If you have met Julia Immonen, it is easy to imagine that if anyone can organise a group of women to train for six months and then row across the Atlantic, breaking two world records while at it, and all this to raise awareness for human trafficking – she can. After her successful 'Row for Freedom' campaign that got generous amounts of media coverage, Julia plans to get involved with many more high-profile campaigns in the future.
Julia first heard about human trafficking through the A21 Campaign – a charity that works against human trafficking. Human trafficking is the second largest global organised crime today, affecting every nation. Approximately 27 million people are trafficked around the world and most of the victims end up working in the sex industry. “I was shocked how little it is talked about. After hearing stories of the victims, I felt compelled to do something to raise the awareness.”
As an athletic young woman who works for Sky Sports, combining her love for sports with her expertise in the media came naturally. “The idea for rowing across the Atlantic actually came while jogging along the Thames”, she explains.
Little did she realise how enormous the amount of work was going to be. After finding a crew of rowers through different connections, Julia ended up rowing the Atlantic with four women she did not know before.
The row was brutal, because in order to break the world record, the crew had to keep on rowing constantly. For every two hours they rowed they rested two and continued it for over six weeks. In the end they were sleep deprived, not to mention the physical as well as mental strain. “Because we were going for the world record, the boat didn’t stop unless we had problems. On day 33 we saw dolphins. Apart from the dolphins we saw no-one.”
The row was at times scary and dangerous. They crew was in the middle of the ocean unaided, left to their own devices. While trying to survive what the elements kept throwing at their seven-metre boat, they had to keep track of navigation, having had only two days of training, as the most experienced crew member had pulled out of the competition the last minute before they set off from Tenerife.
“We had a water maker that broke on the day 15. We had to handpump water and so we were one girl down all the time, having to handpump the water. The automatic steering broke on day six. The hatches flooded, where we had a lot of our food, so we had to chuck our Mars bars and other food over board”, Julia recalls. “We had so many problems, but it made arriving to Barbados so much sweeter.”
In the end, it took the crew 45 days to cross the Atlantic, from Tenerife to Barbados. They were the fastest group of women ever to have crossed the Atlantic and also the first group of five. “Because we were five girls, we had quite a normal interaction. So mentally we were good, but physically it was tough.”
The aftermath of the row wasn’t much easier, though. “When we got off the boat, we had sea legs – like we were falling about – for about three days, and then the legs seized up! After rowing for so long for 12 hours a day and then stopping, our bodies were in shock.”
The incredible Row for Freedom campaign has generated a huge amount of media attention already, but it is one of Julia’s aims to keep pressing the issue in the media so that more and more people would become aware of the severity of human trafficking. The approaching Olympic Games in London make the campaigning ever more relevant as it is a proven fact that large sporting events place demand for people who have been trafficked.
“After visiting a safehouse in Cape Town before the World Cup [in 2010] there and hearing first-hand how the girls that I met had been imported there from Mozambique and surrounding countries, I started researching what would happen with the Olympics”, Julia says.
“And it’s very much seen as a security issue – money hasn’t been put into actually stopping human trafficking. It’s just about supply and demand, really. There is research being done, apparently, around the time of the Olympics to measure if everything does go up because of so many people, but I would personally say it will because the demand for everything goes up – for restaurants, for hotels and sadly, also for sex.”
According to Julia, human trafficking is an unpopular topic which is why Row for Freedom has been such a good way to bring it up. Juggling between her day job as well as her charity work, she hopes to get involved with many more high-profile campaigns in the near future to keep human trafficking issues in the UK media.
Her next idea for such a campaign will be a big Cycle for Freedom in the summer/autumn of 2013. The route will be from Moldova to London, symbolising a common journey of a victim of human trafficking from the former Soviet Bloc to Western Europe. “We will cycle through Brussels and stop at the European Parliament, organising events on the way.”
But even before that, Julia will be busy doing many other things – among them carrying the Olympic torch in Edinburgh on June 13. “I’m really honoured and privileged to be doing that as well”, the half-Scottish, half-Finnish Julia explains. “They only allow me to have the torch for 300 metres though, so after rowing 3,000 miles I think I can manage!”