Øyvind Høyen is one of the few Norwegians in Vientiane. He has been here since New Year where he works for UNIAP. That is short for United Nations Inter-Agency Program for Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region and deals with our time’s slavery.
When you cannot just go home
The Mekong River area is beautiful and attracting to many tourists, but if you grow up here, one day you might just want to leave and that urge can take you places you cannot escape such as the prostitution of Bangkok or a bad house where the domestic helpers are tied like animals. Through his work, Øyvind Høyen is confronted with examples of it all.
“People who are the victims of human trafficking cannot escape by definition”, he says in response to the obvious question: Why don’t they just go home? The definition of human trafficking is threefold: a) there is a manipulation of consent, b) someone is moved from one place to another and c) the victim is being exploited.
“I know that some people are treated by their employers in Thailand where many Laots go”, says Øyvind Høyen who has a degree in sociology and international relations. “Some Lao domestic helpers in Thailand are actually chained around the neck like dogs”, he says.
Human rights in the blood
Growing up with parents in the Christian aid sector, Øyvind lived in various countries such as Sudan, Kenya and Thailand when he was a child. Today, his parents live back in Norway, but helping people on an international level is still in the family.
“I guess it’s in my blood to fight for other people’s rights if you have the possibility of doing so”, he says. So far that philosophy has taken him to human rights related jobs in Mexico and the West Bank. Today, he is happy with his job in Vientiane.
“The victims of human trafficking are victims of other people’s greed and they are treated as products. That in itself violates a lot of human rights”, he says.
The weak sex and the overlooked
Some programs against human trafficking – for example the Thai – have been criticized for dealing mainly with women and children as the victims and Øyvind has also seen that bias in his work.
“It is true that focus is often placed on ‘the weak sex’, but in Laos the men are also recognized as victims of human trafficking. Men are victims as often as women.
“Male victims are often found on board fishing boats that are on the sea for months and often away from home against their will for years”, Øyvind says. “It is a common practice to dump sick or dead migrant workers in the sea in stead of bringing them to a hospital or at least on shore”, he explains.
This was the case for a 100 man large fishing crew which was discovered last year in Thailand. The crew had been denied leave for three years and as a result of grave malnutrition and lack of fresh water, a third of the crew- many of them under age – had died.
“These are extreme cases, but they are probably also the facts of life for many migrants who are victims of human trafficking”, says Øyvind Høyen. “Long hours of work, too little sleep and food and a lot of sickness. It is not common that so many crew members die, but we see these cases too often”, he adds.
Covering all the phases of slavery
The UNIAP helps the governmental institutions with data collection and processing. The agency also coordinates the efforts of various NGOs, the UN and the government in order to avoid overlap and gaps in the work of the many organizations.
“There are four steps in human trafficking”, says Øyvind Høyen. “First you have the personal decision of wanting to leave home and work elsewhere. here we try to help people making choices of safe migration. Next step is prosecution of the traffickers. This step also involves police cooperation. Third step is victim protection, i.e. shelters etc. The last step is policy making on the national and international level”, Øyvind Høyen explains. The UNIAP coordinates the work of many agencies in all four phases.
“We spend a great deal in trying to prevent the first step from happening. We encourage safe work migration in stead of the previous policy of non-migration”, he says.
People in Laos watch Thai soap operas and the life on TV is very modern and appealing to them. People migrate no matter what, but information on safe migration might prevent some people from ending up as slaves”, he says.
Rent a baby and increase your income
One of the main problems of the work of Øyvind is knowing how many people human trafficking affects. Some guesses are that there are 3 – 400,000 victims in the Mekong Area.
“But many victims are not willing to talk about it, because they feel ashamed of returning to their village with nothing but bruises”, he says.
Another problem is public information on the problem as it is the case with street beggars.
“Your human instinct tells you to give money to a beggar with a baby if you see them on the street, but money only intensifies the problem in cities such as Bangkok where many of the beggars are actually migrants from the neighboring countries”, he says. “It is so organized that as a beggar you can actually rent a baby in order to increase your income on the street”, he adds.
When people are commodities
According to Øyvind Høyen, human trafficking is more or less without risk for the offenders.
“Nobody hardly ever gets caught”, he says. “But it is appealing to the offenders. Usually you can trade commodities once and get an income once, but people are in their eyes a product that can generate income for a long time. That makes the business lucrative and the result is that the victims usually don’t get out of it unless they escape or the police help them out”, he says.