What do we know about preventing human trafficking?

What do we know about preventing human trafficking? | World Vision Blog

In Laos, trafficking survivors release balloons that carry written messages they want to communicate to family and friends. (Photo: 2015 Nila Douanesouvanh/World Vision)

If you knew the risks of human trafficking, would you still take those risks to provide for your family?

New research suggests that people in Southeast Asia do. See these surprising results and how we can help prevent trafficking.


Nang was in second grade when her mother passed away, and shortly thereafter her older sisters dropped out of school and migrated from her village in Laos to Thailand for work, leaving Nang at home alone with her father. When Nang reached 5th grade, she also planned to leave Laos for work abroad.

Even though her father and sisters encouraged her to continue school, at age 13 she dropped out and, through the services of a local labor broker, left her village with a classmate for a domestic work job in Thailand. This was the beginning of Nang’s journey from migrant to human trafficking survivor.

This past November, I spent a week in Bangkok with over 30 colleagues from across Southeast Asia working on World Vision’s six-country Ending Trafficking in Persons project. Using evidence to inform our future programming, we reflected on the learnings and achievements of World Vision’s past and present work. As January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, I want to share some of what we are learning about human trafficking, what factors contribute to vulnerability, and what works to prevent it.

While there is nearly universal agreement that human trafficking—or “modern slavery”—is an atrocious crime and scourge to modern society, few would agree that we’ve arrived at a standard, simple solution to combat it … or that a simple solution exists at all. Most NGOs and governments combating human trafficking will agree that the issue is immensely complex: interconnecting exploitation to issues of migration, access to safe and decent work, transnational crime, global supply chains, etc. And trafficked persons, their individual experiences, and needs as survivors are just as complex, and rarely fit into simple “profiles” or boxes. Nor do the factors that make a person vulnerable.

In 2014, World Vision partnered with a leading international research institution to undertake a rigorous quantitative survey in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar to test our assumptions about trafficking vulnerability factors, as well as to test our approach to prevention and to guide our future work. In total, we interviewed close to 10,000 children, youth, and adults to find out why children and young people continue to be at risk of human trafficking. Our study built on years of experience to look at multiple factors contributing to vulnerability to trafficking, including intent to migrate—either domestically or abroad—for work.

The results were surprising.

Knowledge doesn’t always translate into action: The study revealed that the majority of participants knew about the risks of unsafe migration—like Nang’s story—and human trafficking, as well as ways to migrate more safely. While the study found that practicing protective behaviors in migration led to better overall experiences, the problem was that on the whole, potential migrants were not taking these actions.

Amongst protective actions found to have strong connections to safe migration, the study found that young people from Laos, like Nang, were unlikely to migrate through legal channels or consult their parents before deciding to migrate for work, and that they rarely left copies of identity documents at home with their parents. To be sure, for poor young people and families, the costs associated with legal migration—or even the distance from government service offices or fees to obtain a passport—often place this option far out of reach.

Many who have experienced indicators of trafficking do not identify themselves as “victims” or “survivors”: Among those children and youth who had migrated for work in the past, more than a third (and over 70% from Laos) said that they had endured at least one of the following negative experiences: excessive working hours, debt used as a form of control by the employer, withholding of wages by the employer, physical or mental abuse, or dangerous working conditions. These are common indicators of potential exploitation and trafficking. However, few would identify themselves as having been “trafficked.”

Nang and her classmate were transferred across the Thai border in the middle of the night to another broker, who dropped them at a house and told them they were to be “housekeepers.” Without knowing where they were, the girls were forced to work 16-18 hours a day for 3 months, both as housekeepers by day and in the owner’s bakery at night. They were kept together in a small room and not allowed to go out or use the telephone. After three difficult months, they had received no payment and decided to escape.

Nang and her classmate packed their belongings in a garbage bag and ran from the house while the owner wasn’t looking. They ran as far as they could, then found a taxi to take them to Nang’s sister’s house in Bangkok. After two months in Bangkok, they saved enough money to return home. However, neither Nang nor her classmate was identified as a trafficking survivor, nor did they self-identify as having experienced trafficking.

Perception that the end result is worth the risk. Perhaps most surprising was the finding that the majority of these migrating young people across the region (and 82% from Laos) were able to send money back home to their families, which is a primary driver and end goal for many children and youth migrating for work. Economic desperation at home often places enormous pressure on migrating young people to succeed and send remittances to support family survival; in many instances, this trumps all.

Further, the study also found no significant link between knowing (even first-hand) the risks of exploitation and trafficking and a decreased intent to migrate. In other words, despite negative experiences and awareness about trafficking, the benefits of migration (financial contribution to household income) in the minds of potential migrants largely outweighed the risks.

What can we do:

Go beyond Awareness Raising. We need to acknowledge that while awareness raising is a critical element of a prevention response, it is not sufficient alone. Our response to trafficking vulnerability must not only increase awareness but inspire hope and provide alternatives to risky migration for those who are vulnerable. This means ensuring that vulnerable children and families have access to and are linked to education, livelihood, and social protection assistance programs—ensuring that parents or children themselves are not forced to accept the risks of trafficking and exploitation in order to survive.

Empower communities to be proactive. Organizations like World Vision must ensure that communities have the skills, tools, and resources they need to identify and support the most vulnerable children before exploitation occurs. Partnering with and building the capacity of local community members like teachers, church leaders, and social workers to identify and provide assistance to the most vulnerable children and families creates a sustainable, locally-owned solution for prevention and protection.

Engage and support youth participation in the fight to end human trafficking. Organizations need to acknowledge the ability that children and youth possess to protect themselves and their peers. While no child should be expected to carry the burden of their full protection, children and youth—linked to social support networks, receiving life skills training and safe migration information—can be a powerful force in mobilizing their peers and communities to prevent trafficking and increase protection for themselves and others.

At the age of 17, Nang decided to go back to school and was invited to join one of World Vision’s ETIP (Ending Trafficking In Persons) youth clubs—building life skills and providing safe migration and self-protection information for youth. After joining and graduating from the club, Nang volunteered to be a Youth Facilitator to help teach her peers. She now serves as a youth speaker and advocate on trafficking and protection issues in her community.

“At first, I didn’t know what trafficking and labor exploitation was. After I had my own experience, I never told anybody except my father. After joining the ETIP youth club, I now understand what happened to me. I want to share my experience with others so that they know about trafficking and I can prevent them from the hardship situation I had.”

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    Very interesting story. I am currently working on a paper for school. Up until this point, I really thought raising awareness with those in danger of human trafficking was a solid solution. Now that I read this, it would not have matter. I will be sure to include your suggestion that "vulnerable children and families have access to and are linked to education, livelihood, and social protection assistance programs" as a more realistic solution.

    I can't agree with you more, I started this journey of bringing awareness to human trafficking in Chicago and from there knew that more needed to be done. So we raised awareness, raised funds and worked w/local organizations that housed survivors. You are right we still need to do more.

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