It’s not just another day at the office.

You Cannot Give from an Empty Cup: How One Anti-Trafficking Organization Centers Mental Health

This post is co-authored with staff from Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART).

It’s Thursday at 3 pm.

Like every Thursday afternoon, staff gather in a small conference room in Nairobi’s city center. Their casual chatter fades as the session’s facilitator enters. She smiles before she opens with her familiar greeting, “So, how do you feel?”  

This meeting between staff and therapist has been a routine part of the HAART workweek for the last one year. Though not required, staff from all departments regularly attend. There is no formal structure or predetermined agenda. Rather, the sessions are just a way of checking in with staff, of making sure that they are ok. 

The Global Fund may not be a direct service provider, but our partner Awareness Against Human Trafficking -HAART is. They have been supporting survivors of human trafficking in Kenya for over a decade- from basic needs support to psychosocial counseling to economic empowerment activities.

They work daily with girls, boys, men and women who have been abused or exploited and who are working to overcome that trauma.  It’s rewarding and necessary work, for sure. But it can take a toll, and that toll can be greater than any even realize. As one member of the HAART team recalls, “I did not know I was experiencing secondary trauma, until during one of our debriefing sessions that I noticed I showed symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder.” 

While those who work directly with survivors understand the significance of mental health services for survivors, most give far less attention to their own mental wellbeing. 

The daily stresses of the job are commonly overshadowed by the mission. For example, as HAART staff attest, direct service work is filled with uncertainties. “One-minute a survivor is okay, the next they are having suicidal ideation. You never know when you will receive a call for a rescue.” There is comfort in predictability. And uncertainty, especially when it is a constant, can create anxiety. But treating that anxiety is rarely top of mind when a survivor in your program is battling suicidal thoughts. 

That anxiety is often exacerbated by an organization’s own limitations. There is only so much any one can do. HAART works with survivors to understand their needs and then tries to balance that with what the organization can provide.

While HAART provides counseling, training, economic assistance, school fees, health services, and legal aid to survivors, funds for victim assistance are very limited. 

Staff often have to prioritize what kind of assistance to provide despite wanting to do more. And that too can be draining. 

When these are your typical workday challenges- when hearing trafficking experiences recounted and watching the struggles of recovery is “just another day at the office,” mental health support must similarly be part of the job. At HAART, it is. 

It’s quite admirable really to see how much emphasis HAART puts on staff mental wellbeing. Several years ago, after realizing that staff burnout was not tied to case load but to the nature of the work, HAART committed to doing more to make sure its staff were taking care of themselves, mentally and emotionally. They began small- organizing all staff hiking trips, moving office meetings outdoors, practicing yoga together.  And, like all good practitioners, they listened to feedback and adapted to do better.  

Since then, HAART has added two full-time mental health professionals to its team.

These professionals engage staff in group sessions, including weekly departmental-level check-ins, and provide one-on-one support for any staff who want it. There is no limit to how many sessions staff can access. Managers too keep regular meetings with their staff. Even when there’s not much to discuss, the check-ins say a lot. The opportunity to chat with a supervisor not just about work but about life helps staff “feel valued.”

Mental health is not just a focus at the top, though advice to take time off and turn off after work hours has certainly helped foster that culture.  Staff have their own self-care routines; they journal, they swim, they meditate, some even make dance videos. But what’s more, particularly for the protection team, they each have an accountability partner- a person who holds them accountable for making sure self-care remains a priority. 

It’s human life, and that’s a feeling of responsibility that doesn’t end with the work day.

Of course, there are times when even an accountability partner is not enough. And those days when it seems impossible to abide the best-laid guidance for mental wellbeing. As HAART staff are always aware, “it’s human life,” and that’s a feeling of responsibility that doesn’t end with the work day.

However, staff are more aware of the benefits of taking care of self- a consequence of embedding mental health in HAART’s workplace culture.  Morale is higher, productivity is greater. Decision-making is easier. Knowing that the work requires quick response and that those responses impact the lives of survivors, staff report they are able to make decisions with more clarity and confidence. All of that matters, not just for staff but for all those they work with. And that is why HAART continues to prioritize mental health, for as they frequently remind each other, “You cannot give from an empty cup.” 

To learn more about HAART’s work to empower survivors of labor trafficking in Kenya, supported by GFEMS, click here.To learn more about HAART, click here.

Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.*

Burnout is Real: Practitioners Need Mental Health Support Too

The world is paying more attention to mental health. COVID-19 undoubtedly elevated the conversation as extended lockdowns took their toll on virtually everyone’s mental state. Today, we see advertisements for anti-depression pills and anxiety treatments regularly cross our screens; we hear celebrities talk of managing mental health and sports stars actively promote talk therapy; many doctors accustomed to treating our physical ailments are beginning to inquire about our mental health. The world may be paying more attention, but are we really doing enough to prioritize mental well-being?

According to the World Health Organization, nearly one billion people have a mental disorder. One BILLION. The cost to the global economy is about $1 trillion each year in lost productivity resulting from depression and anxiety, two of the most common mental disorders. Perhaps even more startling- more than 80% of people experiencing mental health conditions are without any form of quality affordable mental health care.

While mental health disorders can affect anyone anywhere, they are especially common among those confronting and coping with crisis, trauma, or a history of abuse. Those like Farishta– who had gone abroad to earn a better wage as a domestic worker but instead met exploitation and abuse at the hands of her employers. Though Farishta eventually returned to Bangladesh, she did so without the money or savings that was expected. She was shunned by a family and community that branded her a failure. Farishta struggled with thoughts of taking her own life before she was introduced to Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a community-based migrant workers’ organization, that helped her heal physically, mentally and emotionally.

For Farishta, mental health services were a critical part of recovery and reintegration. Not only for her but for her family. With both participating in counseling sessions, Farishta was able to reconnect with a son who, after refusing to call her mother, now understood her trauma.

As both practitioners and survivors recognize the importance of mental wellbeing, mental health has become a cornerstone of the modern anti-slavery movement. Indeed, it has to be. Study upon study shows that survivors are more likely to battle depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even self-harm. We also know that mental health needs, when left unmet, can increase a person’s risk of being trafficked or perpetuate a cycle of victimization.

The call for trauma-informed and survivor-centered care has grown louder in recent years. It’s an approach that guides much of our anti-trafficking programming, supporting survivors to heal in ways that pay mind to the effects of trauma and the experiences of those who live it.

But, even if “the field” is centering mental and emotional well-being, does that mean we are? Mental health may be a central feature of anti-trafficking programs and research, but what about the individuals who are implementing those programs or the researchers conducting the studies? Is mental health a priority? Does it need to be?

Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First

Its guidance that seems to make more sense when you are 35,000 feet in the air and delivered as part of a flight attendant’s do-or-die safety message, but somehow it feels less applicable when our feet are planted under a desk, our thoughts on programs that support others- even less applicable still when we spend a greater part of everyday working directly with survivors of human trafficking.

As practitioners, we advocate for trauma-informed and survivor-centered approaches to care, and we abide a “do no harm” mantra. We develop guidance and best practices for working with survivors and vulnerable populations and we commit to following them; we share what we know in trainings and convenings and we improve together; and then we monitor and evaluate to make sure what we are doing is working for the people we serve and we try to fix it when it isn’t.

Confronting stories of sexual exploitation, forced labor, and human rights abuse daily, there’s a heaviness about the work we all do. It’s a heaviness that often makes it hard to close the laptop at the end of the day or to ignore that “you have mail” ping first thing in the morning. And for those who engage more directly with survivors, that heaviness can weigh greater.

“Personally, what made me leave direct service work was burnout and the fact that the current system is built on measuring the number of people impacted without thinking about the care of the people actually producing these numbers.


GFEMS is not a direct service provider, but there are some on our team who were. They can attest that “burnout” is in fact very real. One GFEMS staff member recounts how she quite literally witnessed burnout before she herself chose to leave direct service work. “Personally, what made me leave direct service work was burnout and the fact that the current system is built on measuring the number of people impacted without thinking about the care of the people actually producing these numbers. I saw more than three members of my team burnout and have mental breakdown without the system having a process for support.”

So how do we prevent burnout? How do we set up processes for support? How do we continue to do the important and necessary work while still looking after our own mental wellbeing?

It helps when you are part of an organization that takes mental health seriously. And, thanks in no small part to our small and mighty HR team, the Global Fund does. They are our constant reminder that we need to take time for ourselves- advocating for policies like more Administrative Days, peppering our inboxes with self-care tips and words of inspiration, and encouraging us all to use the mental health services and resources the Fund provides. (Shout out, Angela!)

On a more personal note, we all have activities and people we enjoy. Finding time for them is one of the best things we can do for ourselves, for our work, and for those we seek to support (it’s true, there are studies that say so. See here.) Of course, this looks different for every person. For Abigail, our Senior Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager, “establishing diverse communities and personal projects outside of work” is key. Knowing that she has other outlets and areas of support when one is more challenging is what gives Abigail “perspective and balance.” For Sabrina, our talented Communications Manager, self-care means leaving the cell phone at home and taking Lily, a loveable Husky pup with boundless energy, for a long walk.

It may feel selfish to turn your gaze away from the work- even if only for a bit- but ask any new parent how it feels to get a few hours of me-time. It’s reinvigorating, a real game-changer. You tag back in with an energy and enthusiasm to do more and to do it better. It’s good for you. It’s good for them. It’s good for the work.

Or you can ask the former practitioner who burned out and left.

For Mental Health Resources for Human Trafficking Survivors and Allies, see https://www.acf.hhs.gov/

The world is paying more attention to mental health. COVID-19 undoubtedly elevated the conversation as extended lockdowns took their toll on virtually everyone’s mental state. Today, we see advertisements for anti-depression pills and anxiety treatments regularly cross our screens; we hear celebrities talk of managing mental health and sports stars actively promote talk therapy; many doctors accustomed to treating our physical ailments are beginning to inquire about our mental health. The world may be paying more attention, but are we really doing enough to prioritize mental well-being?

According to the World Health Organization, nearly one billion people have a mental disorder. One BILLION. The cost to the global economy is about $1 trillion each year in lost productivity resulting from depression and anxiety, two of the most common mental disorders. Perhaps even more startling- more than 80% of people experiencing mental health conditions are without any form of quality affordable mental health care.

While mental health disorders can affect anyone anywhere, they are especially common among those confronting and coping with crisis, trauma, or a history of abuse. Those like Farishta– who had gone abroad to earn a better wage as a domestic worker but instead met exploitation and abuse at the hands of her employers. Though Farishta eventually returned to Bangladesh, she did so without the money or savings that was expected. She was shunned by a family and community that branded her a failure. Farishta struggled with thoughts of taking her own life before she was introduced to Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a community-based migrant workers’ organization, that helped her heal physically, mentally and emotionally.

For Farishta, mental health services were a critical part of recovery and reintegration. Not only for her but for her family. With both participating in counseling sessions, Farishta was able to reconnect with a son who, after refusing to call her mother, now understood her trauma.

As both practitioners and survivors recognize the importance of mental wellbeing, mental health has become a cornerstone of the modern anti-slavery movement. Indeed, it has to be. Study upon study shows that survivors are more likely to battle depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even self-harm. We also know that mental health needs, when left unmet, can increase a person’s risk of being trafficked or perpetuate a cycle of victimization.

The call for trauma-informed and survivor-centered care has grown louder in recent years. It’s an approach that guides much of our anti-trafficking programming, supporting survivors to heal in ways that pay mind to the effects of trauma and the experiences of those who live it.

But, even if “the field” is centering mental and emotional well-being, does that mean we are? Mental health may be a central feature of anti-trafficking programs and research, but what about the individuals who are implementing those programs or the researchers conducting the studies? Is mental health a priority? Does it need to be?

Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First

Its guidance that seems to make more sense when you are 35,000 feet in the air and delivered as part of a flight attendant’s do-or-die safety message, but somehow it feels less applicable when our feet are planted under a desk, our thoughts on programs that support others- even less applicable still when we spend a greater part of everyday working directly with survivors of human trafficking.

As practitioners, we advocate for trauma-informed and survivor-centered approaches to care, and we abide a “do no harm” mantra. We develop guidance and best practices for working with survivors and vulnerable populations and we commit to following them; we share what we know in trainings and convenings and we improve together; and then we monitor and evaluate to make sure what we are doing is working for the people we serve and we try to fix it when it isn’t.

Confronting stories of sexual exploitation, forced labor, and human rights abuse daily, there’s a heaviness about the work we all do. It’s a heaviness that often makes it hard to close the laptop at the end of the day or to ignore that “you have mail” ping first thing in the morning. And for those who engage more directly with survivors, that heaviness can weigh greater.


GFEMS is not a direct service provider, but there are some on our team who were. They can attest that “burnout” is in fact very real. One GFEMS staff member recounts how she quite literally witnessed burnout before she herself chose to leave direct service work. “Personally, what made me leave direct service work was burnout and the fact that the current system is built on measuring the number of people impacted without thinking about the care of the people actually producing these numbers. I saw more than three members of my team burnout and have mental breakdown without the system having a process for support.”

