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Traffickers exploiting student visas at global level, reports reveal

International students are at risk of workplace exploitation, and even more alarmingly according to a series of reports, of student visa routes being targeted by human traffickers.

Research has shown that students are falling victim to traffickers around the world. Photo: sammisreachers.

Victims reported excessive work hours, deliberate underpayment, falsification of records and unauthorised deductions from wages

Reports by the US Department of State, Polaris and The Times of London paint a picture of human traffickers are using student visas on a global scale to take advantage of vulnerable people.

“[Traffickers] will make use of anything that allows them to control people”

A US Department of State report – the 2019 Trafficking in Persons – released last June found that student visas are potentially used to traffic people in Australia, France, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, Taiwan, Cyprus, the Philippines and Tunisia.

“Whatever way traffickers can find to organise transport into the country for which there is no legal way in – as in the case with Vietnamese students in the UK – they will use,” Jakub Sobik, communications manager at UK-based NGO, Anti-Slavery, told The PIE News.

Soubik was referring to The Timesinvestigation published in November which reported that gangs were using Tier 4 visas to traffic Vietnamese girls into the UK via independent schools.

“They [traffickers] will also make use of anything that allows them to control people,” commented Sobik.

“While education might not be the largest mechanism to recruit or entice people, it is certainly a method that is used,” he confirmed.

“The very regrettable historical cases of trafficking of students from Vietnam referred to in The Times’ recent article illustrate that systems, no matter how robust they are, may prove insufficient when faced with criminals intent on exploiting those systems,” said BAISIS chairman, Julian Baker.

“Since the time of these historical cases, recruitment from Vietnam has continued with caution to ensure criminal agents do not circumvent the country’s visa system,” he added.

A spokesperson from the UK’s Home Office told The PIE that the safety and welfare of children is a top priority when considering any student application, and written consent from parents and evidence of adequate childcare arrangements are required.

“If we have concerns around the genuineness of any of this information, we will either undertake verification checks or when appropriate interview the student or their parents.

“Educational establishments have a duty to report a lack of enrolment or disappearance to us. When the location of a child is unknown, this is referred to social services and the police,” they said.

In the US, the Polaris ‘Human Trafficking on Temporary Work Visas’ report identified 34 individuals who were enrolled between 2015-2017 on F1 visas, as confirmed victims of human trafficking.

Source: Polaris, Human Trafficking on Temporary Work Visas

According to the report, these individuals were identified via a “national hotline” and all exploitative work environments: 32% of those reportedly experienced sex trafficking or a combination of sex and labour trafficking. This was the highest percentage of sex trafficking victims of any of the visas included in the report. 

Nigerians were the most commonly impacted nationality, comprising 18% of all victims identified across the F1 visa category.

The US government Trafficking in Persons report, comprehensively assessing human trafficking in 187 countries and territories, found that in Australia, there have been cases of exploitation in the fruit picking industry.

Victims reported excessive work hours, deliberate underpayment of wages, falsification of records and unauthorised deductions from wages. 

Some victims paid significant placement and academic fees for their student visas. “Unscrupulous” employers coerce students to work in excess of the terms of their visas, making them vulnerable to trafficking due to fears of deportation for immigration violations.

The TIP report also noted that in France, Chinese victims often enter the country on short-term student or tourist visas and in Israel, traffickers in the agricultural sector recruit students from developing countries to take part in an agricultural study program on student visas. 

According to the report, in Taiwan, traffickers take advantage of the country’s “New Southbound Policy” visa-simplification program and lure Southeast Asian students and tourists into the country before subjecting them to forced labour and sex trafficking.

In the Philippines, illegal recruiters use student, intern, exchange program, and tourist visas, as well as social networking sites and digital platforms to recruit and circumvent the Philippine government and destination countries’ regulatory frameworks for foreign workers.

The TIP cited an NGO, saying that in 2017 and 2018, foreign trafficking victims arrived in Tunisia on a valid tourist or student visa and remain in an exploitative situation for an average of five to 13 months, surpassing the validity of their visa. 

“It’s important to look at more systemic problems that help facilitate these practices”

Sobik told The PIE that educating people to the risks of trafficking was crucial, but that more needed to be done in regards to how governments manage their immigration policies. 

“It’s important to look at more systemic problems that help facilitate these practices, such as a hostile environment with immigration systems that push people underground, outside of the law and into the hands of traffickers. 

“Without addressing that, we will never address trafficking and slavery,” said Sobik. 

The TIP report also noted that Japan’s fast-growing international student population is vulnerable to trafficking in the unskilled labour sector and that in New Zealand, some international students and temporary visa holders are vulnerable to forced labour or prostitution.

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