.

There are growing fears of a spike in outbound migration and potential cases of human trafficking in the aftermath of this natural disaster in Nepal, as was seen in post-2010 earthquake-stricken Haiti. It seems many of the affected households are either encouraging their family members to stay abroad, or planning on sending a family member overseas to financially support the enormous task of rebuilding their lives and homes.

100119-N-6266K-020 PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Jan. 19, 2010) Hundreds of displaced Haitians live in make-shift homes outside Gheskio Field Hospital, located on Quisqueya University grounds, where International Medical Surgery Response Team (IMSuRT) technicians are providing emergency medical attention to Haitians following a 7.0 magnitude earthquake near Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010. The IMSuRT team is a national organization combining medical professionals from Boston and Seattle. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joshua Lee Kelsey/Released)

Hundreds of thousands of Haitians were displaced by the 2010 earthquake.

And it is easy to see why. A rapid assessment conducted by the Centre for Study of Labour and Mobility one month after the earthquake, examined the resilience of remittance-receiving households during and post-earthquake. While the research found no correlation between remittances and preparedness for natural disasters, it found that migrant households’ ability to cope based on socio-economic factors was better than that of average households, and much better still compared to households with internal migrants. There are around 200,000 domestic workers in Nepal, the majority of whom are female and have relocated to the major urban centres in search of work. In the aftermath of the earthquake this unregistered migration coupled with limited tenancy rights meant that a vast number were not able to access government relief packages. The vulnerability of domestic workers was further compounded by job losses in the weeks immediately after the quake.

The choice to risk their own security in pursuit of employment in the Middle East is harrowing for Nepali women facing the pressure of providing necessities for their families. Unfortunately it is one they are compelled to make.

Aside from the earthquake, ongoing social and political pressure may drive women to make the move to M.E.N.A. Current unrest in the southern Terai region and with neighboring India over the promulgation of the new constitution is further destabilizing Nepal and its economy. As rule of law weakens and economic opportunities stagnate, many more women may feel unable to refuse lucrative, but at times deceptive, offers of employment abroad.

One woman facing this choice is Reshma. As the eldest female among four she was responsible for looking after her siblings until, at age ten, she was sent from her home to labor as a domestic child worker. For the next seven years she worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on outdoor chores such as cattle grazing, grass cutting and dung removal. She was not allowed to eat during work hours and never received payment. Rather, her family received seven quintal of rice per year (700 kg), less than the recommended daily intake for a family of six. Sometimes they went to bed without food.

Reshma entered into an arranged marriage at 17, where her situation became even more desperate. Her husband, an alcoholic, beat her over a period of years and then started beating their two young sons. Unable to guarantee her children’s safety, Reshma sent her eldest son to a family in Kathmandu where he completes domestic work to cover his board and school fees, and left her youngest child with her sister.

Reshma moved from home to home around Nepal, surviving. She did not earn enough to save but was grateful her children were out of harm’s way.  At 27, a recruiter with an offer of work in Kuwait approached her. Seeing this as the only opportunity to break her family’s cycle of poverty, Reshma accepted. Despite regulations on compulsory pre-departure training, Reshma, like many migrant workers, was sent to Kuwait unprepared. “I was really scared before and during the process. I was afraid that my boss might beat me up or not give me some food because I heard from other people earlier that this was their experience,” she explains. Fortunately the children Reshma was sent to care for welcomed her into the family, but she was required to be available 24 hours a day. After five years she returned to Nepal with 12 lakh rupees, or ‎£7,600.  That is a daily rate of roughly 650 rupees or ‎£4.15. Reshma used this money to purchase a plot of land in her hometown. This October she plans on going to Dubai and hopes she will be lucky with her next employer.

Migrant work is not a fundamentally bad thing. It provides opportunities for people like Reshma to break intergenerational cycles of poverty. But when conducted through informal channels and in countries with poor regulations, it creates the conditions where vulnerability to exploitation thrives. International organizations and local N.G.O.s delivering programs to assist families in rebuilding their lives must be vigilant to the red flags of deceptive migration. At the same time, they must educate on the risks associated with the rewards of work in the Middle East.

* Kamala’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

Aquatint portrait

This piece was published as part of the Anti-slavery Series, October 2015.


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Oct 21 2015

Eradicating Institutional Slavery, Past and Present

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Melanie Vasselin is an alumnus of the M.Sc. Human Rights programme at L.S.E., having focused on indigenous peoples’ rights and postcolonial studies.

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A memorial to slavery in Stone Town, Zanzibar.

A memorial to slavery in Stone Town, Zanzibar.

