Ban Ying, a “house for women" survivors of domestic violence, and sexual and labour exploitation.
Ban Ying is a member of GAATW working in the city of Berlin, Germany. In June 2023, we interviewed Lea Rakovsky, Project Coordinator of the organisation, to know about the journey, work and approach of the organisation throughout the years. The portraits that accompany this interview were painted by Krisanta Caguioa-Mönnich, who is the cultural and language mediator at Ban Ying, and an artist.
Vivian: Thank you Lea for taking the time to have a conversation with us. Can you tell me when and why Ban Ying was founded?
Lea: It was founded in 1989 by employees of local health authorities who were in contact with women working in the sex industry. They noticed that some of these women were not doing this work by choice but that they were in a situation of exploitation. Ban Ying began when employees from the local health institutes created a shelter for these women.
Ban Ying in Thai means “house for women.” It was given this name because, at the beginning, Ban Ying mainly counselled Thai women who were being affected by sexual exploitation in Germany. Throughout the years, this has changed, along with our area of focus from merely sexual exploitation to include other forms such as workplace exploitation and violence in marriage. Women who are experiencing domestic violence and are married to a German man are in a really difficult situation because they must stay married for three years before they can get independent residence status. Therefore, to leave a situation of domestic violence also means a risk of losing their residency status. This creates a situation of dependency and power imbalance. Although this is not exactly exploitation, it is a form of violence that migrant women are confronted with.
Additionally, it is no longer mainly Thai women but women from across Southeast Asia. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, women from Eastern Europe also began migrating, and recently, more women from Africa are seeking asylum here as well. On their way to Germany, they may become affected by violence or exploitation. We now focus on supporting women who encounter any difficulties that are related to the fact that they are migrants.
Vivian: What type of services do you offer to the women?
Lea: We have a shelter and a counselling center, so we have two different teams at two different places. We also work with lawyers who offer legal counselling. When there is a need for psychological or medical support, we have a network to which we can refer clients. Our core services are social and legal counselling.
Vivian: How long are women allowed to stay at the shelter? If they have children, for example, how is this addressed apart from social counselling and legal support?
Lea: We have budgets to support basic livelihoods. Some women arrive at the shelter without any documents. This means that the first task is often to solve this issue and try to get them documents as quickly as possible so that they can access social and financial support. While waiting for their papers, we provide them with some support.
Vivian: What are the main issues you face in your work? What is your relationship with public institutions and authorities as well as the laws that affect migrants?
Lea: There are several issues concerning trafficked persons who do not have papers. If they agree to cooperate with the authorities, and if the authorities say that there’s enough information to initiate a trial against the perpetrators, they can be given residence status and access to support services for the duration of the trial. The problem is that these support arrangements end when the trials end. This means that they might have to go back to their home countries after testifying against their perpetrators. The other problem is that residence status and support provisions given during court trials are conditional to those who are willing to cooperate with the authorities. Therefore, if they do not cooperate, they will not have access to any forms of support and may be deported immediately.
This is very problematic since it might be dangerous for them. Most women we work with do not want to cooperate with the authorities. Additionally, it can also be dangerous for their families back home because perpetrators often know about the family and can be violent towards them in retaliation. We argue that people have a human right to access support even if they don’t want to cooperate with the authorities. We also think that more people would cooperate if they were allowed to stay after the trial and if they could bring their children here too. This is something that we are fighting for.
Another issue is that the people we support have very little opportunity to live and work legally in Europe. One of the main reasons that trafficking occurs is because of the restrictive European migration policies. There are numerous reasons why people may need to migrate from their home countries, yet there are few ways that they can come to Europe safely. Hence, achieving good living and working conditions becomes challenging. Therefore, we are demanding pro-migration policies.
Vivian: Tell me more about these restrictive migration policies. Does Ban Ying do advocacy work in this area or are you only focused on providing assistance?