So how do we prevent burnout? How do we set up processes for support? How do we continue to do the important and necessary work while still looking after our own mental wellbeing?

It helps when you are part of an organization that takes mental health seriously. And, thanks in no small part to our small and mighty HR team, the Global Fund does. They are our constant reminder that we need to take time for ourselves- advocating for policies like more Administrative Days, peppering our inboxes with self-care tips and words of inspiration, and encouraging us all to use the mental health services and resources the Fund provides. (Shout out, Angela!)

On a more personal note, we all have activities and people we enjoy. Finding time for them is one of the best things we can do for ourselves, for our work, and for those we seek to support (it’s true, there are studies that say so. See here.) Of course, this looks different for every person. For Abigail, our Senior Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager, “establishing diverse communities and personal projects outside of work” is key. Knowing that she has other outlets and areas of support when one is more challenging is what gives Abigail “perspective and balance.” For Sabrina, our talented Communications Manager, self-care means leaving the cell phone at home and taking Lily, a loveable Husky pup with boundless energy, for a long walk.

It may feel selfish to turn your gaze away from the work- even if only for a bit- but ask any new parent how it feels to get a few hours of me-time. It’s reinvigorating, a real game-changer. You tag back in with an energy and enthusiasm to do more and to do it better. It’s good for you. It’s good for them. It’s good for the work.

Or you can ask the former practitioner who burned out and left.

For Mental Health Resources for Human Trafficking Survivors and Allies, see https://www.acf.hhs.gov/

Centering victims in justice systems is how we support recovery and not re-traumatization

In Uganda, Women Judges are Leading Efforts to Ensure Justice Systems Heal not Harm

This post is co-authored with Justice Joyce Kavuma and the International Association of Women Judges.

In the first of a series of training modules prepared by the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) for judicial officers in Uganda, learners are presented a case scenario to demonstrate how courts and judicial processes can re-traumatize a victim.

They are first asked to look at a photograph depicting a young woman standing before a judge. She is the complaining witness in a rape trial. Beside her is the prosecutor and nearly a dozen other men. Most of them are counsel for the defense. One, barely visible in the background, is her father. Another, just a few feet away, is the defendant, the man she accuses of assaulting her. 

Stepping back from the photograph, the trainers provide additional case details. The witness, as the judge informed all parties, waived her right to a forensic examination. The judge nor the witness provide further explanation, but the trainers offer additional context. In the jurisdiction where this case is being adjudicated, a forensic examination requires the accuser to identify the accused in the physical space of a forensics lab. This is to ensure that the accused cannot solicit another person to submit DNA.  In instances where the accusing party lives a distance from the lab, transport is provided. The accused is entitled to the same, meaning accused and accuser may be transported together in the same vehicle, sometimes over a distance as great as 8 hours.

The trainers open the session on victim-centered approaches with this study to show how a case might look different when viewed from a victim’s perspective. Understanding that certain practices can inflict further harm, judges can play a critical role in ensuring victims are not re-traumatized by their experiences in the courtroom. While judges are trained to protect the rights of criminal defendants, a “victim-centered” approach serves as a reminder that victims, too, have rights that judges must protect. Building victim-centered courts is not to tip the scale against neutrality but simply to level it.

Labor Trafficking in Uganda

Africa is the world’s youngest continent; almost 60% of the current population is under the age of 25. As Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050- from 1 billion to nearly 2.4 billion inhabitants-it is apparent that this youthful trend will continue. What is also apparent is that many African economies are struggling to absorb this youth bulge, leading to high youth unemployment rates across the continent. Even among those who do have a job, the vast majority –almost 95%- work in the informal economy. 

In Uganda, where more than 75% of the population is under 30, youth unemployment rates are among the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is especially true in rural areas where most of Uganda’s youth reside, and especially true for girls who are far less likely to enroll and complete their education than boys. The unemployment rate for girls and women is more than double that of boys and men.

Poverty and lack of employment opportunities are a key driver of migration in the region (for more on drivers of migration, read our previous post.) While much migration in Uganda is internal, primarily from rural to urban areas, neighboring countries, including Kenya, continue to attract both skilled and unskilled migrants from Uganda. Uganda is also a destination country for labor migrants from other countries in the region. In recent years, migrants have increasingly begun to look beyond the continent, particularly to the Middle East for employment opportunities. It is estimated that remittances to Uganda’s economy from people working in the Middle East increased from $51.4 million in 2010 to $309.2 million in 2018.

While a boon to the economy and the families that these remittances support, migration is not without risk, especially for the thousands of women employed as domestic workers in Middle Eastern homes. The majority of international trafficking cases identified in Uganda involve young women trafficked into domestic service in the Middle East.

While Uganda continues to implement measures to prevent trafficking, including cracking down on illegal recruitment agencies and investing in awareness raising activities, the justice sector similarly must take action. To ensure victims and survivors of trafficking are not re-traumatized by the justice system, judicial officers must be trained in victim-centered and trauma-informed approaches. This is exactly what IAWJ, with support from the Global Fund, is doing in Uganda.

How Justice Systems Can Re-traumatize Trafficking Survivors

In Uganda, the rights of the accused are outlined and upheld in national law and justice systems. The Ugandan Constitution, for example, provides for the accused’s right to a fair hearing including the right to a speedy and public trial; the right to presumption of innocence until proven guilty; the right to legal counsel; and the right to appear before the court in person. While upholding the rights of the accused is foundational to any meaningful justice system, the rights of the victim must be similarly upheld. This is especially true in trafficking cases where the potential to inflict further trauma runs high.

The 2009 Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act (PTIP Act) and its corresponding regulations (2019) encourage a victim-centered approach and impose responsibilities on law enforcement, prosecutors, judicial officers, and other government officials to protect and support victims. Indeed, it sets out specific measures to ensure victims are protected and supported. These include not penalizing victims for any crimes committed as a direct result of being trafficked; providing victims access to health, social, medical, counseling and psychological services where possible; protecting the privacy and confidentiality of victims; and providing for compensation and restitution of victims. The PTIP Act lays out clear measures for supporting a victim-centered approach. The problem? Very few people know what it is.

Trafficking is a complicated and multi-faceted crime, and the laws designed to prevent, prosecute and punish it are relatively recent innovations.  One of the challenges of combatting this modern form of slavery is that in the absence of stakeholder training and awareness, trafficking victims are likely to come to court not as victims/witnesses, but rather as civil or criminal defendants.  They may be accused of violating immigration laws, charged in labor disputes, or indicted for petty theft (in cases where the defendant is acting under the control of another.) Judicial actors who know and understand the trafficking statute may recognize that this is at base a trafficking situation.  They may then be able to refer the matter for investigation and prosecution.  At a minimum, if judges and judicial sector officials have the knowledge and skills they need, they can avert further injustice to the victim — who may be in court as a criminal defendant. This is why continuing judicial education is so important.

