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Migrant workers caught up in Bundaberg fire vulnerable to human trafficking

Christine Carolan: “I think, as Christians, we’ve got a real responsibility to reach out to people who are vulnerable.”

A FIRE that destroyed a Bundaberg pub and backpacker hostel recently sparked Catholics against human trafficking into action.

When news of the fire broke, a member of Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH) was quick to respond by visiting the Queensland regional town and offering support.

No lives were lost but many of those who survived the fire were migrant workers living in Australia on temporary visas.

ACRATH executive officer Christine Carolan said migrant workers on temporary visas were among the people most vulnerable to trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said an ACRATH member visited Bundaberg “because there were concerns about the wellbeing of the people on temporary visas”, many of whom were agricultural workers who lost everything in the fire.

“Some of them were from Vanuatu, some of them from Timor Leste, and then there were a few who were backpackers,” she said.

“The people on temporary visas are trapped here in Australia because their home countries have closed their borders, and yet they’re not eligible for JobKeeper or JobSeeker; they’re not eligible for anything.

“We had people who had actually planned to go home and then were caught in Australia because their own government closed their borders, and so people didn’t have any employment, they didn’t have savings and they didn’t have access to a safety net from the Australian Government.”

ACRATH president Brigidine Sister Louise Cleary appealed to fellow Catholics to support the organisation’s work in this field and in the fight against human trafficking by donating to its fundraising campaign.

The campaign was launched in the lead-up to the United Nations World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on July 30.

“Hundreds of thousands of people are being drawn to the promise of work simply to put food on their family’s table – work that often turns out to be a job in slave-like conditions. Or worse, they are coerced into labour or sexual exploitation, as our overseas partners tell us,” Sr Cleary said.

She said COVID-19 was impacting on the very people most vulnerable to trafficking because they often lived in poverty, lacked suitable housing and healthcare, or couldn’t access support services.

Ms Carolan said one of the ways ACRATH volunteers provided practical support to people in dire situations, including some who have been trafficked, was through a companionship program.

“What we’ve been doing is saying to people that … we will try and provide food vouchers,” she said.

“At least that means people are not going hungry in such a rich country as ours.”

Ms Carolan said, for workers stranded in Australia on temporary visas, the situation was grim.

“And there’s no sort of easy end to all of this – when will their countries open their borders and when will it be safe to travel?” she said.

“In the meantime, I think, as Christians, we’ve got a real responsibility to reach out to people who are vulnerable.”

She was encouraged by regional Church communities who were taking steps to reach out.

“In Tasmania, a Church community got together and said, ‘Look, we’ve got all those berry pickers in our community, let’s have a good, old-fashioned afternoon tea party, invite them in and see what their issues are …’,” she said.

“And I think that’s such a Christian response to tough times, and this was before COVID, so it has to be safe, of course.

“I know, in Warrnambool (Victoria), the Catholic Church there has reached out to overseas workers, and I don’t see why every parish across Queensland couldn’t be saying, ‘Hey, what could we do that’s safe for us and that’s kind to the stranger?’”

ACRATH members invited fellow Catholics to join them via Zoom for prayer on the World Day Against the Trafficking in Persons on July 30.

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