Not for sale

Human trafficking is a $30bn a year global business. Now an influential group of women - politicians

A disturbing advert is currently running on Ukrainian television. It shows a girl in a blond wig - not unlike the one Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman - arriving on an airport conveyor belt, naked inside a cardboard box.

Her hand is stamped with a bar code. "Believe in your own strength. Don't take risks. Human beings are not goods," intones the voice-over.

The ad's soundtrack, "Not for Sale", is by Ruslana, one of the biggest names in post-Soviet pop music, Ukraine's winner of the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest and a former MP. In the song, she urges Ukrainian girls to be suspicious of anyone offering them highly paid work abroad.

Now Ruslana's anti-trafficking message is going global. The Slavic songstress has attached herself to a women-only international task force: the Women Leaders' Council, a group made up of political figures, diplomats, business leaders, campaigners and celebrities from all over the world. On 3 June Suzanne Mubarak, first lady of Egypt, will represent the group at the UN General Assembly, where she will give an address on human trafficking.

This is a milestone: it is rare for anyone other than heads of state to speak to the assembly.

The women-only campaigning group came to prominence at a peculiar event in Vienna in February where Ruslana's booming soundtrack got its first international airing. Dressed in a red-and-black leather jumpsuit, waist-length hair flying, Ruslana launched into a spirited rendition in front of a select, enthusiastic audience of 30 of the world's most influential women.

This was the newly appointed Women Leaders' Council. They include the British actresses Julia Ormond and Emma Thompson, a two-times Oscar winner, and Barbara Prammer, president of Austria's lower house of parliament. Their common interest? "Human trafficking: a crime that shames us all", as the poster backdrop to Ruslana's performance put it. Her thumping, Anastacia-style ballad has now been adopted as the UN's anti-trafficking anthem.

The Vienna forum was hosted under the auspices of the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.Gift) and was designed to promote the efforts of the new women's council. Their leader is Baroness Goudie, the philanthropic powerhouse, member of the House of Lords and former campaign manager to Roy Hattersley, a formidable and indefatigable woman with an impressive track record on everything from sustainable peace in Northern Ireland to work as an ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund UK.

So why does human trafficking need an all-woman action committee of actresses, politicians and first ladies? "Men are involved," says Baroness Goudie, "but increasingly women are having to take the lead on human trafficking by taking this to Davos and the United Nations." It is not uniquely a women's issue, she explains, but there are parallels with the fight against domestic violence or bullying in the workplace. Arguably, women's voices can campaign most effectively on the matter - not least because the majority of those trafficked are female.

"Gender discrimination plays a role," says Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. In some countries, the life of a woman or girl is not worth as much as the life of a man or boy, so females are more vulnerable to traffickers. The aims of the Women Leaders' Council are ambitious: to co-ordinate action across the globe, facilitate access to resources and reduce the stigma for victims.

The council's roll-call reads like a rather odd Who's Who of internationally influential women. There's Helen Bamber (a founding member of Amnesty International and founder of the Helen Bamber Foundation, the human rights charity, where Emma Thompson is also on the board), Jolanta Kwasniewski (the former first lady of Poland), Katie Ford (former chief executive of Ford Models), Renuka Chowdhury (India's minister for women and child development), Dr Saisuree Chutikul (a former cabinet minister of Thailand). The women's common goal is to establish an international code of "honourable and safe trafficking".

One of their biggest problems is that many traffickers masquerade as legitimate employment agencies. Victims willingly sign up to work abroad (often escaping desperate circumstances), only to find that a different fate awaits them. To increase prosecutions, the campaigners want to speed up cross-border collaboration. But in Europe alone, only 17 countries have signed and ratified the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. Another 21 states (including the UK) have signed but have yet to ratify. Because trafficking is a cross-border business, it is vital to close these legal loopholes internationally. The job of these women is to push trafficking to the top of the agenda - and cut all the red tape.

It is a seemingly impossible undertaking, but Goudie is the figurehead for an increasingly vocal and influential organisation. The Women Leaders' Council's war against trafficking is already highly visible.

Along with Ruslana, the singer Ricky Martin has been co-opted into the campaign (although obviously, being a man, he can't join the council). Emma Thompson, the most high-profile council member, has reported on trafficking for Time, toured extensively with Journey, an anti-trafficking art installation, and appeared in a Body Shop video. Thompson describes the plight of the trafficked as "the hidden side of globalisation: a sickening business worth more than $30bn a year". (The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are roughly 2.5 million victims at any one time.) The new UN women's group hopes to broaden understanding of what human trafficking is - and to prick our global conscience by popularising the idea that human trafficking is a form of "modern slavery". Many are forced into slave labour, sometimes in domestic service or in factories, says Baroness Goudie. "Everybody thinks that human trafficking is just about women coming to the UK from Moldova or Albania via Amsterdam and brought into brothels," she notes. The problem is much broader: there are men forced to work in mines, on plantations or in sweatshops, as well as children coerced into becoming soldiers. This is no longer just about the sex industry.

Instead, human trafficking is increasingly a commercial problem, its proliferation encouraged by the speed of globalisation. Moving the focus away from the sex industry, UN.Gift is working on a number of initiatives to tackle human trafficking in different contexts: the use of children in armed conflicts in West and Central Africa, exploring the "power of the pulpit" to inform and warn about trafficking in faith-based communities, such as in South Africa, encouraging cross-national co-operation in the tourism industry in south-east Asia (where trafficked prostitution is a huge problem), working with "post-conflict" countries in the Horn of Africa where, amid the lawlessness and chaos postwar, trafficking often thrives, as it is easy to displace people without anyone noticing or being able to report it to the authorities.

There is also an increasing push to merge issues. Improved cross-border police co-operation, the rise of environmentally-aware consumerism and fair trade should all, in theory, work towards eliminating human trafficking. Likewise, a clampdown on fake designer goods would have a knock-on effect: many of the counterfeit products are made by displaced workers. Emma Thompson points out that we are all at risk of buying goods made by trafficked workers: "If we explain to our own kids how children are forced to work as slaves on cocoa plantations, for example, they will press us to buy Fairtrade chocolate." The identification of human trafficking as a consumer issue could be the key to awakening public outrage.

Baroness Goudie uses a chilling phrase that sums up the mentality behind human trafficking: "A drug can only be used once; a person can be used many times." In many countries it is still one of the crimes most difficult to detect and punish, making it less liable to prosecution than drug trafficking.

The 30-strong women’s council is in regular contact and hopes to meet as a group after Suzanne Mubarak’s UN address. Meanwhile, members are agitating in the private sector: they take the view that the issue needs glamour, celebrity and high-profile campaigning to keep up the pressure.

Melanne Verveer, a former chief of staff to Hillary Clinton and member of the women’s council, puts it this way: “We need to elevate the race against human trafficking to the Grand Prix level, with Formula One-quality vehicles, sponsors and fuel. We simply can’t stay in the slow lane for another ten years.”

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood