Posts Tagged ‘Trafficking’

beggar lady

Recently I was away from home with work, but whilst the world’s media were focussed on the breaking news story taking place in that location, I was aware of a secondary story rumbling in the backdrop of the media mayhem. Many people were begging on the streets, not an uncommon sight in any city, but my suspicions were aroused that something wasn’t quite right when I noticed that those who had been asking for money during the day were nowhere to be found at night, when the Salvation Army came round handing out food to the homeless. Where had these beggars gone and where had they come from in the first place?

After 3 weeks of casual observation something rather disturbing unfolded. For every person I saw begging, invariably there was another person standing nearby watching the beggar, approaching at regular intervals to give a pep talk about how to get more money from passers by. During these brief dialogues the overseer would take the earnings achieved thus far, pocketing them, then promptly fall back to the other side of the road to continue monitoring the progress. One example of this was when I witnessed a young girl, probably in her twenties, sitting outside a Church. Across the road was a man who looked just a few years older than she was, who clearly acted as the boss. He was leaning against a lampost watching the girl’s every move. The relationship was like that of a master and their slave.

I stood for some time waiting for those inside the Church to come out so that I could interview them about the big event happening in the city, all the while watching the unpleasant begging scene unfold. The man supervising the girl became uncomfortable with me watching him – I knew this because we made eye contact and a few moments later he walked round the block before returning to lean on the wall near his ‘worker’. Perhaps he thought I was a journalist investigating his activity because I was standing with a recording device? Every time someone walked past the girl she changed from a more relaxed pose to putting on a strained, desperate face, shaking a cup of coins, glancing over her shoulder as she did so to check that her ‘supervisor’ was noticing the effort she was making. She looked young, afraid and controlled. I felt helpless as I watched, so used the time standing there to pray for her. Once the congregation emerged from the Church I approached the entrance to interview some of the worshippers, giving the girl a smile which she returned with a beautiful beam. She had noticed earlier that I had been watching the man – our exchange of smiles felt like shared solidarity that I knew she didn’t want to be there.

On another occassion during my trip I saw an old woman begging, and a man who was of an age that he could have been her son was the one in charge this time, almost bullying the elderly lady into looking more bedraggled. He was rough with her, paying her no respect when up close, and looking at her with disgust when watching from his look-out post. She was on the floor in the dust holding out a broken polystyrene cup, with a wooden walking stick laying on the ground beside her. As with the girl outside the Church it was a horrible thing to witness a woman being controlled in this way.

Over the weeks I began to notice that I never saw adult men begging unless they had some sort of deformity – whether those injuries were inflicted by those in their care to aid the begging or is something they were born with I will perhaps never know. One man had no hands, it looked like they had been chopped off – if I had a copy of Nick Vuijicic’s biography (the man born with no limbs) in the native language of the dust-covered gentleman then I would have given it to him, to show that physical limitations don’t mean you have to be on the streets. I do acknowledge though that if the man is living under the control of a carefully crafted begging operation his freedom to get out of street-working may be limited. Another man I saw begging had one foot which looked as if it had been broken and never put in a plaster cast to heal. The women sometimes had laminated photos of children, but my limited knowledge of the country’s language meant that I couldn’t ask where they got the laminator from or where their young were being kept whilst they begged. Some older children were also part of the act: one boy I saw was playing the accordian and being forced to sing to get funds, something I would label as child exploitation. Bernie Gravett, former Met Police Superintendant, told the BBC when speaking about children being made to beg in London: “This is modern day slavery. How does a four-year-old child consent to be exploited?”

We never know what someone has been through so cannot judge their situation – Mother Teresa said that if we judge we don’t have time to love – but I feel there is a need for us to open our eyes to those around us, to look out for the vulnerable who might be longing for support and help. Some of those I saw with broken cups asking for money may have been trafficked, either stolen, sold into slavery or forced into it. Perhaps they all slept in a base somewhere at night, coming out to work during the day, I don’t know, but what I do know is that I want Jesus’ heart of compassion so that rather than using my energy to speculate about what is really going on I use my energy to intercede and then act with wisdom.

I feel sorry for these beggars, they do not appear to have freedom to be who God created them to be. May we be God’s eyes, ears, hands and feet, to make a difference.

Prayer: Lord, give us your heart of compassion for those we encounter in our daily lives. Please give us wisdom about how to respond to shocking scenes we witness, directing us as to how to do our bit to help and support those who are in need. Come, Holy Spirit.

