When I first started working with The Freedom Story (formerly The SOLD Project) over six years ago, the anti trafficking community looked very different from today. There were three separate sectors to combat trafficking: prevention (which is where we fit), intervention (typically understood as rescues and where law enforcement fit), and aftercare (rehabilitation services for victims). The different sectors had their proscribed purviews and approaches, and for the most part, various organizations worked independently and with little communication between each other.
Today, the anti trafficking community looks very different. There has been a big push in recent years towards greater collaboration and drawing upon everyone’s comparative strengths to build a united effort to confront trafficking. While our readers are probably by now familiar with the concept of prevention by helping potential victims arm themselves with resources to protect themselves against exploitation, there is a whole other side of prevention developing: prevention through prosecution.
One of the organizations that has been instrumental in helping shape prevention through prosecution is Nvader. Nvader is a Christian based, nongovernmental organization that works alongside local law enforcement agencies to help provide support in investigations, prosecutions, appropriate sentencing, and connecting victims to proper aftercare services. Their goal is to strengthen local law enforcement capacity to apprehend traffickers and send a clear, strong message of deterrence to other traffickers.
I recently sat down with Carter Quinley, Strategic Relationships and Partnership Development at Nvader, and over banh mi and a bowl of pho, we talked about what prevention through prosecution looks like.
Prosecution Focus: Long Term Impact
Prosecution is not just about apprehending criminals. It’s about more than keeping criminals behind bars. It has a much larger impact and effects that ripple outwards. It’s about accountability: about showing traffickers that law enforcement is serious about apprehending them, that the criminal justice system is serious about prosecuting offenders, and that the punishments will be commensurate to the crime.
“Almost half the countries have less than 10 convictions.
What does that mean in terms of accountability?”
Previously, that message has not been sent as loudly and clearly as one might hope. As Quinley explains:
“One statistic that never fails to blow my mind, in the issue of human trafficking, there is anywhere between 21 to 45 million people enslaved. Global Slavery Index says 45 million and ILO says 21. When you look at those numbers in terms of victims of human trafficking and then you look at the numbers of actual prosecutions across the globe, where that number ranges around 4,000 prosecutions every single year, the percentage is miniscule. Then you look at 40% of countries in the world have less than 10 convictions per year. Almost half the countries have less than 10 convictions.
What does that mean in terms of accountability and holding offenders accountable to their actions from a criminal justice standpoint, from a criminal deterrence standpoint? That’s Nvader’s core focus is increasing criminal deterrence. That essentially comes via an increase in convictions of offenders of human trafficking.”
Why is Prosecuting Traffickers so Difficult?
Given the numbers cited, it appears that prosecuting traffickers is especially difficult, especially in comparison to other crimes. I asked Quinley to speculate on why it is so difficult and she highlighted two main concerns: capacity and the sensitivity of the issue.
The first concern is capacity. The Thai Anti Trafficking Act was only written in 2008 and enacted in 2009, so it is less than 10 years ago that Thailand’s first anti-human trafficking police division was formed, and it was the first specialist department in the country to focus specifically on anti human trafficking cases. It is still a sector in which governments are working to formulate effective strategies, and it’s an area that requires incredible nuance in how you approach convictions, arrests, and prosecutions. Therefore governments are still developing the resources and the expertise necessary to combat the crime.
The second concern is the sensitivity of the issue, especially with regards to the egregious nature of the crime. Survivors have been placed in situations involving labor trafficking, sex trafficking, or child pornography and extreme exploitation. In Thailand, “the government is trying to take a victim centered approach, which is recommended from the US government and different international governments of law. But there’s still a need for a victim to give their testimony, whether that’s in person in front of their traffickers, or for children, there’s mechanisms that are in place, like child interview rooms, or for counselors to be present, which is really good…but that again adds another layer of complexity in terms of how you address this issue.” Children and other survivors may be unwilling to cooperate in testifying due to how traumatizing it can be to retell (and thus relive) their experiences, as well as due to fears of retaliation from their traffickers.
Nvader’s Role: Building Capacity
Various international governmental bodies have stressed the need for a collaborative approach to intelligence gathering and advocate sharing resources to rescue victims and bring perpetrators to justice. From the U.S Justice Department:
“To successfully combat human trafficking, as Deputy Attorney General [James Cole] said, ‘prosecution alone is not the answer,’ which is why we are bringing a renewed focus to preventative measures like:
- Prevention through prosecution of trafficking rings before they can ensnare other victims;
- prevention through deterrence so that our prosecutions dissuade others who may consider engaging in this crime;
- prevention through public awareness; and, lastly,
- prevention through the education of potential victims who, driven by fear, poverty, or lack of education, often unwittingly place their lives in the hands of exploitative traffickers.
