Human Trafficking: The Many-Headed Monster

 | Fri 13 Jun 2014 18:01 ICT

I am writing in response to the May 2014 Citylife article “Traffick Stoppers.” I work for an NGO committed to preventing the trafficking of children, and I was concerned about some of the information (or lack thereof) presented in the article, and would like to offer my perspective for your consideration.

While I appreciate that the author, Cody Gohl, eventually came to recognise some of the strengths of organisations working to combat human trafficking in Chiang Mai after having actually talked to a handful of them, it is frustrating that he began his piece with a very serious indictment (that organisations are self-congratulatory and ineffective) based on the evidence of a cursory Google search and one quote, while also touching on incredibly important issues (namely: How can we understand human trafficking? Why does it happen? What role do NGOs play in the larger context? And how can we combat it?), yet failing to provide a full answer to most of the concerns raised. He criticises before becoming informed, and then fails to inform.

Gohl provides a standard industry definition of trafficking: “the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation” and highlights key functions anti-trafficking organisations should perform: 1) capacity building activities, 2) awareness raising, and 3) direct action, such as interventions and alternative lifehood strategies.

This is a good starting point. But to understand NGOs working in the field, it is helpful to recognise that human trafficking is a multi-dimensional phenomenon, and good organisations focus on one of three main areas of action: prevention, intervention, and aftercare.

1) Prevention: Organisations focused on prevention work to eliminate root causes (which I shall return to shortly). Prevention is critical because its goal is to ensure humans are never trafficked to begin with, so there may never be another victim of such gross inhumanity and injustice. However, prevention remains the least “sexy” of the three because it seeks to catch victims before they become victims. It doesn’t appeal as well to the desire to “save” people. Moreover, we can only try to assess who is “at-risk” of being trafficked, but cannot possibly know who among the at-risk population would actually become trafficked, thus it is incredibly difficult to measure success.

2) Intervention: This dimension is the one that makes headlines, when police officers, NGOs, or even ordinary citizens attempt to bust into a brothel or factory and “rescue” victims. However, interventions are incredibly dangerous, and (unless you’re an officer of the law) illegal – is it really good policy to compound abduction and kidnapping with more abduction and kidnapping? Moreover, in the case of sex slaves in particular, there is a high return rate, often because they become addicted to the drugs that made them compliant in the first place, or they’re subject to such shame and alienation in their home communities that they feel there is nowhere else for them to go but back to the brothels.

3) Aftercare: If intervention is to be successful, it must be followed up by aftercare, which should include therapy for post-traumatic stress and other mental disorders, physical and social rehabilitation, and training for life alternatives such as further education or job training. Aftercare is often the work of not a few weeks or months, but years, and even then, victims often return to servitude. It can provide a much-needed safe haven for victims, but it does not address any root causes.

So what are some of these root causes? What makes someone prone to victimisation?

The causes of human trafficking are many, but there are a few key ones we can highlight. First is poverty. There is no denying that the sex trade in Thailand is a highly lucrative industry. For people who scrabble by day to day, the lure of such “easy” money is incredibly strong. If there is a family to feed, an elderly relative who needs medication, a younger sibling who needs money for school uniforms, many believe it is a duty to do what one can to support the family, by any means necessary. A second contributing factor is statelessness. Refugees from Myanmar and their children, as well as other ethnic minorities who have been denied citizenship are especially at risk. Statelessness combined with poverty means it’s nearly impossible for them to find legal work, and neither the Thai government nor Myanmar will protect them. They are easy prey for traffickers. A third contributing factor rests in a culture that undervalues women, where certain segments of the society believe it is unimportant to educate women, and who seek to punish girls who have been caught having sexual relations or even those who have been abused by casting them out. Alienation from family and friends is one of traffickers’ beloved tools in marking and creating victims.

With only a brief mention of conviction rates, Gohl’s article tends to place the onus of change on the shoulders of NGOs alone. But NGOs only operate because other institutions (families, communities, legal authorities) fail to do so. NGOs exist entirely to put themselves out of a job. As Mickey Coothesa of COSA rightly explains, “In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to exist at all.” Education to provide better life alternatives, awareness raising within communities, and shifting cultural norms are all important parts of the answer, but it will always be a long, uphill battle without proper legal enforcement. Laws already exist to counter trafficking, but they are completely meaningless without enforcement. As long as johns, pimps, and slave owners can continue to buy their way out, with impunity, the demand for trafficked slaves will not slacken. Meanwhile, it is important to ensure the laws target traffickers and johns, not the victims themselves. Making prostitution illegal, for example, makes it far too easy to target the victims, re-victimising them rather than protecting them.

Gohl’s article mentions the difficulty of coordination between organisations working in isolation of each other, citing problems with lack of communication and physical distances. Actually, in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, there have been attempts to create better collaboration and to facilitate information transfer between NGOs. Unfortunately, despite good faith attempts and earnest willingness to work together, these attempts did not go very far, primarily because it was unclear what information to share. Why would an organisation in Mae Taeng, for example, need to know about an abusive pastor in Chiang Rai? Human trafficking is not like a dragon where if you just place everyone strategically and then simultaneously strike you can slay the beast. It is a many-headed amorphous monster. The problems most organisations face are on such a local level, sharing them would amount to little more than gossip, and frankly, most organisations are so understaffed and underfunded it’s more than they can handle to just serve the people right in front of them. Sharing information is nice, but not likely to lead to much when everyone is already overstretched.

In my opinion, for effective coordination, what is most needed is an independent agency impervious to corruption (much like TRAFCORD/FOCUS) that is itself transparent and has channels in place to help disseminate information efficiently, that identifies mutually agreed upon best practices, requires affiliated organisations to comply with those best practices, works closely with trusted authorities to act quickly on cases as they arise, and also has enough regulatory power to stigmatise or withhold grants from organisations that don’t comply. TRAFCORD/FOCUS is the closest I have seen to this ideal, but again their hands remain tied so long as corruption rules the day in law enforcement.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking to become more informed about human trafficking, NGO websites are not the best source. One reason is that their audience is generally their donors, so the information they provide is that which is of most concern to their donor base. This is partly why you’ll see so many toothy grins and success stories. The other reason is that there are child protection laws in place that make it illegal to share potentially damaging information about minors, including any photos with identifying features attached to tales of the tragedies they have encountered. For the protection of victims or potential victims’ privacy, only empowered and empowering information should be revealed (though admittedly not all organisations are aware of this law or comply). Another reason is that many organisations do not have the resources for professional web design. Some really fabulous organisations don’t want attention at all, again to protect the people they serve, and thus barely even have a website.

If you wish to learn more about human trafficking, please read the ground-breaking investigative research by Nicholas Kristoff & Cheryl WuDunn in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women or David Batstone’s Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade—And How We Can Fight It. MTV Exit has also produced many fabulously informative videos on the topic, including several area-specific videos. There are tons of resources for those interested, but these sources will provide an excellent start.