Listen: Michael and Marcus from The Freedom Project talk to Laura & Duncan about child slavery. Above: Getting children into school is an effective strategy to help protect them from being stolen into slavery. Pictures: The Freedom Project
Looking at human trafficking figures can be depressing: over 45 million people now enslaved*, 2 million of them children**, and every nation in the world affected.
But for every sad fact and figure, it seems there’s an organisation or agency working to bring an end to slavery for good.
One of those is The Freedom Project. Founded by Sydney couple Michael and Liz Newton-Brown in 2010, the organisation rescues children from slavery, rehabilitates them, and does prevention and education work both locally and internationally.
Yes, Slavery Exists in Australia
When Michael and his field director Marcus Young dropped into the Hope 103.2 studios to chat to Laura and Duncan about their work, one of the most surprising facts they shared was that slavery exists in Australia.
“Australia has a moderate problem, but it’s still a real problem,” he said. “There’s many industries in Australia where there is slavery. Hospitality, the building industry…food, all sorts of places where there’s a multinational or international workforce.”
Sex work is also a major problem area for slavery in Australia, with women trafficked from overseas under the guise of work in bars or massage parlours. They are forced into contracts working in brothels and are dependent on their traffickers, according to Young Lawyers Journal.
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“Here in NSW we’ve legalised brothels… so it’s very hard to get access, to take interventions to rescue and see a change,” Michael explained.
Keep Your Eyes Open for Signs of Possible Slavery
Michael encourages Australians to be aware and look for signs of slavery.
“If you see someone who doesn’t speak good English, they’re young and should be learning English but they’re not, and they’re escorted a lot of places, and they don’t see to have the freedoms you would expect them to, (they could be enslaved),” he said.
“A family reunion mightn’t be a family reunion, that young fellow might be at the back of a restaurant sleeping on a mattress working 18 hours a day for almost no pay in slave labour conditions, or it might be a girl in a salon painting nails and so on.”
Freeing Child Soldiers in South East Asia
The Freedom Project’s field director Marcus Young works across South East Asia to see children freed from slavery, in particular child soldiers.
“Child soldiering is known as one of the worst forms of human trafficking in the world, because often it has the components of sex trafficking as components of forced labour, but on top of that you’re also teaching kids how to carry weapons and kill,” he told Laura and Duncan.
“In Myanmar and Burma, in a tribal area, we actually have to build relationships with cartel or rebel leaders in order to work in these places.
“I’ve got an 11-year-old daughter, I think ‘what if the soldiers showed up at my doorstep and pulled my little girl out of my arms?’ So I know I’ve got to keep doing this.”
“We’ve been able to use education programs to come in and negotiate to demobilise kids out of these armies. If you get a child in school in a lot of these areas, there’s between a 15 and 30 percent chance that they won’t be conscripted in the army because of that.
“So if you put 100 kids in school there may be 30 of those that don’t end up in the military.
“We actually have deals where the military will give us children. This year we had over 60 kids that were dropped off on our doorstep at different points.”
Marcus described how in one area they are working in, the army comes into a village, takes a census, and then takes children by force.
“If you have one or two children, they will take a child from you at 8 or 9 years old. If you have three or more children, they will take two from you,” he said.
“That’s one of the things that’s kept me in this work for so long, because there’s days I’ve wanted to quit. I’ve got an 11-year-old daughter, she’s my youngest, and I think ‘what if the soldiers showed up at my doorstep and pulled my little girl out of my arms? What would that be like for me?’
“So I look at her and I know I’ve got to keep doing this.”
Former Child Assassin Now a Child Rescuer
One success story that has come out of The Freedom Project’s work is that of a young man whose parents were both assassins.
Marcus describes his transformation from the horrific circumstances he grew up in.
“From the time he was born, he was trained as an assassin,” Marcus explained. “When he was six years old they’d take him down to the beach and throw bottles up and he had to shoot and hit the bottle, and if he didn’t hit it, then he didn’t eat.
“In his early 20s he had already done 26 political assassinations.”
“When he was 10 years old, he could be blindfolded, take a grenade launcher, and load it up and fire it. By the time he was 12 he was in armed conflict. By the time he was 14 he assassinated his first person he called ‘the Christian’. It was just somebody who wasn’t a Muslim. We have lots of Muslim friends, so I’m not trying to be critical [about religion] but in this case he was taught that if he killed his first Christian it’d be his ticket to heaven. In his early 20s he had already done 26 political assassinations.”
But despite his violent upbringing, the young man was confronted when he heard the story of Jesus, told to him by a Muslim movie star, and it was the key that began to change his life.
He is now a transformed man.
“He has worked with us for some years now as a rescuer,” Marcus explained. “He cares about these young kids, and what they go through. “So that’s one story of redemption that’s pretty dramatic. You look at where they came from and what they’re doing now and it’s just amazing.”
To learn more or support the work of The Freedom Project, head to www.thefreedomproject.org
* Global Slavery Index 2016 // **UNICEF