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We were trafficked. Hear our voices.

“You are big people; you know things better. Save people like me from the trap of human trafficking,” pleaded Buddhi Gurung to an international audience gathered during the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York. “I am a poor Nepali man who became a victim of human trafficking in Iraq and have fortunately survived to tell you my story.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon posing with victims of human trafficking at the General Assembly - © UN Photo/Mark GartenIn 2004, Buddhi, unemployed and with a family of four to support, was willingly recruited in Nepal to work in what he thought was to be the United States. But it did not turn out as expected. The “America” he thought he was going to was in fact an American military base in Iraq, where Buddhi was sent against his will. He was scared and wanted to go home but his passport was taken from him and he was forced to stay for 15 months. Twelve of Buddhi’s compatriots, trafficked with him to Iraq for labour, were not so fortunate. They were captured by insurgents and murdered, their assassinations broadcast over the internet.

Charlotte Awino was 14 when she was abducted at night with 139 other girls from her boarding school in Uganda by rebels from the Lords Resistance Army. “We were marched off for three months across the Ugandan border into Southern Sudan,” she recalled. “Many of the children were killed because they were too tired to walk. Others starved to death. Many died due to cholera. We were used as a human shield during fighting, so many of us were killed when the rebels put us in front when they were fighting the Ugandan government soldiers.” She survived but was held as a sex slave for eight years. By the time she was finally able to escape back to Uganda she was 22 years old and had two children.

“I left so many children behind me still in captivity,” Charlotte said. “I saw children as young as six or seven who were being held. Some of them are already young adults. What can the UN do for them? Are the trafficked children going to be called prostitutes, rebels or terrorists, like I was?”

Buddhi and Charlotte were speaking publicly for the first time about their heart wrenching experiences. They told their courageous stories in the hope that others would be spared from experiencing what they had suffered.

“We need to pass and enforce laws that will protect us from traffickers,” stated Kikka Cerpa from Venezuela. “We need to train police officers and prosecutors so they can identify and protect victims.” Kikka was forced into prostitution by a man she thought of as her boyfriend but who turned out to be part of a sex trafficking business, bringing girls illegally from Venezuela to the US. “Sometimes the police would raid the brothel,” she recalled. “Instead of rescuing us they demanded that we perform sexual services on them. Never did the police or prosecutors ask if we were trafficked. Never did they offer us help or protection.” 

Kikka and Rachel Lloyd, another survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, who told her story publicly, have become active in promoting the passage of national laws to protect young people against sex trafficking. By testifying at this special United Nations event, they, along with Buddhi and Charlotte, hope that governments will do more to prevent human trafficking and to help the survivors.

“In every part of the world, countless individuals are callously exploited for profit,” commented the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. “Yet all States are under international legal obligations to protect the rights of individuals under their jurisdiction and to shield them from exploitation and abuse”.

“Let us recall the words of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons,” said the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, referring to the international treaty banning human trafficking. “It calls for parties to ‘alleviate the factors that make persons, especially women and children, vulnerable to trafficking, such as poverty, underdevelopment and lack of equal opportunity’. Let us heed this call to action.”

In her latest report to the General Assembly Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Joy Ngozi Ezeilo found that States were not paying adequate attention to the proper identification, protection of and assistance to victims. Only 24 of the 86 countries surveyed by the Special Rapporteur in 2008 indicated that these issues were a priority area in the fight against human trafficking.

This special event giving voice to victims and survivors of human trafficking is part of an on-going effort by the office of the High Commissioner to ensure that the human rights and needs of victims are at the centre of international action to end human trafficking. The event was being held at a time when the General Assembly was discussing how to strengthen collective action to combat human trafficking.

28 October 2009