How IAWJ is Strengthening the Justice Sector’s Response

As part of its training, IAWJ seeks to equip justice sector actors to identify possible TIP victims in such cases. They train participants to recognize red flags of human trafficking and ask appropriate screening questions. Justice Kavuma, notes that until and unless judicial officers undergo training, such as that provided by IAWJ, identifying victims will remain a challenge. 

Unless we are linked together, the chain of justice breaks.

— Justice Joyce Kavuma

Training individual justice sector actors in victim-centered approaches can help ensure survivors access justice and support services. But to ensure victim-centered and trauma-informed approaches at every stage of the criminal justice process, they must be embedded at the local and regional levels. IAWJ’s “Train the Trainers” program drew participants from across districts who can then share that knowledge with judicial officers in their own communities.

IAWJ also supports regional dialogues to build and strengthen a coordinated cross-border response. Judges and Magistrates from Kenya and Uganda gather to share information and experiences and collaborate on best practices to address trafficking in persons and support victims and survivors. “We all work together like a chain. Unless we are linked together, the chain of justice breaks.” For Justice Kavuma, the significance of cross-border dialogues and a coordinated victim-centered approach is paramount if trafficking is truly to be eradicated. IAWJ is currently developing a bench book to reinforce this message.

Justice systems play a critical role in combatting trafficking. Rooting them in trauma-informed and victim-centered approaches is how we ensure these systems support recovery and not re-traumatization.

If you are interested in partnering with the Global Fund, please reach out.

The program referenced in this article is funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.

The International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization whose members represent all levels of the judiciary worldwide and share a commitment to equal justice for women and the rule of law. Created in 1991, the IAWJ has grown to a membership of over 6000 in 100 countries.

The impact of COVID-19 on apparel workers in Bangladesh has been devastating, but the pandemic did not create worker vulnerabilities.

COVID Revealed Just How Vulnerable Apparel Workers Are. Now What Do We Do About It?

Bangladesh has long been an epicenter for apparel production.  Its garment industry is the second-largest in the world, behind only China. It accounts for about 84% of Bangladesh’s export revenue, and readymade garments account for almost 16% of the country’s GDP. It is home to some 4,000 factories and employs more than 4 million people. 4 out of five of these workers are women

The cost of labor in Bangladesh apparel factories remains low, among the lowest by global standards. The Bangladeshi government raised the minimum wage for garment workers to 8,000 Tk or $95 USD per month in December 2018, the first increase in 5 years. In response, in January 2019, protestors took to the streets. Workers claimed the increase did not reflect the rising costs of living, and questioned how they were to sustain families and households on poverty wages.

Image Courtesy of UN Women

Then, in 2020, a global pandemic hit.

At least $3 billion of orders were cancelled. More than 1 million workers- mostly women- were laid off or furloughed, representing a quarter of the workforce. Overseas apparel sales fell 18%. Recent data shows that fashion owes $16 billion in outstanding payments.

The numbers are stark, but what’s behind the numbers is even starker.  For those working in Bangladesh’s apparel factories, especially those laboring in the informal economy to produce the “made in Bangladesh” tag, these numbers mean a very grim reality.

They mean that millions living on the margins were suddenly without an income. Most had little or no savings. And many were denied the legally mandated severance benefits to provide any cushion. Workers like Mr. Ali, a knit operator for 17 years owed over $4,000 USD in severance pay, hold out hope that “the money will come” but are so desperate to feed their families that they have contemplated suicide.

They mean that there are more children- school age boys and girls, some not yet 10 years old- in Bangladesh’s apparel factories, working to keep their families afloat. 

COVID-19 is not the root cause of vulnerability but it has shown the world just how vulnerable apparel workers are.

They mean that expecting mothers and older workers are being terminated first because employers do not want to or cannot pay the benefits to which they are entitled.

They mean workers are putting up with more abuse in the workplace because they fear losing their jobs and their only source of income. Women workers, in particular, are reporting increased sexual harassment and verbal abuse.

They mean that, in some of the most vulnerable communities, 95% of households have less than a week of food supplies, and barely 3% are receiving any government aid. Mothers who work long days at the factory are undernourished, going without so that their children can eat.

The impact of COVID-19 on apparel workers in Bangladesh has been devastating, but the pandemic did not create worker vulnerabilities.  Those laboring on the factory floor, under exploitative conditions for up to 12 hours a day, do so because they have few other employment options. They are often young, unskilled, and frequently women and migrants. They are vulnerable to forced labor due to poverty, the fragmented, informal nature of textile supply chains, and the lack of enforcement of legal protections for workers. COVID-19 is not the root cause of vulnerability, but it has shown the world just how vulnerable apparel workers are.

Informal Factories Operate in the Shadows, Leaving Workers Vulnerable

Image courtesy of Trades Union Congress

Since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, when more than 1,100 people died in a garment factory collapse, labor standards have improved, at least in Bangladesh’s formal factories. Evidence shows better working conditions, more factory inspections and greater accountability. But, for those working in informal factories, the risks of exploitation remain high.

The informal economy is characterized by one central feature: it is unregulated by the institutions of society, in a legal and social environment in which similar activities are regulated.” In other words, there is little government or corporate oversight, meaning factory owners often have limited awareness or knowledge about labor laws; they operate with little consequence for violating laws and little support to improve working conditions.

Some of the worst labor practices are clustered in the informal economy. Informality is associated with lower and less regular incomes, inadequate and unsafe working conditions, extreme job precarity and exclusion from social security schemes, among other factors. A recent study estimates that as many as 3 million Bangladesh workers producing ready-made garments (RMGs) fall outside the scope of any labor monitoring programs.

Worker Survey Gives Voice to Hidden Workers

To give voice to these invisible workers and increase transparency in the RMG sector, we partnered with ELEVATE to deploy a worker survey in Keraniganj and Narayanganj, two of Bangladesh’s key informal apparel production hubs. A relatively low-tech tool, the survey does not require a respondent to be literate or even own a smartphone. Rather, workers anonymously answer a series of multiple-choice questions by pressing a number on their mobile phone’s keypad using voice response technology. During the weeks after responding to the survey, workers then received a series of informational/educational messages informing them of their rights. In instances where child labor or risk of forced labor was identified, referral operators followed-up to link workers to support services such as skills building activities and/or education. While giving voice to a hidden population, this project not only identified exploitation in informal apparel factories, but supported workers to remove from exploitative conditions.

