New research from Walk Free has revealed alarming evidence of modern slavery in Australia and its Pacific Island neighbours. The region is growing increasingly vulnerable to modern slavery due to poverty, lack of effective policing, migrant worker schemes and climate induced displacement.
The Walk Free study assessed the nature of slavery across the region, drawing on grassroots knowledge in eight countries in the Pacific region, including Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu. In all eight countries, at least one, but often several forms of modern slavery were identified, including human trafficking, forced labour, sexual exploitation, and forced marriage.
Forced sexual exploitation and human trafficking for sexual exploitation is reported to occur in Australia, Fiji, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Palau, PNG, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu. The sex industry and extractive industries in the Pacific region have been linked to forced sexual exploitation. In Australia, around 13 per cent of slavery referrals to the Federal Police in 2016-17 were for sexual exploitation, with victims tending to be female migrants from Asian countries.
Forced and child marriage is known to occur in the Pacific region, usually because of cultural or economic pressures. In Australia, trafficking of residents or citizens out of the country for forced marriage was reported to be driven by the value of potential migration options for prospective partners. In some Pacific Island communities, child marriages still occur and sometimes under constitutionally protected ‘customary law’ in countries including Tonga and Samoa.
Global evidence indicates that engaging with faith-based organisations is essential for effective violence prevention programming in countries where churches are pivotal in social processes shaping community attitudes and norms. Given the moral authority of the church in Pacific Island communities, it plays an important role to promote gender-equality and discourage violence against women.
Domestic servitude was reported to occur in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and PNG. In Australia, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, labour laws do not extend to domestic workers, heightening vulnerability to modern slavery. Victims have had identity documents confiscated, have been threatened with violence, and had their lack of familiarity with the environment used to disempower them. In April 2019, an Australian couple were found guilty of forced labour and human trafficking offences over the treatment of a Fijian woman who they kept as a domestic servant for eight years.
Forced and child marriage is known to occur in Australia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. For girls who are married young, education moves even further out of reach. In Papua New Guinea, female children are twice as vulnerable to trafficking as male children, and children who do not attend school are at greater risk.
Forced labour has been identified in the agriculture and horticulture sectors of New Zealand and Australia. Victims of forced labour in Australia and New Zealand are often foreign migrants. The lack of understanding about visa conditions was reported to have been used to scare migrant workers away from seeking help when in exploitative situations.
Forced labour in the construction sector was reported to occur in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. Foreign aid and foreign direct investment in the Pacific Islands has increased rapidly in recent years. Respondents indicated visible increases in foreign migrant workers in the Fijian construction sector, often with low visibility of working conditions, coupled with highly controlled worker movement to and from construction sites. Reports found that passport confiscation occurs in the construction sector Fiji, often an indication of forced labour.
The Logging sector in Fiji, Solomon Islands and PNG has been implicated in modern slavery. In the Solomon Islands, the practice of male relatives from the immediate or extended family facilitating transactional sexual relationships between girls as young as nine years old and migrants working in the logging camps is colloquially known as “solair”.
Limited government resources in Pacific Island countries often translates to weak institutions that are unable to enforce compliance or are vulnerable to corruption. This hampers efforts to address modern slavery and police it. In Fiji, 132 nationalities can enter without a visa, which may partly explain why it is a major transit point in the region for trafficking.
A lack of awareness and understanding of modern slavery and human trafficking among law enforcement and other first responders, such as police and hospital staff, allows victims to go unidentified and unsupported.
Our research found that police in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga had failed to identify victims of modern slavery and further training and support is recommended.
A permissive environment for violence against women and children creates an environment where modern slavery is able to occur. One report suggests that in Fiji, one woman a day becomes permanently disabled as a result of violence.
The hospitality and tourism sector is considered at-risk for the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the Pacific. Reports note that child sex offenders may travel from Australia and New Zealand to the Pacific Islands. In Fiji, in the country’s main tourism hotspots, young girls are sexually exploited in hotels, with taxi drivers acting as pimps or middlemen, connecting girls with prospective clients.
Climate change will continue to cause sea level rise and more frequent and intense cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic activity, droughts, and floods, contributing to food and water insecurity, crop loss, a reduction in arable land, leading to overcrowding, poor health and sanitation, and increased competition for limited jobs. This exacerbates existing vulnerability to modern slavery in Pacific Island countries by pushing people into poverty and forcing them to migrate.
Fishing is a high-risk sector for forced labour. There are indications that fishers from Asia and Pacific Island countries have experienced forced labour on fishing vessels operating in the Pacific. The fishing sector has also been implicated in the commercial sexual exploitation of children. In the Tongan fishing sector, reports indicate that in some cases, mothers desperate to earn money for the family have facilitated commercial sexual exploitation of children.
According to the research, the risk of exploitation of vulnerable people in the Pacific region needs to be tackled with a strong coordinated response.
The report calls for coordinated action from governments, civil society, business leaders, development partners, faith leaders, and community leaders and chiefs. It also makes a number of recommendations including culturally specific awareness raising campaigns to improve understanding and help identification of victims, training for police and prosecutors and the development of support services.
Walk Free is a part of the Minderoo Foundation and produces the Global Slavery Index, the world’s most comprehensive study on the prevalence of slavery.