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BC’s Tales of the Pacific | A sickening case of human trafficking

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THERE are wicked people in the world who will hurt or kill you to get what they want. 

There are also good people who look out for you and promote your interests.  We avoid the first group and stick close to the second.  But what if you are hurt by one of your own family, one of the people who should protect and nurture you?  A shocking case emerged from New Zealand this week of a Samoan islander who trafficked dozens of fellow Samoans, many from his own family. 

They were led to believe that they were moving to New Zealand for greater job opportunities and a better life.  Some thought they were going to get a higher education and make something of themselves.  They trusted the matai, the family head, to look out for their best interests.  Instead, he abused their trust to build an empire, abusing them physically, mentally, and emotionally to enrich himself.

Joseph Matamata built a prison-style housing complex in New Zealand and filled it with family members and friends, immigrants from Samoa lured there with false promises.  He found them jobs, sure enough, but he kept the money and kept them confined with barbed wire fences.  He held their passports and never completed their visa documents, so they would not complain to the authorities for fear of deportation or prison. 

Court documents show that beginning in 1994, Matamata lured fellow Samoans to his estate in New Zealand and put them to work in his vineyards and orchards.  They spoke little or no English which put them at a disadvantage, increasing their reliance on the matai.  At first, he brought in teens who were hard workers and more likely to fall for inflated promises.  Then, as his greed grew, so did his net.  After twenty years of presiding over a slave colony, Matamata was brought to justice.  

Beginning in 2015, new anti-trafficking laws gave the New Zealand government the power to prosecute people like Matamata.  Sentenced to eleven years in prison, authorities hope this case sends a message to others engaged in slavery.  Stephen Vaughn, an immigration official close to the case says Matamata’s behavior went “against all human decency.”  He argues that “his breaches of trust, physical abuse, and blatant disregard for the well-being of people he was purporting to help were unconscionable and must be condemned.”

This case is not as unusual as we want to think.  Human trafficking, or modern slavery, happens all around us, sometimes hidden and sometimes in plain view.  Why?  Several factors contribute to the success of the Matamatas of the world.

First, Anti-trafficking laws are badly written.  For example, in many countries the legal definition for trafficking involved moving a person across international borders against their will.  Easy skirted to avoid prosecution, traffickers simply hold their prisoners, sex slaves, agricultural workers, or domestic servants in the country of their origin.  No international border, no crime.  Many countries are catching up with traffickers and rewriting the laws.

Second, most victims of trafficking are reluctant to testify against their captors, fearing retribution to themselves.  They have been led to believe that they are law breakers and the police will punish them if they expose themselves.  They do not trust legal authorities and are not helpful in many of these situations.  Even in the Matamata case, because so many of his victims were family members, many did not want to break cultural norms and testify against the family patriarch.  

Third, there is a general lack of public outcry against human trafficking.  We all agree that it is a heinous crime and should be stopped, but there is little outrage.  When was the last time you heard a politician speak on the subject at a campaign rally?  When was the last time you saw protesters take to the streets with torches and slogans to demand an end to trafficking?  When a case like Matamata surfaces, we shake our heads, say someone should do something, and go back to the 24-hours-of-Trump media.

That is not good enough.  Amid a global economic slowdown, trafficking will increase not diminish.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He travels the Pacific but currently resides on the mainland U.S.

  

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