The Results:

The results of the worker survey revealed high rates of child labor –higher than expected and much higher compared to the formal sector. Poverty, exacerbated by the pandemic, pushed most children into factory jobs. Nearly 9 out of 10 working children reported migrating to the cities for work in the informal sector to be able to support their families’ income. Most of these children live in the nearby slums within walking distance of their workplace. Most had never attended school or were forced to drop out. Children are especially vulnerable to exploitation. Anecdotal evidence shows that employers prefer to engage children because they are more easily convinced to work longer hours for less money. Many children are unaware of their rights and thus less likely to protest when those rights are violated.

Bangladesh Labor Foundation School
School for Child Labor facilitated by Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF). Photo courtesy of BLF.
LEEDO school for children from apparel factories, Bangladesh
Mobile school for child laborers facilitated by LEEDO. Photo courtesy of ELEVATE.
Follow-Up:

What to do with these findings? With the Fund’s support, ELEVATE partnered with three local organizations to provide educational and support services to identified victims of child labor. Each of these three organizations- Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF), LEEDO, and Community Participation and Development (CPD) – have experience in these two high-risk areas and in implementing educational programs. Each adapted their curriculum and program offerings in response to student needs. 

BLF, for example, amended its traditional curriculum to include Bangla language, mathematics, and English, as these were the courses that young workers most requested. CPD, focused on building technical and vocational skills, enabled students to select a program based on their needs and interest. While some preferred to hone skills relevant to the garment industry, others, especially the younger students, were most interested in learning generic trades to improve their future employability and personal self-development. LEEDO, an organization that runs informal schools for street children, primarily targeted children under the age of 14, complementing their curriculum with recreational activities such as Carom Board, Ludo, and gaming

Of the children who attended these schools, some have left the factory. They have returned to their villages and enrolled in school. Yeasin*, just 9 years old when his father’s injury forced him to quit school and start working, found time to attend one of BLF’s programs in between work shifts. Finding Yeasin eager to exit the factory and continue studying, BLF reached out to his father. Yeasin returned to his family and is now enrolled in the government school in his village.

Other children have moved on to better jobs or better wages. 14-year old Joshin* left school to work in a garment factory after COVID-19 pushed his family into financial crisis. For his labor, he was provided three meals a day, but no wages. After studying English, Bengali, and mathematics as a student in LEEDO’s School under the Sky program- courses that helped him excel in his daily work- Joshin found work in another factory. In his new position, Joshin earns wages that are helping support his family. He expects to earn a promotion soon.

Education is only part of the solution. Reducing vulnerability means changing systems

Educational programs and skills training play an important role in providing children an alternative to working in informal factories, but they are not the solution. Nor is any one program. To ensure children are kept out of factories, we need to address whole systems. This means engaging governments to legislate and enforce labor reform; engaging businesses to change exploitative labor practices; raising awareness to prevent child exploitation; enhancing access to social protection benefits to build financial security; and creating sustainable livelihood options so that mothers, fathers, boys, and girls are not forced into exploitative working conditions.  

The Global Fund supports numerous projects to reduce forced and child labor in Bangladesh’s informal factories. In addition to the worker voice survey and the educational programs that resulted, we support research to identify gaps in existing legislation and we recommend specific actions for policy and law enforcement groups, government officials, and brand representatives to take to end forced labor. We invest in the development of innovative tools to help brands, buyers, and suppliers prevent, detect, and remediate forced labor in their operations. The Fair Capacity Platform, for example, helps businesses plan their production capacity better, reducing the probability that they resort to subcontracting or excessive overtime to meet unrealistic order deadlines. 

The garment industry is a central pillar of the Bangladesh economy, and so are the millions of men, women, and children who sustain it. The outbreak of a global pandemic showed the world just how vulnerable these workers are, especially those laboring in the informal sector. It also reinforced our commitment to reducing that vulnerability. 

If you are interested in partnering with us to end forced and child labor in the apparel sector, please reach out.

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect identities. The legal age of employment in Bangladesh is 14.

Apparel I Bangladesh

Lessons Learned

During follow-up, many children said they couldn’t afford to quit their jobs, or even reduce their workload to participate in the educational programs being offered, despite expressing interest. For some children, engaging in part-time learning could compromise the source of income that their families depend on. Based on findings from the worker voice survey and real-time feedback from children whom the survey engaged, ELEVATE developed the following guidance for governments, donors, civil society, or private sector actors:

  • Efforts to provide education or remediation services to working children must assume that children will not or cannot immediately leave their jobs and should accommodate their work schedules (e.g. by offering part-time courses)
  • Educational and support services should offer income-replacement stipends or allowances and provision of social safety net services to convince children and their families to enroll in the programs, and eventually transition into the mainstream education system.
  • Referral services should target working children as well as their families. Lack of awareness regarding the negative effects of child labor contributes to decisions that put children in factories.
  • Programs aimed at reducing child labor should engage other actors such as factory owners, trade union leaders, and the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment to eliminate child labor.

As the first point of contact for workers, micro-contractors present a much more relevant and effective intervention point than top down efforts

From the Bottom Up: Micro-contractors are Key to Protecting Migrant Workers in India’s Construction Industry

Ramesh* was 15 when he left his home and family in rural Uttarakhand and migrated to Delhi NCR. He had left in search of work and the opportunity to help his family whose financial situation, already precarious, had grown dire when his father became unwell. As a teenager alone in an unfamiliar city, Ramesh became easy prey for unscrupulous brokers eager to exploit his vulnerability. Deceived by a recruiter, he became trapped in a situation of debt bondage, unable to leave his employer until he managed to escape with the support of a local social worker. 

For the next eight years, Ramesh worked as a daily wage laborer on various construction sites. Eventually, he progressed to obtaining work orders for minor components of construction projects and was able to hire a small team of workers. However, despite his near-decade of experience with the work itself, Ramesh was unversed in how to navigate the informal nature of the construction business. He was defrauded on multiple occasions by larger contractors and developers who took advantage of verbal agreements and informal quotations to pay him unfairly, late, or, in some instances, to default on payments entirely. Ramesh faced significant losses, losses that were born not just by Ramesh but by the team that he had hired. He was unable to pay his workers the wages he had promised. Nor could Ramesh raise his grievances with authorities. He relied on word-of-mouth relationships with these larger contractors for references and future work orders. The optimism with which he had viewed the opportunity quickly deflated. Without any real understanding of formal contracting, Ramesh and those whom he employed, were cheated, exploited, and left with no outlet for redress. 

