18 October 2011

EU Anti-Trafficking Day - Annual Conference at the Diplomatic Academy Vienna

I just returned from an amazing event at the Diplomatic Academy on the occasion of human trafficking day. A truly intriguing crop of distinguished speakers came together on a ten hour talkathon to discuss some of the (Austrian) dimensions of human trafficking, present their own activities in the field and raise awareness of some of recent policy developments.

The whole day was kicked off by four Ministers as joint keynote speakers, including the ones for the Interior and the Foreign Ministry.

The event was then divided into three discussion panels:

The fight against human trafficking in Austria – successes, goals and challenges
Some of the findings of GRETA (Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings), a peer review mechanism of the European Council, about Austria were presented. Although the report is said to generally give good feedback on Austria, one of the things it recommends is that human trafficking should carry sentences of more than three years (if I'm correct, cases involving minors are punished with up to ten years imprisonment).

The Landesgericht Wien (Regional Court of Vienna) now has a Sonderstelle für Menschenhandel (special office for trafficking in human beings). I tried to find more info about what it does on the internet but without success so far. On 1 June, survivors of trafficking have been given access to the Austrian labour market.

It was quite interesting to hear a case about three Filipino domestic workers who were travelling along with their Middle Eastern employers to a popular holiday resort in Austria (the speaker didn't say which one but I assume Zell am See as it has quite a lot of tourists from the Middle East) and used the opportunity to run away from their slave-like working conditions.

Ms Wagner from the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (based in Vienna) talked about some of the Private Sector Partnerships UN.GIFT engages in. They developed special E-Learning tools for the private sector to raise awareness about trafficking in supply chains. ECPAT Austria (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking, based in Bangkok) already launched one specifically for the tourism industry.

As for awareness campaigns in the supply chain industry, it is notable that Schwarzenegger passed a new law about a year ago (the Supply Chains Act 2010) for all companies operating in the state of California (this includes foreign companies who only have branches in California but are registered elsewhere) that not only allows courts to seize any property used to facilitate human trafficking but also requires major retailers and manufacturers doing business in California to disclose on their websites any steps they take to ensure their product supply chains are free of slavery and trafficking.

Another issue in private sector partnerships are CSR campaigns to raise awareness among consumers. There generally were a lot of positive responses from businesses but some are less interested (i.e. they require statistics to 'sell' human trafficking as a campaign to their bosses and executive boards, which due to the invisible and covert nature of human trafficking are obviously hard to come by). In a positive example from Qatar Airways (an airline also popular with Filipino overseas workers), leaflets are distributed to passengers training of flight attendants to identify victims of trafficking. American Airlines had already been running a successful CSR project like this.

She concluded that according to her opinion, the topic was visible enough yet there was not enough public awareness.

Among the topics discussed by the judges in the panel were compensation for victims of trafficking, in particular for their emotional distress, held back wages (in cases of labour trafficking) and corporate loss (ie property). Some of the questions were also regarding evidence, i.e. what legally constitutes 'rape' and 'sexual contacts'. They were happy to report training of defense counsels who did things like use arguments like 'victims of trafficking cannot be victims because they returned to work with their employers'.

There have also been cases where domestic helpers of diplomats were involved. Obviously it is hard to prosecute the employers because of their diplomatic immunity but apparently, there now is a requirement in place that domestic helpers have to be paid by bank transfer.

Other issues discussed were difficulties in prosecuting these cases because of the waiting time until a case is investigated sufficiently and comes to court or because of the 30 day window period survivors of trafficking have before making a statement in order to recuperate a bit from the traumatic experience. However, in practice this window period often works against the victims because sadly but realistically, victims tend to appear more 'credible' in court in the state they are found in and because rom a forensic point of view, the faster a witness gives testimony, the more details they remember.

Human Trafficking as a Human Rights Violation – Protection and Support for Victims
Goodey from the EU's fundamental rights agency (FRA). continued on the topic of the protection of irregular migrants. She also suggested that people who have been trafficked for reasons of labour in slave-like conditions (as opposed to say, the more widely discussed issue of trafficking for sexual exploitation) had access to health care and trade unions should be ensured and that in turn, trade unions increase their efforts to expand their outreach work for this group. FRA and Frontex have been working together on providing training for border guards.

There was a judge from Graz (the capital of the state of Styria) who reported from her experiences in respect to trafficking within her jurisdiction. She reported around 250 cases a year of which only 18-30 (!) lead to convictions. Some of the reasons are that some women decided not to testify on human trafficking but on other other charges, i.e. bodily harm.

The Executive Director from ECPAT Austria discussed the Youth Partnership Project that has been designed for minor survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking. She also reported a good practice from ECPAT UK which integrated survivors into their work: they provide training, work as peer educators and even deliver speeches in parliament.

