Technology, and the role of people who have lived through slavery, are offering hope in the fight against human trafficking. We speak to some of those on the frontline
Turning people into business propositions against their will: it is difficult to imagine a more dehumanising crime than trafficking. An estimated 35 million people are currently victims of human traffickers, and the problem is not confined to the developing world. Whether for forced labour or sexual exploitation, many are kept in brutal working conditions and paid little or nothing at all. From Congolese children mining diamonds, to the Indian women stitching dresses for up to 20 hours a day, the illicit profits of forced labour are estimated at $150 billion (£95.6bn) each year.
But now light is being shed on this dark, largely unseen underbelly of the global economy. Experts are monitoring the perpetrators’ digital footprints while NGOs are working to reunite trafficked children and adults with their families. Meanwhile financial institutions and top legal firms are attempting to identify suspicious banking trends and freeing supply chains of trafficked labour as governments are slowly stepping up legislation which criminalises modern day slavery and enables traffickers to be brought to justice. At the same time, those who have escaped the cycle of trafficking are bravely offering unique insights into how other survivors can be helped.
“It became clear that advanced technology had a role to play in combating human trafficking”
“Being a survivor of human trafficking is like having a tattoo on the soul. No one can see it,” says Marcela Loaiza, a Columbian trafficking survivor who was forced into sex work in Tokyo. Her words capture a fundamental obstruction to dealing with trafficking: the inherent invisibility of the problem.
To this end, technology is being used to help reveal the bigger picture. Imagine for instance, a sex trafficker sitting at a computer in Los Angeles, publishing deceptive online adverts to recruit poor and vulnerable women from all across the world. Such an imbalance of power, fuelled by the reach and seeming anonymity of the internet, may make the situation seem futile.
But now software is available to track what are often wellestablished, global trafficking rings. Online adverts can be mapped, grouped and analysed by detecting common data features such as photos, text or mobile phone numbers. A cashstrapped UK police force with one designated trafficking officer for hundreds of thousands of people, may feel powerless. But present them with this kind of accurate and timely data and instantly the trafficker’s position has been weakened: potential victims made slightly safer.
Christopher White, program manager at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been helping develop such technology through the Memex program. Currently at pilot stage, Memex tools comb the ‘surface web’ and the ‘deep web’ to uncover information. Why did he choose to work in this field?
“After visiting defence, law enforcement organisations and NGOs that were using the internet to support their missions, it became clear that advanced technology had a role to play in combating human trafficking. Particularly, the volume of online content, the complexity of the organisations trafficking people, and the connection to other kinds of crime, were motivating.”
White was among the speakers at the Trust Women conference, held in November in London. The two-day event gathered experts around the issue of empowering women and girls worldwide, with a specific focus on forging tangible commitments and solutions.
“We are applying technical skills and financial resources in a specific way to have a positive impact,” White told Positive News.
Michael Brosowski, founder and CEO of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, believes direct action should be prioritised. His organisation has rescued more than 300 trafficked children from slavery since 2005, including those forced to work on the streets, in clothing factories and in brothels in Vietnam and China.
“At the heart of what we do is a belief in people: that there is always hope as long as there are people who care,” said Brosowski.
“I have watched girls we rescued from brothels later go on to university and take on careers”
“Although I meet so many children and teens in extreme difficulty, I have also seen many grow and flourish. It may take years, but I have watched girls we rescued from brothels later go on to university, start their own families, and take on careers. This is incredibly inspiring.”
For him, acting in the short term – albeit with care and expertise – is of utmost importance.
“We have to consider, how do we help this person in front of us – as well as the long term issue – how do we prevent this from happening again? I don’t accept that we can be effective if we only choose to look at one of those and not the other.
“So if a girl or a young woman in China has been trafficked and is calling for help, we report to the police, but we will go and look for her ourselves. In effect, we have grown into an organisation that both delivers emergency services, while quietly advocating for change and development.”
Though there is room for vast improvement in this field, postrescue too, people are being helped in innovative ways. One strategy that has proved effective is to connect newly rescued survivors with other survivors who can provide them with practical and psychological support, on the basis that trust and understanding is easier to forge with those who have faced similar situations. Help can range from looking out for someone who hasn’t come home on time, to encouraging survivors who are close to giving up to feel less alone.
“One of the worst feelings for anybody is the sense that we have experienced something traumatic and nobody else can understand,” says Brosowski. “We all have a deep need to be understood and to connect with others. Survivors of human trafficking naturally are much more likely to share that understanding with other survivors.
“I must temper that, though, by stating that this shouldn’t become an expectation heaped on survivors of human trafficking: not all will be able to help others, nor will all want to. And that’s fine.”
“Those who have lived through slavery can help stop it”
Powerful testimonials from people who have survived and escaped cycles of trafficking and forced labour are also crucial in understanding the human impact of the problem. But, as survivor advocate and leader of the US National Survivor Network Evelyn Chumbow told Trust Women delegates, survivors are capable of much more than just talking – with the right support.
“I am more than just a survivor,” said Chumbow, who was trafficked to the US from Cameroon when she was nine years old. “But the trauma is with me every day. When someone you called father sold you for $2,000, how can you concentrate at school? We need help with education: we need to be hired, we need jobs.”
High quality services for rescue, shelter, and psychological treatment may be expensive and complex, but they are critical to the fight against trafficking. And with tailored help, those who have lived through slavery – a crime against humanity – can help stop it, urged Chumbow.
She pointed to the Starfish Project, which was established in Asia in 2006 to provide jewellery making job opportunities for women who have been exploited, often in brothels. The project has already helped more than 50 women to provide for their families, rebuilding their confidence and trust with every piece made.
Slavery in all its forms, is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of our era, but even in a problem as complex and pervasive as this, as Brosowski says: “We can see now that there are millions of people in our world who genuinely care about this problem, and are willing to give their time and money to fight trafficking. That is an enormous encouragement.”
Photo title: Marcela Loaiza, a Columbian trafficking survivor who was forced into sex work in Tokyo, speaking at the Trust Women conference
Photo credit: © Daniel Leal-Olivas/Thomson Reuters Foundation