Migrant workers are at high risk of exploitation

Ramesh is one of hundreds of thousands of micro-contractors, situated at the very end of the sprawling and fractured supply chain in India’s construction sector. This sector is one of the fastest-growing in the world and accounts for 9% of India’s GDP. It is the country’s second-largest employer, attracting millions of migrant workers to urban centers each year.

The industry is characterized by a complex and multi-layered value chain that relies heavily on a floating workforce of migrant workers to meet labor demands. The majority of these workers are low-skilled rural migrants and members of socially disadvantaged communities.

Commonly, they depend on daily wages for their livelihoods, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation. In a large-scale worker voice study with over 17,000 migrant construction workers in 2019-2020, the Global Fund found that approximately 30% of respondents experienced some form of forced labor risks, with nearly 5% experiencing critically severe forced labor conditions. More than 20% reported restrictions on their movement after work shifts, and over 10% reported facing threats to themselves and their families at their workplace. 

Micro-contractors can improve working conditions but face structural constraints

Micro-contractors like Ramesh are the primary employers of this vulnerable migrant population, employing between 5 and 25 unskilled and semi-skilled workers at a time. They represent the node of the construction supply chain that is most directly connected to migrant workers – they are usually the first point of contact for workers at the end of their migration journey, and are responsible for their recruitment, scope of work, working conditions, working hours, and wages.

Their direct influence over worker well-being makes micro-contractors critical stakeholders that need to be engaged and involved in any programming efforts aimed at worker protections and welfare.

Most micro-contractors spend several years as daily wage workers and often belong to the same communities as the migrants they employ. Rising to the role of micro-contractor may seem a step up, but micro-contractors are at the mercy of structural constraints that often leave them with very few options to improve working conditions. Critically, micro-contractors regularly face irregular and delayed payments from their contractors which often limits their ability to pay timely and full wages to workers. As they are only paid when they complete a particular work order, they absorb the majority of risk as it is passed down the supply chain. Since they typically have no access to affordable financing options and often lack financial safety nets, they often take out high-interest loans through informal channels in order to stay afloat, increasing volatility and potentially trapping them in a cycle of debt bondage.

Further, most micro-contractors operate as unregistered and informally managed businesses and lack the necessary know-how to effectively structure and formalize their practices, leaving them, and consequently the workers they employ, vulnerable to exploitation and without access to channels for redress and remediation. This is the situation that Ramesh confronted. Despite his years of experience in the industry and the seeming opportunity to achieve a better future, Ramesh lacked the necessary support systems and business acumen to succeed in his new role. By extension, so too did the workers he had hired.  

Addressing these systemic constraints faced by micro-contractors has the potential to generate very tangible and immediate positive effects on worker welfare.

Given the absence of clear and direct channels between big developers and the workers on construction sites, micro-contractors present a much more relevant and effective intervention point to drive worker benefits than top-down efforts through large industry stakeholders.

Between 2019 and 2021, the Global Fund and our partners worked to test this hypothesis and piloted efforts to train micro-contractors on both ethical labor practices and technical skills for business development (such as digitizing payment transactions, developing accurate quotes for work orders, and formalizing business contracts). The aim was to support the development of non-exploitative employment conditions that were mutually beneficial for workers and contractors. During this period, over 3,000 migrant workers were employed with the 570 micro-contractors trained through the project. 

A large-scale quantitative study run simultaneously to this project found that workers who were employed with trained micro-contractors faced lower forced labor risks than those in the larger study pool who did not receive this intervention. Qualitatively, workers employed by trained micro-contractors expressed a desire to stay on with these employers as they had taken steps to create safe and equitable work environments, including ensuring on-time wage payments, providing safety equipment for risky jobs, and helping meet essential needs such as food, accommodation, and childcare at construction sites. Notably, women working for trained micro-contractors highlighted the non-discriminatory practices employed in the workplace. Unlike their previous experiences in the construction industry, they were now paid separately from their spouses and at an equal rate. The trained micro-contractors internalized the concept that fostering ethical relationships with workers contributes greater value on both sides. They further confirmed that technical and business practice training allowed them to formalize their work agreements and develop more secure contracts with clients to avoid payment defaults, enabling them to pay their workers on time and yielding positive outcomes with worker retention and productivity.

Buoyed by these initial learnings, GFEMS is currently investing in expanded programming in India through our partners Sattva, Labournet, and Kois Invest.

This programming is focused on providing additional cohorts of micro-contractors with access to low-cost working capital loans, channels for stable work orders, and training on ethical labor and business practices. The Global Fund views engagement with micro-contractors as a cornerstone of our approach to eliminating forced labor in the construction industry. We continue to generate evidence to build the “business case” for investing at the micro-contractor level. Trained in business and ethical practices, micro-contractors can better protect themselves and the men and women they hire. They can transform systems of exploitation. 

If you are interested in partnering with the Global Fund, please contact media@gfems.org.

*Ramesh is a composite character based on research findings and discussions with implementing partners. Uttarakhand is a state in Northern India.

Financial exclusion is a primary driver of vulnerability and exploitation.

Could financial inclusion be the key to reducing vulnerability to modern slavery?

This post is co-authored by Laura Gauer Bermudez – Director of Evidence & Learning, GFEMS; Shukri Hussein – Country Manager East Africa, GFEMS; Timea Nagy – Founder of Timea’s Cause; Bart Robertson – MEL Manager, GFEMS; and Leona Vaughn – Vulnerable Populations Lead, UNU FAST Initiative.

Released from the grip of a trafficker, you return to your home community. 

You lack a documented employment history, your identification documents have been stolen by your trafficker, and you may not yet have a permanent address. Each of these circumstances is precluding you from opening a bank account. Without steady financial footing, you are prone to be exploited again, entering a cycle of lost freedoms and being denied access to the very structures that can help you reclaim your agency and independence.  

This is a story of frustration, oppression, and injustice. And it is a story that is lived time and time again by survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking.  It is also the basis of what places individuals and communities at risk of exploitation.

Approximately, 1.7 billion individuals – 31% of the world’s adult population is ‘unbanked’, meaning they lack access to formal financial institutions such as banks and lenders. Addressing this issue has been part of broader development and poverty reduction strategies globally for over a decade. Yet, the connection between financial inclusion and reducing vulnerability to modern slavery is a relatively new conversation, one that the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) and the Finance Against Slavery & Trafficking (FAST) Initiative have identified as critical and are actively mobilizing resources to address. 

What is financial inclusion?

Financial inclusion means that individuals and businesses have access to useful and affordable financial products and services that meet their needs – transactions, payments, savings, credit and insurance – delivered in a responsible and sustainable way.