To many people, slavery is a term which brings to mind ghastly depictions of wooden ships with rows of human cargo transported for forced labor in the Americas and Europe. This is the archetypal image of the transatlantic slave trade, which flourished roughly from the beginning of the 16th century to the 19th century.  The horrific practice has had a lasting legacy in the form of present-day racial inequality, prevalent in discourses on both sides of the Atlantic. Equally terrible, though less overt in the West, is its ideological relative: the phenomena collectively termed “modern slavery.”

Many N.G.O.s have campaigned for the use of the term “modern slavery” because of its morally abhorrent connotations, associating with the now-commended abolitionist movement of the 19th century in the hopes of spurring outrage and action. This has had some success. The passing of the Modern Slavery Act by the U.K. Parliament earlier this year, for instance, has been hailed as an important step towards a more holistic recognition of global slavery. Yet on the surface, it may be difficult to make the leap from transatlantic slavery to modern slavery. The transatlantic slave trade was marked by its large-scale human trafficking, mostly for the production of staple materials, in a systematic and routinized way characteristic of late mercantilism. Modern slavery, on the other hand, is prohibited by law in every country in the world and operates covertly, often opportunistically, and in a wide variety of production chains and services; it takes place transnationally through trafficking, and domestically through debt peonage and forced labor.

These two incarnations of slavery, however, are less dissimilar than we might like to think, and their common labeling points to the looming injustice that they share in. Today slavery is no longer accepted as conventional, nor as a necessary evil. It goes against many of the values that Western states claim to be built upon, especially the cornerstones of individual freedom and autonomy. Yet modern slavery resembles transatlantic slavery both in its globalizing reach and in its institutionalized condonation of exploitation.

An abolitionist symbol (1787).

An abolitionist symbol (1787).

While legislation such as the recent Act passed in the UK is commendable – improving our understanding and identification of modern slavery – anti-slavery legislation can only go so far. Slavery, in any form, is currently illegal; enslavers are today forced to operate underground in most parts of the world, in the murky domain of the unregulated and overlooked. Like many social ills, however, it continues to thrive. In global markets characterized by liberalization and deregulation enslavers see incentives. The European Court of Human Rights has dealt with a number of cases relating to Article 4 of the Convention, which prohibits slavery and forced labor. While many judgments have found violations with respect to servitude and forced labor, the Court hesitates to use the term “slavery.” Such a usage would risk morally implicating conditions central to global economic operations and galvanizing support for radical reform. Coupled with the ease with which human traffickers avoid prosecution, the economic incentives and adaptability of slave labor make modern slavery a booming business.

According to the ILO, almost 21 million people are enslaved today, a staggering figure considering the vehement condemnation of slavery worldwide. Modern slavery exists in a diverse range of sectors from agriculture, construction and manufacturing, to domestic work and prostitution. Many of these industries perform roles central to local and global economies, entangling exploitation with our everyday lives. Beyond the label, this environment is reminiscent of transatlantic slavery, in which the labor of enslaved people was vital to sustaining and developing young economies in the New World. The functions of modern slavery, as well as some of the techniques of enslavement—including institutionalizing domination through deprivation and dependency—remain the same. While we claim to have changed our values and redirected our ethical compass, the institutional practices of slavery are not as dissimilar as we might like to think, and the profit-driven, capitalistically competitive environment it operates in is also largely unchanged.

It is interesting to note the modern anti-slavery campaign’s relationship with the contemporary human rights movement, in addition to 19th century abolitionism. The abolitionist movement was long held as a success due to its eradication of the transatlantic slave trade. However, with the recurrence of slavery in modern times, this precursor to the human rights project has an important lesson to teach the latter: that a widely supported campaign, even backed by legislation, may not be enough to eradicate the roots of an injustice. We must confront the extremely uncomfortable fact that slavery is more than just an aberrance caused by a few evil-doers; it is deeply enmeshed in the neoliberal economic structures that operate alongside human rights discourses. From domestic service providers to the cultivators of common produce, forced labor continues to play a role in economies the world over.

To the extent that values of independence and agency, shared by both abolitionist and human rights causes, guide the ethics of Western politics, so too does the economics of exploitation condition what we consume, often without thinking. We must go beyond legislation or mere exclamations of injustice, and thoroughly consider what it would look like to live up to the values we claim to hold. The question is: Can we do this as a society without accepting, nor ignoring, these mammoth inconsistencies?

This piece was published as part of the Anti-slavery Series, October 2015.

This piece was published as part of the Anti-slavery Series, October 2015.

Posted by: Posted on by Ethan Geringer-Sameth Tagged with: , ,