Slavery may have changed since the Pharaohs conscripted the Israelites into pyramid-building. But its evils persist. Only this the month the Centre for Social Justice issued a 200-page report highlighting the “stark and shocking” reality of “modern slavery” in the UK: women trafficked from abroad into prostitution rings, foreign workers held captive by gangmasters, even children who disappear from local authority care into forced labour and sexual exploitation.
One country that has had success in taking on the slave trade is Israel, both in cracking down on the traffickers and helping their victims. And now a British-based charity, Tag International Development, is trying to bring the benefits of Israeli experience to what was one of the most closed societies on earth: Myanmar (Burma).
Tag was founded by the former rabbi of Cardiff and Richmond Synagogues, Yossi Ives, to utilise Israeli technological and other knowhow for development work abroad. Its projects cover 10 countries including Jordan, Indonesia, Rwanda and Sri Lanka.
It first brought disaster relief to Myanmar after the ravages of Hurricane Nargis in 2008. As politically the country became more open, Tag branched into other areas such as road safety and improving economic prospects for women, including a beekeeping project (you don’t need much land for bees).
It was through its work for women that Tag became aware of the extent of trafficking. Eighty-fve per cent of victims in Myanmar are estimated to be female. Some end up trapped in neighbouring Thailand or China, while others are enslaved in their own country. One problem is young women trafficked by their parents for marriage in China.
Some people migrate voluntarily, looking for work, only to fall prey to those who ruthlessly exploit their naivety. Their passport or papers are snatched from them. “They don’t get paid. They don’t have any money,” said Michal Strahilevitz, director of Tag operations in Myanmar. “
A lot of women find themselves in domestic work. They have a small cell to sleep in. During the day they are let out to clean the house and then they are locked up again.
“There are also cases of people being trafficked into fishing industry, for example in Thailand. So they might themselves on a boat, where there is no opportunity to escape either, working 16 to 18 hours’ day.”
While most victims are aged from 16 to 30, “you also have cases of children, who are taken mainly for street hawking, or to do certain jobs which need more delicate hands or for sexual exploitation.”
Inside the country, poor villagers might send a child to a family they know in the city who are willing to host the child and send them to school. But sometimes they are tricked: instead of getting an education, the child may be put to work. Or sometimes parents sell their children’s labour to alleviate their poverty.
“One story I heard,” Ms Strahilevitz said, “was about two girls of eight and 12, whose parents probably sold them to another family. In the middle of the night they tried to escape, jumping over the fence and trying to find help”. But their captors were well-connected and the fleeing children were returned. “The response of the family enslaving them was to build a higher,” she said.
Tag’s work is partly about raising awareness, for example priming young people who are thinking of migration with the knowledge of “what to look out for and if they do find themselves in trouble, who to approach”. The charity also wants to set up the kind of “holistic” shelters for victims that have been created in Israel, which offer legal, psychological, and other support services as well vocational training.
Modern Myanmar may seem a long way from the story of the Haggadah. But as Rabbi Ives says: “A unique gift our heritage, says the Talmud, is our capacity for compassion [Yevamot 79a]. Even while regaling in our own liberty, we retain the capacity to acknowledge the tragedy of any human suffering.
“In Chasidic terms, the Exodus from Egypt includes breaking free of one’s own mental limitations into new spiritual horizons. For many of us, breaking free this Pesach could be extending our circle of compassion to encompass the struggles of vulnerable populations round the world.”
For more on Tag see www.tagdevelopment.org