"Not My Life – Slavery in our Time"
We had the chance to get a sneak preview of the documentary "Not My Life – Slavery in our Time" by Robert Bilheimer, supported by UN.GIFT and narrated by Glenn Close. The movie has been shot over the past four years on four continents and follows children sold to fisheries at Ghana's Lake Volta and minor girls who are or have experienced sexually exploitative conditions in Cambodia, India and the US. It features expert interviews with FBI Special Agents, with some of the survivors, with NGO workers and also some high level politicians involved in one way or another in raising awareness on the issue of human trafficking.

Official website of the movie: http://notmylife.org/

The panel was cut short because it was already very late and most people left for home at the end of the screening but just so consumers of sexual exploitation are mentioned too: They are convicted along with the traffickers in Sweden and Norway. On the other hand, there are men to men campaigns like in one Canadian example. They are peer projects from men who use the services of sex workers to raise awareness about sex trafficking among other men who do.

The full programme of the event with the full list of speakers can be found here:

13 October 2011

Moving to Mars

"Moving to Mars follows two refugee families from Burma over the course of a year that will change their lives completely. Forced from their homeland by the repressive military junta, they have lived in a Thai refugee camp for many years. A resettlement scheme offers them the chance of a new life, but their new home, in the British city of Sheffield, will be different to everything they have ever known.

With intimate access, this feature-length documentary from Mat Whitecross (The Road to Guantanamo) depicts the families' moving and sometimes humorous struggles with 21st century Britain. Their stories give us a unique insight into the experiences of displaced people throughout the UK, whilst showing the human consequences of Burma's political unrest."
- from the official website

Doing what I do, I get to learn about all these amazing events that I (am about to) blog about, such as the screening of "Moving to Mars" - a movie I have wanted to see for AGES! - by UNHCR and the UN Information Service (UNIS) at the Vienna International Centre. UNHCR even set up a refugee tent in the rotunda, the main entrance for most people working in the complex. Although the tent wrongly suggests that most refugees live in camp settings when most actually are so-called "self-settled refugees", it's fine with me as long as it gets people to stop for a moment and think about the experience of being displaced.

The documentary itself was very interesting. It contrasted very well two entirely different worlds. You get a culture shock just by watching how two families from rural Burma resettle to Sheffield. The head of one household holds a degree in Civil Engineering and has to go to back to university because his diploma was in his house when it was burned down. I cannot imagine having to redo my studies... In any case, the documentary is not too dark and has its light moments. You want to watch this movie!

10 October 2011

Asia in the Eyes of Europe - Public and Media Perceptions of Asia in Europe: Challenges and Opportunities for External Relations with Asia

I admit I assumed it would be a boring evening with under-funded Austria-based researchers regurgitating eurocentric conceptualisations of Asia. It also isn't promising to know that most Austrian research on Asia tends to focus around China or Japan - the usual suspects (as you might know, the University of Vienna, Austria's largest university, does not have a Southeast Asia department but three on East Asia). But lo behold! It turned out to be an exciting presentation of quite a vast aggregation of data from a huge multi-year project across several countries where thousands of people were surveyed!

The research was conducted on three levels:
  • Public opinion (through telephone surveys by native speakers and localised questionnaires for each national context of the respondents)
  • Media analysis (counting the times key words were mentioned in the daily media and then analysing in which context (ie particular European politicians) or a particular topic (politics, sports) or a particular organisation (ie EU bodies)
  • Expert interviews with established journalists
It was probably thanks to my being starved for stimulating debates on Asia, my curiosiity to explore the Austrian institutional landscape that I went anyway - and I am glad that I did. It is not everyday that you get to meet members of a global research consortium involving partners in some twenty countries taking on the gigantic tasks of interviewing thousands of people over a considerable period of time. Besides, if I'm back in the country where most regional research is intra-European, I might as well take any opportunity I can get to seek bridges to my beloved Asia and get to know the local who's who of Asia scholars.

You can find the Media Reports for each country here.

The panelists consisted of:
  • Mr. Otmar Höll - Director of oiip who delivered the welcome remarks
  • Ms. Anjeli Narandran - Assistant Director for Intellectual exchange at the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) who chaired the discussion
  • Ms. Melanie Pichler - Researcher for oiip (= the Austrian Institute for International Politics)
  • Mr. Sebastian Bersick - Research Coordinator, „Asia in the Eyes of Europe“ and Associate Fellow DGAP (German Council on Foreign Relations)
  • Ms. Natalia Chaban - Deputy Director NCRE (National Centre for the Research on Europe at the University of Canterbury, NZ)
  • Mr. Bernhard Zimburg - Representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (who spent quite some time stationed in Asia)
The fact that the event took place at the House of the European Union (basically, the EU 'embassy' in Vienna) made for an equally interesting mix of participants apart from East Asia professors from the University of Vienna: The representative from the Japanese embassy for example lamented the fact that local knowledge about Japan tends to revolve around stereotypes such as popular culture (ie mangas, martial arts) and calligraphy. Referring to the project's earlier sister project Europe in the eyes of Asia, the representative from the Philippine embassy on the other hand suggested that the European Union needed to "market itself better" in the Philippines, as people there usually associate Europe with particular countries rather than a democratic political entity.