Lea: We have a counselling center and a shelter, so we do both. Most of my coworkers are social workers but my position is public relations and awareness. Therefore, I work with the media to raise awareness about certain issues. We are also part of networks like GAATW and La Strada International which lobby for better laws within the European Union for people who are affected by human trafficking. Additionally, we are part of PICUM and KOK. PICUM is the platform for the rights of undocumented people in Europe. When the European Union is drafting new laws, PICUM gets involved by sharing its concerns. This provides us with a way to give our opinion too. KOK is a platform organisation in Germany that does advocacy and lobby work.
Vivian: How do you incorporate the voices and perspectives of the women you assist into your work?
Lea: Over the past few years we’ve been doing a research project with GAATW where we interview the women that we work with. In these interviews, we ask them what changes they would like to see, both in policy and in Ban Ying. Interestingly, the second one has resulted in more ideas being shared than the first one. When it comes to policy, there were a few concrete requests such as that family reunification should be made easier, but many participants believed that they were not in a legitimate position to talk about German politics. They also do not want to get into trouble. What was most fruitful, were the concrete suggestions they had for Ban Ying so we can continue to support them here.
For example, as a result of the interviews, we started to organize job coaching sessions. This is something the interviewees suggested as they felt this is something they and women in similar situations needed. Moreover, some interviewees recommended us to be more involved in raising awareness and spreading information about migration in the women's native countries. As a result, we are now in the process of developing information materials to be distributed in the women´ home countries.
Vivian: But these women are in a legitimate position to talk about gender-based violence and human trafficking in Germany.
Lea: Yes, absolutely. The problem is that they do not feel like they are a legitimate part of Germany. However, we want them to feel that they actually are, in order to have a voice in German politics.
One important suggestion that was expressed in the interviews was the ability to change employers. When domestic workers working in diplomatic households are affected by trafficking and exploitation, it should be possible for them to change their employers. Currently, however, their residence status is linked to their employer. So if the employer exploits them and they live him, they also lose their residency status. Another issue is that undocumented migrants need a way to report when they have fallen victim to violence without the threat of deportation.
Vivian: What is the current dynamic regarding migration and trafficking in Germany? Does the situation in Ukraine have an impact on migration to Germany?
Lea: The Ukraine situation came with the concern that women who were fleeing the war would become victims of violence, either on their way or upon arrival in their destination country. Most of the cases we had at Ban Ying regarding women fleeing Ukraine involved women who were not Ukrainian. These women were having issues with their residence permits so we were supporting them.
Regarding the current dynamic of migration in general, the women we see that are seeking asylum are mainly from African countries. They may fall into a situation of trafficking in other European countries before escaping to Germany to seek asylum.
What we have also observed is that we’ve had more women from Vietnam recently. This does not necessarily mean that Vietnamese women are increasingly affected by trafficking and exploitation, it may just means that they have better access to our assistance. Therefore, we must be careful when trying to explain the dynamics as it is difficult to say.
Vivian: I don’t have any more questions for you, Lea. Is there anything that you would like to add?
Lea: Yes, I would like to share that we also do training for different actors such as social workers working at the asylum seeker centres and police officers. With the police, we train them to be more sensitive about the issue of trafficking and to gain more knowledge about the rights of victims. When the police do a raid involving undocumented migrants, they often only perceive them as undocumented rather than as people potentially affected by trafficking. Our training with the police is a difficult relationship because we don’t work on the same side, and we don’t have the same priorities.
Vivian: Do you mean that your priority is to ensure the wellbeing and rights of the person and theirs is to catch the criminals and enforce state laws? So how do you deal with this disconnect? How do you work with the police, given your different agendas - both when you do training for them and in other areas of cooperation?
Lea: Yes this is what I mean. The work with the police is not easy since we have different agendas, we are victim-oriented and they are more oriented towards punishing the perpetrators. We try to sensitize them about the situations and the rights of victims.
Vivian: Thank you very much, Lea.