— The World Bank

Financial products and services can include bank accounts and savings products as well as loans and insurance. Inclusive digital financial services, spurred by a rise in financial technology (FinTech), is helping to grow access to services such as mobile money which allow banking transactions from the convenience of a personal cell phone.  

However, barriers to access remain common. The high cost of opening accounts, expensive transaction fees, complex application processes, and lack of access to digital services, leave many out of the formal financial system. Lack of financial literacy and gender norms that discourage women’s independent access to financial services create additional barriers to service.

These barriers limit the ability of individuals to safely save, invest, or access affordable lines of credit, all with significant consequences.  Not only is an individual left with little to no power over their own financial resources, but their exclusion from the system perpetuates further marginalization, as lack of engagement places individuals in ‘high-risk’ categories. Given that a significant level of those who are unbanked also represent those facing social exclusion – based on age, citizenship, race, gender, disability, and socio-economic status – financial and social exclusion become reinforcing.

Here are some ways financial exclusion specifically increases vulnerability to modern slavery and what kinds of products, services, and access to financial institutions can make a tangible difference in reducing that vulnerability: 

Financial exclusion limits ability to withstand economic shocks, necessitating risky labor and migration practices 

Poverty is, by far, the most ubiquitous and obvious factor driving susceptibility to modern slavery. However, it is the inability to weather economic shocks that is a defining feature. The illness or death of a primary income earner.  Financing large but socially required events such as weddings or funerals. Protracted conflict or political instability. Income or job loss due to macro-economic downturns. For those living on the margins, such shocks leave few options. The current economic downturn resulting from the pandemic is a prime example. The devastating effects of climate change are another shock, increasingly witnessed in vulnerable communities reliant on agriculture for their livelihoods.

The economically insecure have very few options to cope with and protect their families from these hardships. Those who are unbanked and with limited access to affordable credit or micro-insurance are often forced to cover these expenses by taking out sizable loans from informal money lenders at usury rates. Alternatively, others resort to irregular or risky migration as a means to meet these financial needs, which can lead to exploitative situations. Some may also receive advance payments or loans from employers, which can facilitate a bonded labor relationship.

Including survivors in the design of products and services is one of the first steps we can take to be more inclusive.

In order to most effectively serve groups at risk of slavery as well as survivors, designers of financial products should consult individuals and groups with this lived experience to understand their needs.  For instance, GFEMS invested in SafeStep, an online platform for migrant workers from Bangladesh relocating to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries for employment.

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Financial exclusion hinders reintegration of survivors

For survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery, financial exclusion represents a continuation of their trauma. Official identification documents such as passports are often stolen by their assailants, and in some cases their identities are used to defraud or amass debt. This can present a barrier to their financial recovery when they have escaped from these situations, as they struggle to open basic banking accounts for wages and even to access legal compensation they may have been awarded. Financial exclusion, a lack of access to financial services and knowledge, is not only a form of re-victimisation, but has consequential negative impacts on survivors’ financial reintegration, advancement to financial independence, and well-being and damages future opportunities for housing, mortgage, credit and employment. This leaves survivors vulnerable to repeat exploitation and abuse.

Financial exclusion perpetuates systemic risk of exploitation

Modern slavery is not only a result of individual vulnerability, but also systemic issues within industry. Market risk and volatility can be pushed down the supply chain to actors who are least prepared to cope.  Such is the case in the construction sector in India, representing over 60 million jobs. The sector is highly dependent on low-paid, migrant labor and a system of sub-contracting construction orders to micro-contractors (MC). MCs are the primary employers of these migrant workers. They often operate informally, have limited access to affordable credit, and have to manage day-to-day business operations in a highly volatile market. Delayed payments are common and work orders inconsistent. These and other challenges can limit MC’s ability and willingness to treat their workers ethically. Worker exploitation and withheld wages are the norm. 

Financial exclusion limits access to social protection schemes

The unbanked may be limited in their ability to access social protection schemes.  Initial evidence has shown that people without bank accounts or access to mobile money were most likely to be excluded or receive far less monetary support from governments than those with digital financial access during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This has  a specific impact on rural populations, indigenous communities, young people, and women. These groups, primarily who were in informal work and also more likely to borrow from informal lenders, were placed at higher risk of abuse and exploitation. 

Expanding Financial Inclusion – What’s Next?

If financial exclusion can be characterized as a lack of power and control over one’s economic resources, financial inclusion can be associated with greater financial power, control, independence, and agency, all of which are necessary to be fully free from exploitation. 

So what are the products, services, and opportunities for access necessary to spur a meaningful reduction in modern slavery vulnerability? Here are our recommendations:

Prioritise financial inclusion as a form of protection against slavery and trafficking

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Recognizing the role that financial inclusion plays in reducing modern slavery vulnerability, and explicitly considering this in the wider financial inclusion field, is a key next step for governments, civil society, and the private sector.  Institutional funders and philanthropists can play a role in mandating financial inclusion activities within their portfolios to address slavery and trafficking.  Governments can integrate financial inclusion activities into their policy strategies for vulnerability reduction and the private sector can consider innovative ways to improve access to financial products and services to workers along their supply chain.  Financial services providers  should be educated on modern slavery, specifically debt bondage, to understand how their products can best reduce this power dynamic for workers across the globe.

Exponentially expand public-private partnerships to address financial exclusion

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NGOs and CSOs working to address slavery and trafficking should intentionally enhance collaboration with financial service providers, mobile money operators, and government agencies that offer safety net programs to design effective and sustainable interventions that increase financial inclusion.  Similarly, private sector actors should seek opportunities to pair with NGOs and CSOs to reach and serve populations that have been left out of the formal financial system.

Establish more community-based savings and loans groups as an on-ramp to formal financial institutions

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Governments and NGOs can facilitate group savings and loan initiatives such as village savings and loan associations (VSLA) and self-reliance groups (SRG). These initiatives provide access to credit as well as financial literacy training.  Group savings initiatives can be effective platforms for delivering important skills training, increasing the social capital and resilience of group members and further reducing vulnerability to modern slavery. For this reason, group savings initiatives are often a part of an integrated suite of services in economic development programming, as evidenced in the Ultra-Poor Graduation approach and many others. While these initiatives tend to sit outside the formal banking system, they exist as part of a continuum of financial services ranging from the informal to formal and can serve as an onramp to formal financial services.

