#AceNewsReport – Aug.14: Aranya didn’t think her life could get any worse after she found herself paying $100 a week to sleep on the floor of someone else’s kitchen, forced to cook, do laundry and clean for a family she barely knew: Then she was recruited to work in a massage parlour that doubled as a brothel, for at least 10 hours a day, only paid per client, with no idea how to escape: Aranya didn’t think slavery existed in modern Australia. She now knows better.
#AceDailyNews says slavery still exists in Australia today but these people are fighting back after one woman realised her friends were not real friends but only wanting to use her like everyone else now she wants to help people like her who suffer the same fate …..
The ‘friends’ who said they would help
Aranya is the youngest of three and no stranger to hardship.
She was an orphan by age 12 and scratched a living cleaning rich people’s houses in her home country in South-East Asia. Her brother started a lunch service for the teachers at their school, taking orders and rushing to fill them before recess ended.
The summer heat was smothering and its winters icy, but it was home and Aranya never wanted to leave.
The Australian man she met online, who would later become her husband, had agreed to move overseas to be with her when he retired. But he changed his mind, so Aranya left everything she knew and came to Australia.
At first, her married life in Geelong was normal.
She was settling in and even met some people in the local South-East Asian community who took her to temple, showed her where to shop, and where to get food that tasted like home.
Aranya thought of them as friends.
Then, while taking a holiday back in Asia, her husband demanded a divorce. And those same friends swooped in.
They offered her a place to stay in Geelong while she sorted out her affairs. They said they would help her find a home and a job and that she could continue the life she had come to love.
Aranya, a small, shy woman with a contagious smile when she’s brave enough to share it, believed them.
She was deceived, and the room she was promised was the kitchen floor of a stranger’s home.
She was charged $100 a week and was expected to scrub, dust, and mop the house, cook meals for the family and care for their children. She was paid for none of it.
Then, while travelling on a bus, another woman she had never met approached her promising safety. It was another deception, and Aranya found herself in the brothel.
Aranya doesn’t want her real name used.
She says there are people who still want to do her harm. They claim she owes them at least $9,000 in unpaid rent.
But she does want to speak out to help those who could be just like her — a little too trusting, a little too unsure of what’s right and wrong in a new country.
Aranya wants people to know what happens to migrants who fall through the cracks. Who want nothing more than a good life, to work hard and raise a family but end up enslaved by those who see them as a means of making a profit.
Preying on religion
It took months for Aranya to tell someone what was happening to her, because she never thought she was being cheated.
Aranya says her diligent upbringing as a Buddhist taught her the art of silent atonement, and she felt the people who took advantage of her should be forgiven and not be made to feel bad for their actions, however inhuman.
“We tend to not do that because we don’t want bad karma to come after us,” Aranya says.
“If you hurt someone it means you will see them again in the next lifetime.
“It’s almost like you need to not say anything to become a good person.”
This was reinforced by her captors, who she says were also of South-East Asian heritage and used the knowledge of her traditions to convince her she should be grateful and that they were doing her a favour by providing her work and a roof over her head.
But she couldn’t let go of her disappointment and one question: Why was this happening to her?
“I was lost and vulnerable. I was shocked and I didn’t know what to do so I just accepted it,” she said.
Those around her said they held deep connections with the police, so reporting what was happening felt out of the question.
Two other women Aranya stayed with at the brothel seemed content to live in the system.
They had boyfriends connected to the business and easy access to booze and parties.
She kept expecting something to change, for her life to pick up.
And then one day it did.
Difficult to find, even harder to prove
Modern slavery can be extremely difficult to prove, says detective sergeant Trevor Russell.
He is the team leader for the Australian Federal Police modern slavery team for Victoria and Tasmania.
Victims, he said, were often unable to see the offending occurring against them.
“They might think their situation is normal,” he said.
Debt bondage is one of the most common forms of modern slavery worldwide.
There is often no paper trail; instead, everything is agreed upon verbally.
The debt can be tied to a person’s family who remain in their home country.
Victims are warned to do what they’re told or their family will be harmed.
Whether true or not, few take that chance.
Aranya’s enslavers had no connection to her older brother and sister in Asia; her last remaining family.
So they employed brainwashing and debt bondage.
It’s a very common strategy, says Kyla Raby, the national program coordinator at the Red Cross Support for Trafficked People Program.
“It draws on that feeling of comfort and safety and it allows for greater coercion and control,” she said.
It also makes it harder for victims to come forward.
“Some people don’t even identify what’s being done to them is wrong,” she said.
“They often blame themselves or think they chose to be in that situation.”
It’s hard to estimate the extent of the problem. The Red Cross has about 130 people in its program at the moment, but Ms Raby says that’s “scratching the surface”.
According to the Global Slavery Index, more than 40 million people around the world are living in modern slavery conditions, with up to 15,000 victims living in Australia.
In a 2019 report, the Australian Institute of Criminology said for every one person identified as a victim of modern slavery, there were another four who were not identified.
Sallie Yea, from the Department of Social Inquiry at La Trobe University, said modern slavery in Australia was so “clandestine and hidden” it’s “very difficult to get precise numbers”.
