Australia's parliament passed legislation this week that will criminalize forced marriages and forced labor. The laws are aimed at protecting what activists call a “silent army” of victims, many of them migrants.
The measures will supplement existing anti-slavery laws by criminalizing forced labor, human trafficking and forced marriage.
Anti-slavery campaigners believe the number of prosecutions will now because the police will have greater powers to investigate allegations of exploitation and coercion.
Explaining the need for the tougher laws, legislators cited an example in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, where an Indian migrant was forced to work long hours without pay in a restaurant and lived in a garden shed after having his passport taken by the owner.
There are no exact figures to illustrate how bad the problem is, but advocates estimate that many thousands of people have been affected, including many women from Asia and Eastern Europe.
Jennifer Burn, director of the campaign group Anti-Slavery Australia, says the vulnerable will now receive more help.
“This law is going to transform the Australian criminal code," said Burn. "To make up the offense of forced labor, the person who is doing that work must believe that they are not free to stop working and not free to leave the place where they are working because they have been coerced, threatened or deceived. So the sorts of threats that could be exerted could be ‘I will report you to immigration,’ ‘you will be deported from Australia,’ ‘I will harm your family, I will harm you.’”
Forced marriage has been called Australia’s guilty secret. Offenses usually come to light only when women brake their silence, often risking family and community anger, and approach the authorities.
Parents who force their children into marriage could be jailed for up to seven years.
The laws will apply both to marriages taking place within Australia and those involving its citizens in other countries.
Muslim groups here say this type of coercion is not in accordance with Islamic traditions, but some worry that the legislation could be a subtle way to denigrate and marginalize their community in Australia.