Action: There are many great anti-trafficking charities run by Christians in the UK (e.g. Stop the Traffick, A21 etc), but should you want to contact The UK Human Trafficking Centre with any concerns their phone number is: 0844 7782406

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth

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I wasn’t sure what to expect when a reminder popped up on my computer screen saying that it was just 15 minutes until I was due to interview Zee*, a former sex worker.  She was probably anxious as well, wondering how she would be received, having experienced extensive verbal abuse from local residents during her 10 years working on the streets, not to mention one incident of almost being killed.

A smiley, small-framed, youthful looking woman met me in reception.  She seemed a little nervous, but was very accommodating and polite.  After a short time we found ourselves discussing the gritty reality of what happens when you have an addiction to heroin, the drug which took this former school governor onto the streets to sell her body, resulting in her regularly being arrested and having to live in bin sheds.

When I asked, she couldn’t work out how many men she had ‘serviced’ during her stint as a prostitute but estimated that it would have been ‘hundreds, probably thousands’, grimacing to herself in disgust as she tried to count.  She has been through a lot in her decade as a prostitute and considers herself to have got off lightly with ‘only 20 rapes’ and some ‘broken ribs’, suggesting that she could have had it far worse.  Many of the girls who worked the same streets used to call her ‘mum’ because she was older than them.  Hearing about 16 year old girls, who are of an age to be sitting GCSE exams, hanging around our cities ready to jump in a car with a man was sobering.

When Zee still lived in a home (rather than in garages or behind dustbins) her only daughter was taken from her because she had allowed groups of drug takers into the house.  She quickly qualified the statement by reassuring me that the ‘druggies’ were never in the same room as the young girl.  It was a situation far removed from the life Zee used to have when she had a daily commute into the city wearing a suit.  Casual drug taking had spiralled out of control and heroin was ruling her every decision.

Deep remorse was conveyed through her eyes as she told me how she had let her daughter down.  Recently Zee celebrated a year of being clean but, even so, she still sees no signs of her daughter being willing to reconcile with her.  Their only form of communication is an occasional letter.  She seems to accept that the pain and hurt takes time to heal, constantly repeating the phrase, ‘God’s will, not my will’ during our chat.

As our conversation unfolded she littered the interview with references to prayer and theological concepts like free will, so I asked where that understanding had come from.  When Zee was working nights a group of women from local Churches had been out on the streets offering support to people like her.  Rather than holding placards of condemnation or lining the women up for stoning, these believers had offered free drinks, snacks and toiletries.  What was their motivation?  To show these ladies that they are loved and that someone cares about them.  It was a night when free goodie bags were being handed out that Zee told me she had chased after the women to get one, and it was then she got told that God loves her.  That encounter was one of a series of encounters which helped her get her life back on track.

Not all sex workers are in the industry because of drug addiction.  Tessa* was groomed from an early age by her father to make money for him, and was sent out as a teenager to hang around on street corners to attract attention.  Others have been tricked into thinking that they are being given a good job only to find themselves caught up in a network of traffickers.  Zee was her own boss, reporting that it was ‘easy enough’ to get started once you knew where the red light districts areas were.  She shared how she began by having some boundaries in place, such as only allowing herself to be with a man in a car, but desperation for drug money quickly caused her to let her guard down.  Going into clients homes was dangerous and risky, so if a ‘customer’ refused to pay she explained that she would put up a fight for a short while before running for her life – forsaking her £20.  I learnt that if you are in this industry getting beaten up is to be expected as part of the course.

Did she find the experience degrading?  Zee’s honesty with me was humbling.  She quietly explained, almost whispering, that her self esteem was rock bottom and that she dislikes her body.  Only now the emotional and psychological wounds are starting to surface in her life because previously she had been numb to what was going on because of the drugs.  She admits that she is on a journey, attending Church regularly, and praying that ‘God’s will, not my will’ prevails, but that the process of recovery will take time.

As Christians we are called to stand against injustice, to protect the vulnerable, to be a voice for the voiceless, to house the orphan and bring hope to those in despair, but to do so with love.  Jesus demonstrated this when the woman who was caught in adultery was jeered at and threatened with being stoned to death for her act.  His response was profound and controversial: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  (John 8:7).

Prayer: Lord, may we see others through Your eyes, may our words and actions be driven by love and a desire to see all people living life to the full.  Amen.

Inspiring quote: “Prostitution does injury to the dignity of the person who engages in it, reducing the person to an instrument of sexual pleasure”. (2355 Catechism)

*Names changed.

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©Maria Rodrigues-Toth