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Women are the primary victims of human trafficking. New Zealand’s plan to stop slavery forgot them

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A plan to combat human trafficking in New Zealand is focused on the exploitation of men, while ignoring the most vulnerable victims – women and girls.

Officials say the approach was “unintended” and will now re-work the document to include crimes such as forced prostitution.

The draft strategy, released by the Ministry of Business, Immigration and Employment (MBIE) late last year, was the first time New Zealand had updated its plan addressing “modern slavery” in 10 years.

It follows a 2009 law change that criminalised trafficking people locally, as well as across borders. Since the change there have been four trafficking prosecutions, with 51 victims identified.

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The United Nations defines human trafficking as when people are exploited by others through the use of threats, coercion, abduction or other abuses of power.

It says women and girls account for 49 and 23 percent of global trafficking victims respectively, while men and boys account for an estimated 21 and 7 per cent. Other factors like age and poverty contribute to vulnerability, including victims’ ability to report crimes against them.

Despite recognising that context in its introduction, the New Zealand strategy failed to include any further strategy around domestic trafficking, and completely skipped sexual exploitation, which predominantly affects women and children.

Rather, it highlighted types of trafficking that involve men – focusing mainly on migrant labour, such as within the commercial fishing industry, and how to improve working conditions.

In a scathing submission on the draft plan, Dr Natalie Thorburn, policy advisor to Women’s Refuge, said in marginalising violence against women the plan positioned female suffering as second-best.

“[Without changes] the draft condemns women and girls who are victims of gendered exploitation … at the hands of intimate partners or family members to continue to suffer these experiences,” she wrote.

Thornburn cited figures highlighting the scale of the issue – including data showing how in one year alone 130 women disclosed to Refuge that they had been forced to sell sex against their will by a partner. Most victims did not conceptualise this as trafficking, although it fit the definition, and no-one was charged with trafficking crimes. Many perpetrators were not charged at all.

In some cases, particularly with teenagers picked up on the street, they were simply returned home.

On the rare occasion police did charge a person with exploitation, it was not identified as trafficking – which carries a tougher penalty – but instead as a lower-level offence such as “assisting a minor into prostitution”.

Research by Women’s Refuge found forced prostitution was part of a broader pattern of domestic violence, but is rarely prosecuted even if victims disclose to police.

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Research by Women’s Refuge found forced prostitution was part of a broader pattern of domestic violence, but is rarely prosecuted even if victims disclose to police.

Thornburn said that was not only unfair to the victim, but arguably breached New Zealand’s international obligations to the United Nations which required it to identify, prosecute and punish traffickers, as well as to collect data for systemic monitoring and evaluation.

“We recommend that the Draft Plan of Action be entirely reworked,” Thornburn said.

Eleanor Parkes, head of ECPAT Child Alert, said stereotypes about what constituted trafficking were clearly deeply entrenched – including among the agencies trying to stop it.

“For starters, the fact the plan is being led by MBIE tells us a lot about the assumptions and priorities of the approach,” she said. “It’s not the agency I would have picked if we wanted to look at what is affecting women and girls.”

Parkes said the plan needed to address those stereotypes first, and also to acknowledge the context of family violence, dating violence and child abuse that trafficking happened within.

“Otherwise, it is inconceivable that the plan in its current form will precipitate any meaningful change to the exploitation of women and children in New Zealand.”

A spokesperson for MBIE said trafficking in any form was unacceptable in New Zealand, and it didn’t privilege or otherwise treat differently a potential case of trafficking based on the form of exploitation.

They admitted the plan’s focus on forced labour had the “unintended effect” of hiding or drawing out certain forms of exploitation, at the expense of others.

The spokesperson said the ministry would update the plan to more clearly recognise prostitution and sexual exploitation as forms of trafficking, and to more clearly reflect that exploitation can occur outside a workplace, such as in a home or on the street, and that it can be connected with offending such as family violence.

“To date, the majority of those identified as being trafficked have been men exploited for their labour,” they said. “However, we know this is very unlikely to reflect the full spectrum of people trafficking in New Zealand, due to the hidden nature of these crimes and that vulnerable people are less likely or able to seek help or report their experience.”

The new Plan of Action against Forced Labour, People Trafficking and Slavery would be released in the first half of this year, they said.

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