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The Unsung Side of Prevention
July 15, 2021

We routinely share stories about how prevention is working for youth at risk, students like BunMa who narrowly escaped being trafficked in Bangkok, Chayu who has a family history of sex trafficking, or Mai who worked in bars until she was able to secure her freedom. And we share larger numbers, like thousands of hours of trainings and mentorship provided. Detailed breakdowns can be found in our impact reports. These results show the impact we try to have on individual students at-risk. However, even this wealth of information doesn’t cover all aspects of prevention. There is an unsung side too, which can only be understood in the context of the complexity of trafficking. It can be seen in the interplay between depth and reach.

The Unsung Side of Trafficking Prevention

In our most recent blog post, we mentioned how our approach over the years has involved navigating a shifting balance between depth and reach: the depth of relationships needed to produce fundamental changes in vulnerability and the reach to expand our impact as wide as we can. There’s an added dimension to this—something a focus on the simple data point of “numbers of people” misses. Human trafficking is a complex phenomenon, with many facets, and vulnerabilities can intertwine and overlap. People use categories to help understand things; for example, that human trafficking can include sex trafficking and labor trafficking (and a host of other things, including organ trafficking), and that there’s a difference between the trafficking of adults versus children. We compartmentalize these things. But the real world is often a lot messier than that—sex trafficking can involve labor trafficking and vice versa. We’ve talked before about the ways the two can overlap. Child trafficking can become adult trafficking—and adults who’ve been trafficked themselves may become involved in the trafficking of their own children. 

Our focus and our mission is to protect children at risk, but vulnerable children are not isolated entities, singular data points outside of context. Children who are at risk often come from families that are at risk, whether it’s risk of sex trafficking or labor trafficking, or other forms of exploitation like having their wages withheld, or predatory loan practices, or discrimination and exclusion that pushes them into financial desperation.

“In early 2020, an estimated 60,000-200,000 migrant workers departed Thailand prior to and following pandemic-related border closures. Many of these workers subsequently returned to Thailand undocumented throughout 2020, often paying fees to smugglers to facilitate their return, increasing their risk to debt-based coercion. Smugglers, brokers, employers, and others exploit Thai and migrant workers in labor trafficking in commercial fishing and related industries, the poultry industry, manufacturing, agriculture, domestic work, and street begging. Many workers pay high fees to brokers, recruitment agencies, and others before and after they arrive in Thailand. Traffickers often use debt-based coercion, deceptive recruitment practices, retention of identity documents and ATM cards, illegal wage deductions, physical violence, and other means to subject victims to forced labor. Employers confiscate workers [sic] identity documents as a means to compel workers to remain in their jobs.” (Source: 2021 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report)

People at risk of exploitation often come from impoverished families, many lacking anything above a middle school education because they had to drop out to work when they were children as well. Migrants and stateless groups have fewer rights, and few know what rights they do have, if there’s no entity taking it upon themselves to spread awareness. In times of financial desperation, they sometimes have to take the only opportunities they perceive available to them, and traffickers and other predators will take advantage. Caring about preventing trafficking, therefore, requires caring about these other ways children and the families around them might be exploited because it’s all inter-related.

Indeed, in this year’s recently released Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. State Department highlighted labor trafficking as one of its principle concerns in scoring Thailand. It says: “Despite widespread reports that forced labor was prevalent among migrant workers in many industries in Thailand, the government identified a low number of labor trafficking victims compared to the scope of the problem, officials often lacked an understanding of labor trafficking, and the government lacked standard procedures for labor inspectors to refer potential cases to law enforcement.“ This might sound like arcane bureaucratic speak, but these details are really important in real-world case identification. Clarity of understanding the problem amongst potential victims, amongst law enforcement and other officials is harder to achieve than people might assume. Developing standard procedures is also key to ensuring valid cases don’t get lost through confusion, inertia, or a victim being too afraid to push their case through.

Prevention in Context

One of our key initiatives, therefore, has been in helping to coordinate the anti-trafficking response across agencies and levels of government. As we shared in this blog post about being the bridge between, our Thailand Director Veerawit Tianchainan explains, “at the policy level, they assume all the migrant workers are well informed about their rights and the procedures and process. In reality they’re not. The migrant workers have no idea about what their rights are. And if something happens to them, they don’t even know that they could do something about it, and that their rights have been violated, not to mention about how to go and seek redress on the violations that happened to them.” In our role, we serve as a coordinator of information issued from the top policy level while also representing coalitions in the field and expressing what’s happening on the ground. We work to credibly relay information across the gap. In this way, we are able to advocate for vulnerable and exploited people in a truly fundamental way: not just case by case, but by helping to smooth the systems in place to ensure they serve them as intended.

Meanwhile, our staff on the ground continue their outreach efforts. Our human rights program has been accessed 11,378 times—in the final quarter of 2020 alone, we trained 1,047 people on their human rights. These information sessions on various rights included topics ranging from the right to sexual integrity to labor rights for migrant workers. We also trained a group of women’s village-level leaders on women’s rights, family law, and labor law. We also assisted with 23 cases of human rights abuses lodged with the government and worked with 85 people who had been impacted by human rights abuse cases. 

And we’re partnering with families living in poverty to help them generate more income, so that they can keep their children in school, rather than having to pull them out, putting them at risk of being trafficked and exploited. We mentioned predatory loan practices above–half of the families we’ve partnered with have an average income of less than $1,270 USD per year and yet the average debt is $4,200 USD, largely due to agriculture and educational costs. That debt is almost four times an income that already hardly covers basic necessities.

We support these families with some financial assistance, as well as home visits and skills and knowledge training. In the first quarter of 2021, we have conducted 54 home visits. We also conducted a training for 27 community members on financial literacy in order to help them manage their finances better—anything to help ward off the financial desperation that leaves them vulnerable. 

This unsung side of prevention is perhaps less exciting than dramatic rescues, and less easily quantifiable than numbers of cases, but we remain deeply convinced that this is the path forward to a robust anti-trafficking response and an essential part of prevention.

Our primary aim and mission remains protecting at-risk children and youth from child sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. Doing that, however, means tending the soil beneath them. It’s not just about saving them case by case—it’s about creating the foundation for a strong, vibrant, empowered community that strengthens them and surrounds them in protection.

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