One of the most common questions people have about our programs is how we select our scholarship students. People wonder how we know that the students in our program are at risk of trafficking and exploitation. It’s a great question, and one of the most important and most difficult parts of what we do. Prevention inherently involves intervening before something happens. While we can’t predict the future, over the years, there are several factors that come up time and again as facilitators of trafficking. The more of these factors a child has, the more vulnerable we believe they are, especially in a context where trafficking situations are likely to present themselves. Ensuring we are targeting those most at risk is a difficult task, but we have a lot of reason to believe our intake process methods are sound.
Here’s How We Developed Our Intake Process
Before The Freedom Story was an organization, it had its roots in a documentary. The filmmakers interviewed multiple women who had been trafficked into the sex trade. Time and again, their stories revealed how the lack of education and poverty played critical roles in putting them in vulnerable situations. They followed risky job opportunities, with varying awareness of the degree of risk they were taking, and all said they did so because they felt it was their only choice. Without money to complete their education, they had to turn elsewhere to find money to support their families and survive.
As compelling as their stories were, however, we didn’t rest on anecdotes. We looked at established research from the region and globally to understand the recognized risk and protective factors for trafficking. Decades of research from experts across the field continue to converge toward a consensus that matches what we’ve seen over the past 14 years we’ve been working in a local context in Northern Thailand. There are three main areas that put a child at risk: poverty, low levels of education, and a group of factors we call “social isolation.” Poverty and high debt threaten family survival, and children come under increasing risk of being pushed to drop out of school to work to support their families, often as early as middle school or 9th grade. Without enough education and with few choices due to their lack of education, children or their families were easily manipulated by traffickers. Disadvantaged children are even more vulnerable if they suffer from social isolation, where they are cut off from financial, legal, or emotional support to help them weather challenges.
What We Have Identified As Key Risk Factors
On the basis of research and our experience, we’ve identified eight main risk factors for children in Northern Thailand. These are: poverty, how insecure or broken the relationships within the family are, the child’s likelihood of dropping out of school, their degree of risk-taking behavior, whether they have a history of sexual abuse, a family history of trafficking, and their legal status (i.e. whether they have citizenship or if they’re stateless).
Having identified these factors as facilitators of child trafficking, we needed to create an unbiased system that we could use to identify those children who are most at risk. Deciding between scholarship candidates is very challenging emotionally–there is so much need, but with limited resources, we need to ensure we’re targeting those who are most at risk and who are ready to work with us.
To do so, we created a weighted points system. For each factor, we look into multiple aspects of a student’s background. For example, to determine their level of poverty, we consider not just household income, but also the regularity of the income, as many of our students’ families are seasonal agricultural workers. We also consider how many income earners there are, the household debt per person and as a percentage of income. We also bring in qualitative data on other sources of income, and whether or not the student is already working.
Furthermore, self-reports are not sufficient for our intake process. We rely on multiple sources of data to assess a child’s risk situation, turning to various people around the child to gain an in-depth view of their ecosystem. When a child applies to our scholarship program, we screen their application for an initial check for risk. We then visit the children and their families at home, sometimes multiple times, in order to check on the data they provided and get to know them. We interview the child, the parents, siblings, neighbors, village elders, teachers, and principals. Talking to all these sources allows us to triangulate the data we find and check for accuracy. This helps us assess not only whether the child has significant need, but also how precarious the world is around them–for example, whether traffickers have preyed on many people near them and thus are more likely to try to target this child or their family as well.
We then use the points system and the qualitative data to determine who will receive a scholarship offer. For those who do not receive a scholarship, but are still in clear need of support, we make efforts whenever possible to refer their cases to our network of other NGOs who might be able to help support them.
Trafficking, in our experience, comes from a confluence of vulnerability plus opportunity. It’s almost impossible to foresee an opportunity: who a trafficker will connect with, how, and when. Sometimes that tipping point where a person makes a decision to follow a risky venture happens very quickly. But the pathway toward that risk is long and multiple stressors come together to wear down natural resilience. Our intake process reflects the fact that we believe it’s essential to intervene as far upstream as possible to help build resilience to weather any challenge so the lures of traffickers never seem worth the risk.