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Stockholm Syndrome

07 December 2017

By Daisy Catherine L. Mandap

It’s a phrase we have been hearing quite often lately, often in relation to the frustrating timidity of our migrant workers who have been abused to step forward and complain.

This is the “Stockholm syndrome”, a condition described as causing hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors as a survival strategy during captivity.

In many of these cases, the captives cease to realize that they are being held against their will, or are being subjected to abuse, and even end up defending their captors or the abusive situation they were forced into.

A classic example is Erwiana, the Indonesian domestic helper who was nearly killed after suffering relentless abuse from her employer for 10 months. Meeting her in court again recently, I was driven to ask why she put up with the abuse for so long. She replied that at first she tried to run away, but when her recruitment agency took no heed of her plea to take her away from her employer, terror overcame her, then resignation. It did not help that she was not allowed to take a day off, so she did not have a chance to speak to anyone at length about her situation.

More recently, we saw it happen to a Filipina who claims to have been abused, physically and mentally, for months by her employer’s live-in companion. Lanie, who said she stopped taking a day off to pay for mounting “fines” imposed on her by her alleged tormentor, could not even explain why she failed to protest the nearly daily abuse she was subjected to. She even listed down herself the various “misdeeds” she supposedly made to justify the fines that deprived her of her salary for more than six months.

Another recent phenomenon was the case of Marycor who at first, did not question her employer’s bidding for her to thoroughly clean their windows inside and out on a daily basis. When concerned neighbors posted pictures of her clinging precariously on a ledge while cleaning the windows that had been taped up because of an approaching super typhoon, Marycor told an acquaintance that she did not see anything wrong with it. But after her employer terminated their contract and she got help from seasoned rights activists, Marycor became resolute in her stance to push for compensation against her employer.

The syndrome could get hold of not just one, but an entire group of desperate migrant workers, as what happened in the case of the victims of notorious illegal recruiter Mila Ipp. About two dozen of them clung on to Ipp’s promise of deployment to Cyprus and Canada, and did not even flinch when she made them wait for an entire month at Macau’s airport for flights that never came. Worse, they sided with her in badmouthing people who tried to help them early on in the case. When Ipp told them the sob story of running low on funds needed to help them get to their destination, they pooled whatever money they had left from paying up to USD9,000 in placement fees to bail her out. To this day, these victims are hard put explaining why they allowed themselves to be scammed for so long.

What lessons could we learn from all these?

First, that migrant workers who are in an abusive situation should be rescued fast, even if they appear hesitant to leave. If their lives are in danger, the police must be informed so they could lead the rescue.

Second, lectures, forums and all forms of sharing about migrant rights should be strengthened so our workers get to understand when they need help, and how they could get it.

Third, and most importantly, we should continue our efforts to get Hong Kong authorities to enforce their laws against abuse and other contract violations, and craft new ones, especially those dealing with human trafficking and illegal recruitment.

We still recall with sadness the case of J, our first documented case of human trafficking of a Filipino in Hong Kong. J, who was brought into the city as a tourist by her Filipino-Chinese employer in the Philippines, was kept in a house in Tseung Kwan-O for nearly two years, where she looked after the elderly mother of her captives. She was not given money, and was warned she would be arrested for working illegally if she dared venture out on her own. Freed only after she threatened a hunger strike, J was prosecuted for violating her visa conditions, then jailed before being deported. The couple that held her captive was absolved of any crime by the magistrate who said there was no evidence that J was held against her will as she was not tied up or kept in a locked place.

We should not have another J, Marycor, Lanie or Erwiana in our midst.

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