The findings of Asia through the eyes of Europe are going to be published in June 2012.
You can find the 2nd edition of the sister study Europe through the eyes of Asia if you click on its cover below:

You can also find more information on the project here.

About ASEF:
Founded in 1997, a year after the inaugural Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) between 25 European and East Asian countries and the European Commission, the Asia-Europe Foundation promotes greater mutual understanding between Asia and Europe through intellectual, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. Through ASEF, civil society concerns are included as a vital component of deliberations of the ASEM. ASEF is the only established institution of ASEM and is funded by voluntary contributions from its partner governments and shares the financing of its projects with its civil society partners across Asia and Europe. Since its inception, ASEF has implemented over 500 projects, engaging over 15,000 direct participants as well as reaching out to a much wider audience in Asia and Europe. - From the ASEF website.

About oiip:
The Austrian Institute for International Affairs is an independent, non-profit think-tank. The oiip was the first institute in Austria to focus on globalization, European integration, comprehensive security, and the comparative study of international affairs. Established in 1978 by the then Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, the Institute has advised on public policy, conducted primary scientific research, supported the international academic exchange and played a key role in hosting international conferences and as a venue for second track-diplomacy. Members of the Institute publish widely, are consulted by the government, and regularly feature in the national media. The Institute maintains a number of publications, and works closely with other national and international research institutions.

09 October 2011

Heidiwitz - Five years on!

"The real act of discovery is not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes."
Marcel Proust

The time for this blog post that I have been looking forward to for weeks, even months has finally arrived! I had hoped that when the day came to write it, I would have a(nother) "major milestone" to report, like a "successful" transition from student to working girl. Alas, life is what happens when you had other plans and at this moment, I am writing from a state of professional limbo, doing yet another internship after finishing my degree.

No matter if I have good news or bad news, I am glad to have my blog and people who know me are aware of how much I thoroughly enjoy taking the time to draft my blog entries to keep everyone up to date and let them take part in my cultural and personal discoveries while abroad. Writing also happens to be a relaxing and cathartic hobby for me. Even after long stressful days at work in KL, I would sit down two or three hours in a cafe and write. I just wish that being (hopefully only temporarily) back in Austria and being immersed in a German-speaking environment again would not affect the spritzy and energetic style exhibited in previous entries as much as it does. I actually confided in friends that I felt as if I had lost my voice ever since I returned to Vienna, kind of like a blogger's block. This is one part of the reason for the drop in new posts in the past few months. The other part is that I experienced comparatively less exciting stuff over here.

Although I moved to London five years ago, I remember it as if it was yesterday. Apart from the occasional day trip from my English language summer camps some 15 years before that, London had been pretty much a mystery to me. And yet, I was super excited throughout the flight, sensing that this would be a new and important chapter in my life that would change me forever.

Little did I know that I would not spend two but almost five years in a metropolis I now call a home (I believe a person can have more than one and I hope to add another one eventually). Many urban dwellers will nod in agreement when I describe it as a complicated relationship nurtured by the promise of personal freedom that comes with diversity, and scarred by the common frustrations characteristic of urban life which can exacerbate any personal hardship you might experience. Nevertheless, every time I meet someone new and they ask me about my time in London, they can instantly tell by the light in my eyes that it has a very special place in my heart: London is colourful, vibrant, fast and has something to offer to anyone. No matter how obscure your hobby, you will find a group! No matter how eccentric your personality, you will belong! You become a Londoner quicker than you can swipe your Oyster card! The allure and the invigorating challenge of everyday life but also the way a big city shapes your identity are hard to convey to people who have not lived in a fast-paced city like London, New York or Paris before. Sadly, I haven't quite figured out yet how to share this part of me with new people I meet.

Although it's been months since I've been back, I think of London almost every day, particularly on murky days or when it is Sunday and I want to buy something from the (closed) store. Or if I catch myself waiting for an Amazon delivery on a Saturday. Or when I get out of the U-Bahn (lit. "underground train") at the very last stop, just missed the connecting bus home and have to wait 30 minutes (!) for the next one. Or when I open a stationery cupboard at work and find someone's Clipper Tea bought on their last business trip to the UK. Or when the U-Bahn crosses the Danube river and I remember how much I always loved strolling down London's Southbank and how stunningly beautiful the city looks from London Bridge in the sunset.