Adding to the silence is often a cultural fear of authority.
Initially, people experiencing modern slavery only have to speak informally with the AFP to access the Red Cross program, but after three months (or six months for victims of forced marriage), they have to make a formal police report to access long-term support.
“The help is time-limited,” Ms Raby said.
“I have seen people drop off the program because they don’t want to refer it to the police for an investigation.”
Sergeant Russell said he recognised the barriers preventing people from coming forward but wanted to reassure victims they would not be “cut off at the knees” if, for some reason, their case did not qualify for assistance.
“That would be counterproductive. We are really awake to the fear of police and for people to come forward and tell their story to a stranger, let alone a police officer, is really confronting so we make sure everyone we deal with is treated sensitively,” he said.
“We are victim led in getting good outcomes, we aren’t all about prosecution.”
‘People should be equal in Australia’
Aranya met Issara Saeyim at a local community centre in Geelong a bit over a year ago.
She had been allowed to go on the proviso the classes could improve her English.
She almost fell in love with Issara. Who was this woman? So confident, so buoyant, always laughing at her own jokes.
At the time, Aranya had no idea how similar their lives were.
Years ago, Issara had been forced to work illegally for meagre dollars in a Geelong restaurant, moved between women’s refuges before the violence within some of them was enough to make her leave.
She found a cheap place to rent and slept on the floor with her young son, unable to afford a bed.
“In Thailand, you feel like an animal, so I came here with hope. It’s a first-world country where people should be equal,” Issara says.
She fell into a deep depression when she realised that wasn’t true.
Though Issara contemplated suicide, small steps empowered her to keep going.
She was approved for Centrelink, granted a visa that allowed her to study and learn English, which led her to the local community centre; an unassuming, single-story neighbourhood house that through Issara’s relentless pursuits, has become a refuge for victims who are terrified of their modern-day enslaver and equally terrified of telling authorities.
Issara receives calls and texts almost every day from people around regional Victoria needing help: a woman trapped in a relationship with a man in Ballarat fearing for the safety of her teenage daughter; a couple living in a caravan on a vegetable farm who aren’t allowed to leave the property and need help sending money back home to their family in Asia.
When Issara watched Aranya walk into the community centre, she saw herself from years earlier: a hunched demeanour, meek voice, and deliberate movements as if at any moment the room could swallow her whole.
She carefully coaxed Aranya into talking about her situation. Then, she came up with a plan.
‘They’re not here to get you’
Aranya’s escape wasn’t easy.
It had to be coordinated between seven people but completely directed by her.
On a cold, dry Saturday morning, the manager of the community house, Liz Bonner, got the text: no-one was home except Aranya and the two other women who also wanted out.
They threw all their belongings into black garbage bags and had them ready and waiting in the living room and on the porch for easy access.
The truck arrived, parked, and a roller door thrown up.
No-one knew if this would work; it was broad daylight and they worked with speed.
Then it was done. Aranya and two other women moved into a house in the hope of peace and safety.
Aranya was the only one who stuck it out, the other two women went back, preferring the security of the known.
But it took consistent persuading before Aranya even contemplated going to the police.
Her captors, she said, knew the police in Geelong. It was said that a powerful woman in the community used to be married to a policeman and would ensure anyone who spoke out was punished.
No-one knows how much truth there is to this story, Issara says, but the fear it perpetuated in Aranya couldn’t be questioned.
The AFP travelled to the community centre from Melbourne to explain what they did and how they did it. Issara translated everything to Aranya who was sceptical, but listened.
It took courage for Aranya to believe there would be no negative consequences for speaking out, not even for the people who trapped her.
“They’re not here to get you,” Liz would tell her.
Almost a year after leaving the house, Aranya told her story to two federal agents through a translator over four hours.
She still hasn’t pressed charges, and even if she does, there’s no guarantee of justice. It’s difficult to collect a body of evidence based on verbal agreements.
“The wheels turn as fast as they turn,” Liz said.
“But we took her power back that day.”
Down the cold hallway of a sharehouse, past a bedroom with scattered sheets and another with discarded pistachio shells littered across the floor, is Aranya’s room.
The curtains are open, letting in the grey light of a typical mid-winter day in Geelong.
She doesn’t love it here, but it’s a safe place and she can go to the community centre where she has true friends.
Laid out along a bookshelf is an array of intricately woven flowers made from perlaceous yellow ribbon.
Two more are hanging from a metal coat hanger above her bed, another six are stored in a felt box on the floor.
It takes two days of delicately folding and twisting the strands of ribbon to make just one phuang malai.
They’re a good luck charm, Aranya says, something beautiful to soothe the storm still raging in her head that has, for a long time now, distracted her from prayer.
“I used to pray an hour a day, every day, but I can’t concentrate anymore,” she said.
Her prayers used to be for one day having children, but as the years ticked over she says it’s too late.
Instead, when she can focus, she prays for wisdom, a job to pay rent, maybe one day even a car.
“My dream is to help people, like Issara does. I want to help people who have experienced the same experience like me to get out,” she says.
“If that’s possible.”
#AceNewsDesk report ……….Published: Aug.14: 2021:
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