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Sister fighting ‘hidden crime’ of human trafficking says victims are in restaurants, hospitality and even cleaning jobs

Sr Janine Bliss: “We all need to welcome the stranger in our midst, and offer them friendship and supports.”

SR Janine Bliss is on the lookout for a flat or a caravan in Bundaberg but she’s not thinking of a holiday – she’s too busy for that.

It’s just that she’s spending so much time in the south-east Queensland town that accommodation is costing her an arm and a leg and she was hoping someone could help out.

She’s hoping to save that expense, not for herself, but for the group she’s representing, Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH).

Sr Janine is a long-time member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Brisbane, and ACRATH’s been her full-time mission for the past decade.

Her hands-on role as ACRATH’s Queensland co-ordinator has her spending a lot of time in Bundaberg among seasonal workers, mainly from Vanuatu and East Timor at the moment.

ACRATH, backed by Catholic Religious Australia, works towards “the elimination of human trafficking in Australia, the Asia Pacific region, and globally”.

That includes supporting people who come to Australia under the Federal Government’s Seasonal Worker Program (SWP), part of a foreign aid effort.

ACRATH helps and advocates on behalf of those who may be at risk of being exploited while working under that program, as some of the seasonal workers in Bundaberg have been.

“About five or six years ago, we were discussing projects for ACRATH and we were very strong about the fact that ACRATH needed to be more than just Brisbane-based so at that time I went as far as Mackay visiting major towns and making contact with Catholic schools and communities, community groups, justice groups in Rockhampton diocese particularly, and have continued in Bundaberg since then,” Sr Janine said.

“That came about as a result of an ABC documentary, called Slaving Away … and it was highlighting the situation with the backpackers (and seasonal workers) and the exploitation they were experiencing.

“So I was invited back to Bundaberg a couple of times, and then it’s become more regular and we’ve been mostly involved in the support work around the seasonal workers, under the SWP.”

Sr Janine’s been spending even more time there since a recent fire in a local hotel and backpackers’ hostel where 32 seasonal workers – 10 from East Timor and 22 from Vanuatu – were staying.

They all escaped unharmed but lost all their possessions, so Sr Janine drove to Bundaberg immediately to offer support.

Drawn to St Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary for their focus on justice and on the poor, she lives for such outreach.

The diversity of apostolates among the FMMs appealed to her, and she was able to find her niche in community development, serving in Aboriginal communities in Western Australia and Queensland before working with refugees.

Working with ACRATH flowed on from that.

“One of the FMM Sisters told me about ACRATH and that there was an ACRATH group here in Brisbane and I should get in touch with them,” Sr Janine said.

“I made contact and was very impressed, and also very aware of my ignorance around human trafficking.

“It was almost a natural progression to get involved and then, the more I got involved, I was fortunate having contact with a trafficked woman.

“I was accompanying her, being a support, and what initially started off as a short-term involvement developed into nearly 10 years of ongoing support.

“And I became increasingly impressed with ACRATH’s approach.

“The work that I was doing with this lady I was able to share (vital) information and then others in ACRATH were able to provide advocacy with the various government departments, seeking improved support around her visa status and looking at English classes, looking at accommodation needs.

“It’s a very holistic approach …”

Confidentiality is a high priority with ACRATH and for Sr Janine in protecting the people they help.

She said this particular woman “was brought into Australia and came to the attention of the Australian Federal Police, who contacted the Queensland ACRATH co-ordinator at the time”.

The co-ordinator asked Sr Janine if she would support the woman and, when she said yes, she didn’t realise what a commitment that would be.

“It was a wonderful experience and certainly taught me about the issues involved with victims of human trafficking here in Australia, and the specific needs that they have,” Sr Janine said.

“This woman was under witness protection and then as a result of that she was in the care of the Red Cross and then ran into many difficulties.

“Finding suitable accommodation was a constant area of urgency and it was a very difficult time for her in trying to find English classes that were appropriate and that were constant and available in the area.

“The lack of finances I guess was the overriding need, and certainly accommodation and medical care.

“So ACRATH stepped in with providing some of those supports and also important I think was the area around advocacy because this woman was representative of a lot of other trafficked women and people who fall through the cracks because they no longer fit into the official category of being trafficked because of lack of evidence or conflicting stories in that evidence, so they’re particularly vulnerable.

“And, I suppose for me, one of the big challenges was how many other women are out there not being offered support and slipping through the cracks.”

Doing something about that has become a passion for Sr Janine.

“I think (it’s) primarily to seek that anyone who is being trafficked into Australia receives the support and friendship they need to get through this period of their life and receive the proper supports – government supports – in terms of safe housing, proper medical care, counselling, training to hopefully find employment and to live a better life in a safe environment – things that we take for granted, basically,” she said.

The problem is that these people are all around us, working in areas like hospitality, restaurants and cleaning.

“That’s one of the big problems – that human trafficking in Australia, modern-day slavery, is a very hidden crime and activity,” Sr Janine said.

“We can go about our normal lives and not know that we’re encountering people that perhaps have been trafficked, and it’s very difficult for people in that position to seek help.

“They often don’t have English as a first language and they often don’t trust police or authorities to go to with their story.

“And, unfortunately for some, this is normal for them.

“They’re providing money, if they do receive money, in the hope that they can help benefit their families.

“It’s a very difficult, very complex area.”

Sr Janine’s work with ACRATH has become very practical, at times, yet no less important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was shocked that a number of seasonal workers didn’t have any information (about dealing with the pandemic)” she said.

“They were totally unaware of COVID, and the need for social distancing, increased or improved hygiene – the washing of your hands or not shaking hands.

“Things that we were taking for granted that we were being inundated with information on on the TV and news reports, they were totally unaware of.

“So we quickly put a bit of a kit together so that that could be circulated …

“That’s a good example of the practical support (ACRATH provides), trying to identify the needs and respond as quickly as possible.”

Supporting the workers who survived the Bundaberg fire is taking much of Sr Janine’s time these days.

“They virtually escaped with the clothes on their back, nothing more,” she said.

“We would certainly like to look at how we can replace some of the personal items that people lost so I guess if there was a way that if anybody wanted to provide a donation they could send it to ACRATH.

“Any personal items that the workers lost, that’s come about through a lot of hard work, and (the emphasis is on) the need to support their families (back home).

“That’s what they’re focused on; that’s why they’re here.

“One of the workers lost $1600 US dollars; he withdrew it that day and it was all burnt in the fire.

“So you can only imagine the stress and trauma involved in losing that kind of money and also on the family at home – how (do) they survive without that money.

“It’s heart-wrenching.”

Sr Janine was impressed by the generous response of the Bundaberg community in donating food and clothing but she said the workers needed ongoing support.

She seized the opportunity to raise awareness of the large number of seasonal workers in Queensland. “This is an opportunity for parishes, for community groups to reach out and be hospitable,” she said.

Sr Janine said her Franciscan “commitment and passion has deepened through my involvement in ACRATH and is expressed in my work with seasonal workers in the Bundaberg region”.

“It is a privilege for me to have the opportunity to live my mission vocation,” she said.

“We all need to welcome the stranger in our midst, and offer them friendship and supports.”

For more information on human trafficking go to the ACRATH website acrath.org.au.

Anyone wanting to donate on that website to ACRATH’s work in Bundaberg should indicate “Bundaberg” when doing so.

For more information on the Bundaberg Project, contact Sr Janine at qldcoordinator@acrath.org.au.

Written by: Peter Bugden
Catholic Church Insurance

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