When I look back on the past five years spent both in London and Asia, I consider them the most exciting time of my life: I had an amazing university experience (if you exclude all the troubles I had at the end because of funding), made friends from around the world who all share nostalgic memories of SOAS, discovered a lot of interesting places in London, worked with some of the most inspiring people (refugees and non-refugees alike, fellow interns) and sadly also with the most dispiriting, learned how to problem-solve in the hectic daily life in the UK (i.e. the guaranteed breakdowns of EVERYTHING – ATMs, trains, toilets, lifts, printers, ticket machines, Oyster readers, fire curtains, fire alarms, houses, even the electricity supply of entire streets), walked the corridors of social activism, attended some of the most exciting events while in London (i.e. at SOAS, LSE, the Overseas Development Institute, the Houses of Parliament, the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford. I have also attended a Star Wars convention, the BFI London Film Festival and the hilarious Great Gorilla Run), learned two Southeast Asian languages (Malay and Indonesian) and picked up some of the idiosyncrasies of others, learned to sing in Swahili, Maori, Swedish and Romanian (SOAS World Music Choir), survived the olfactory onslaught of Durians my flatmate stored in our Kuala Lumpur home, flew to a fantastic AIDS congress in Bali, dived with fish bigger than my head (so-called bump-headed parrot fish) in Pulau Perhentian (Malaysia), swerved on motorcycles through Vietnamese (!) traffic...

At SOAS alone – and mind you, these are just a selection of events – I had the privilege to attend debates with Jeffrey Sachs (BBC recording here), former Secretary-General of Amnesty International Irene Khan, (AIDS) epidemiologist and journalist Elizabeth Pisani, former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, Philippine Senator Satur Ocampo, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and prominent Malaysian economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram aka Jomo KS, Selangor State Assemblyman and Political Secretary to the Chief Minister of Selangor Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad (Malaysia), exiled Thai-British academic and political activist Giles Ji Ungpakorn (Guardian article here and video of SOAS talk here) and almost, Noam Chomsky (I didn't get into the event because the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy first limited registration for the event to CISD students and told me so when I emailed them anyway. A week or so later CISD secured a larger venue and opened it to non-CISD students, except I only saw the email when all of the highly desired places had been allocated within two hours. They did stream the event live on the web though). Via SOAS, I also got invited to a reception at the Houses of Parliament with former Executive Director of UNAIDS and former UN Under-Secretary General Peter Piot.

At the LSE, I attended public lectures by Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama and by the former deputy PM of Malaysia and current opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

At the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, I had the opportunity to experience UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres and prominent sociologist Saskia Sassen.

Apart from these more public figures, I got to listen to the experiences of countless individuals like British Red Cross Delegates in Sudan, MSF doctors and nurses who worked elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, an ex-MI5 agent, a UK diplomat in China during the Revolution who later became a BBC journalist and serves as Vice-Chair of the SOAS Governing Body, and a curator of the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. I heard several globally established academics elaborate on my fields of interest. Last but definitely not least, I listened to the terrible witness accounts of Cambodian, Rwandan and Burmese survivors of violent conflict who spoke at genocide memorial day events lest anyone forget the atrocities human beings are capable of committing against each other.

Needless to say, moving to London and from there around the globe has dramatically changed the way I perceive the world and by proxy, myself. I have grown so much in the past years and am therefore convinced that moving abroad was the best decision I have ever made. It has expanded my knowledge about the societies, languages and politics of Southeast Asia and also other regions. By posting here, I hope to have increased other people's global awareness, too.

When I "flicked" through my previous posts in order to relive and reminisce in my adventures, I felt a little embarrassed when re-reading some of my very first posts, kind of what people feel like when revealing their teenager years. Although I itch to archive those posts, I do leave them in as those experiences are a part of me too and because one of the pleasures of reading or keeping a blog is to see how someone changes over time with what they experience.

I am proud to say that I have taken this blog from a simple blog with a default layout to another level by picking a custom template that reflects the identity of the blog (out of dozens if not hundreds of templates on the web I looked at!), adding social media features, creating a QR Tag, enabling a mobile template for smartphones and most recently, experimenting with a thematic mini-series (ICT in development).

I am sure many of you wonder which ones are the most popular posts to date according to the stats. So without further ado, the most popular posts out of 12600 total pageviews since May 2009 are *drum roll*:

  1. Lat Lover (210)

To all my friends and unknown visitors who have read and reviewed on my blog in the last five years a big and heartfelt THANK YOU for your continued interest, comments and constructive advice! I invite you to keep visiting and hope you'll feel inspired to start a blog today!

"The problem is that most people focus on their failures rather than their successes. But the truth is that most people have many more successes than failures."
Jack Canfield