No single country or law enforcement agency has the power, or the means, to tackle the global criminal enterprises we face. Only by communicating effectively, sharing intelligence and combining resources – within our own governments and with our law enforcement partners around the globe – can we truly understand current and emerging trends and build effective strategies to anticipate, combat and put an end to these crimes. (Source: Department of Justice)
The core of Nvader’s focus and strategy comes from the call for sharing resources to strengthen and grow capacity. They work exclusively within a legal framework with law enforcement partners in two major ways: intelligence sharing and legal advocacy.
Nvader operates under a partnership model with various police agencies, where their law enforcement partners will come to their investigation teams and share intelligence and gaps in the evidence and then ask Nvader’s investigation teams to help gather intelligence and information that law enforcement authorities can then act on.
In this regard, one of Nvader’s core values is professionalism. All their investigators come from a professional background, either in policing or in former international police agency experience, and all their investigators also have the legal mandate to do anti trafficking work.
Another critical piece of the puzzle lies in strengthening justice through appropriate sentencing. As Quinley explains,
“our legal team’s role in that is both advocating for stronger sentences and lengthier sentences for the offenders, but also advocating for the various rights that victims are entitled to under the anti human trafficking laws. They’re not always awarded if there’s not a lawyer advocating on their behalf. So a lot of times that looks like a significant increase in rates of compensation or even being awarded compensation at all, and witness protection and other kinds of mechanisms that victims of trafficking are entitled to. Just because it’s in law doesn’t always mean that it’s implemented. It’s working within the systems that are in place, strengthening them, and really lobbying on the part of the victims.”
There isn’t consistent sentencing in place, and one of the key problems is that even when convicted, an offender’s jail time might be shockingly minimal. Nvader’s role has been to advocate for greater consistency and propriety in ensuring the punishment fits the crime.
However, she emphasizes that the process may take years.
“I think a lot of times, the sensationalist view is that we can ‘rescue’ and set them ‘free,’ and that vocabulary is something that does not at all encompass the significant nuance, the depth of nuance that it takes to go from any sort of intervention activity to justice being served, in whatever it looks like, whether it’s justice being brought for the survivor, whether it’s justice being brought with the offender, law enforcement sector, judiciary, within a one to two year range of a case from start to finish. Our Thai lawyer is one of the most patient people that I know. She’s incredibly committed to these cases and seeing them through.”
What Gives Her Hope? Capitalizing on Complementary Core Competencies
The most exciting aspect of prevention work lies in pieces of the puzzle fitting together: finding complementary core competencies, and seeing people who have very different ethos and very different approaches to this work, coming together and looking for areas of common ground. In her words:
“What I love about the anti trafficking sector is that it is so multi faceted, and so you have people like yourselves at Freedom Story who are doing incredible work in education and prevention, and that’s so needed and important, and then you have a lot of NGOs that specialize in aftercare and rehabilitation, and again, so needed, so important, and so why I’m after this prevention through prosecution approach, it’s that middle piece that a lot of times NGOs don’t operate in because it really is a criminal justice space. It’s the need for law enforcement to answer.
“But what happens when law enforcement don’t really have the capacity to address these issues…? That’s where Nvader fills this gap”
But what happens when law enforcement don’t really have the capacity to address these issues in an organized crime, intelligence led model? That’s where Nvader fills this gap: coming alongside local law enforcement to mentor and train, to build the capacity, to walk alongside.
One of the most encouraging things is seeing the relationships that have developed between our team and local law enforcement here in Thailand, in terms of shared learning and support. Being able to walk alongside and say, ‘Ok what do you need? What training do you need? What investigation support do you need?’ And we’ve been able to identify gaps in their capacity in which Nvader is able to assist them. This is a prevention strategy a support model that’s recommended at these governing body levels. To be able to help Thailand, or to help Thai law enforcement, do their job to the best of their ability. It takes a network to combat a network.”
We at The Freedom Story are also passionate about these kinds of growing partnerships and are grateful to our friends and fellow organizations that are likewise working together and learning from each other. We are excited about this path towards combating trafficking and hopeful it will only continue to grow.
Many big thanks to Carter Quinley for taking the time to share her perspective with us, and to Nvader for all the fantastic work they do.
To learn more about Nvader, check out their website here. Quinley is also the Thailand Ambassador for the Freedom Collaborative–an online platform specifically focused at connecting, resourcing and equipping the anti-human-trafficking community.
Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The Freedom Story. After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness. She is half American, and half Thai.