Provide guidance to Financial institutions on how to manage risks to vulnerable populations and ensure financial inclusion, while complying with relevant AML/CFT laws

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There is a need to raise awareness in financial institutions about how these issues interact, in a way that also gives reassurance that anti-money laundering/counter terrorist financing laws and regulations are not compromised. Guidance could include ensuring considerations of risks to vulnerable populations, in relation to financial exclusion and heightened exposure to the risk of slavery and trafficking, are within banking risk assessment and management processes. Guidance could also address ‘derisking’ practices, including how and when they are an appropriate response to human rights concerns and also can unintentionally exacerbate risks to vulnerable people.

Integrate financial inclusion and financial literacy initiatives within any economic empowerment portfolio

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Financial literacy is an important element in achieving financial inclusion. Yet many economic empowerment programs, particularly in the anti-slavery/anti-trafficking space, fail to include a comprehensive financial literacy training package, either due to funding shortages or limited capacity.  This lack of emphasis on financial literacy leaves participants with an inability to save, invest, and protect themselves against economic shocks after the project has ended.

Expand digital financial services and digital financial literacy campaigns

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Mobile finance platforms such as MPESA, used by 31.2 million Kenyans, enables users to open a bank account without onerous form filling and provides users with access to a savings account and loan opportunities.  This ease of access creates a convenient option for at-risk groups as well as survivors who may lack the necessary papers required to open an account.  Mobile finance has been a game-changer for financial inclusion in Kenya and is seen as a model for the rest of the world.  Significant expansion of mobile money offerings alongside digital financial literacy has the potential to exponentially increase access and participation in the financial system for individuals and groups whose prior exclusion created notable vulnerabilities and barriers to their own financial independence.

Incentivize ethical business practices through the provision of financial services

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Mapping the employment structure of an industry prone to modern slavery can uncover stressors that may be making it difficult for employers to abide by ethical business practices.  GFEMS is currently partnering with several organizations to provide micro-contractors in the construction industry in India with business training and conditional loans. Loan provision is contingent on the implementation of a minimum set of ethical business practices by the recipient. An impact evaluation of this project is currently underway, and we anticipate that the loans will help micro-contractors to better manage cash flow and work orders, enabling them to more feasibly adopt ethical business practices.

Invest in savings accounts for survivors and populations at high-risk of slavery and trafficking

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Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) have long been touted as a vehicle for increasing assets and hope for the future among low-wealth populations.  Matched savings for low-income populations establishes a mechanism for accumulating savings and assets, an opportunity that would otherwise only be available to middle to high-income earners with matched savings through their employers.  Governments, charities, and private sector entities should consider establishing IDA accounts for select groups in order to offer the same opportunities for wealth accumulation afforded to less marginalized populations.

Include survivors in the design of products and services

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In order to most effectively serve groups at risk of slavery as well as survivors, designers of financial products should consult individuals and groups with this lived experience to understand their needs.  For instance, GFEMS invested in SafeStep, an online platform for migrant workers from Bangladesh relocating to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries for employment. Extensive consultations were held with workers to understand what was most effective to meet their needs, resulting in a comprehensive budget calculator, helping migrants understand the ‘true’ cost of migration.  Consulting affected populations on their needs will ensure greater uptake and impact.

Join Us

The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery is a multi-donor fund launched in 2017 to catalyze a coherent global strategy to end forced labor and human trafficking. GFEMS programs around the world are working at the intersection of financial inclusion and modern slavery, bringing together leaders and innovators from both fields to drive impact. Activities include developing, piloting, and scaling innovative new financial products — be they to economically empower survivors of trafficking, to reduce financial fragility among migrant workers, or to alter employer behavior in the informal apparel and construction industries — and conducting and disseminating studies to increase understanding of the individual-level financial drivers of modern slavery risk.

Finance Against Slavery and Trafficking Initiative, based in the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, is working to mobilise the financial sector against slavery and trafficking. Part of this work is called the Survivor Inclusion Initiative which in its first phase has assisted survivor support organisations and participating banks in the US, Canada and UK with the opening of over 2,000 survivor bank accounts. This programme operates from the position of addressing survivor needs. It works closely with survivor support organisations to be able to support survivors in navigating the process, this includes being able to ratify survivor identity. It works to empower survivors with choices, in terms of banks and account types e.g. online banking for those not comfortable with face-to-face account opening. It supports banks to address and overcome documented challenges such as ‘de-risking’ and perceived conflicts with anti-money laundering or counter terrorism financing rules.

Nearly one-fifth of children in Karamoja believe that migrating is the only way to make enough money to survive.

When Risks are High but Need is Great: Migration and Child Trafficking in Karamoja, Uganda

The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery is currently funding the Community Action to End Child Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation project to improve prevention and response to child sex trafficking in Karamoja, Uganda. As part of this project, ICF and the Department of Social Work and Social Administration, Makerere University recently conducted a household survey to measure knowledge, attitudes, and practices around child sex trafficking in the region and to estimate the prevalence of children at risk of and engaged in sex trafficking. The final sample included 986 households (adults) and 830 children aged 12 to 17. For more on research methodology, see our previous post.

**The audio included in this post is a composite narrative; it is based on research findings and does not depict any individual story. It incorporates feedback from the Global Fund’s local partners, Terre des Hommes Netherlands and Dwelling Places, and their project participants. 

Napak District in Karamoja region. Image: “Household Study of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Napak District of Karamoja,” prepared by ICF Macro, Inc.

Karamoja in northeast Uganda is classified as one of the world’s poorest areas. Over sixty percent of its 1.2 million people live in poverty, making Karamoja the least socially and economically developed region in Uganda. In a recent household survey in Napak district, Karamoja, nearly two-thirds of children reported they went to sleep hungry one, two, or three nights in the last week. Indeed, food insecurity remains one of the region’s greatest challenges- one that is intensifying with shifting climate conditions. A study examining changes in the region from 1981 to 2015 found rising temperatures and increasingly erratic rainfall, a trend likely to impose dire consequences in a region where livelihoods –cattle-raising and agriculture- are tied directly to the land. 

These same livelihood-sustaining activities have influenced a culture of migration in the region. Groups have long migrated with their livestock to mobile cattle camps, referred to locally as kraals, during the dry season. However, in more recent years, there has been a change in migration patterns. Increasingly, it is children who are leaving Karamoja. Faced with chronic poverty and few options, Karamoja’s youth are leaving to find better opportunities for themselves and their families in Uganda’s urban centers. Indeed, nearly one-fifth of children recently surveyed in Karamoja believe that migrating is the only way to make enough money to survive.

Though many young people consider migration their best or only option, migration presents its own risks.  Arriving in cities with no money and no family, migrant children are preyed upon by traffickers eager to exploit this vulnerability.  An estimated 90% of children living on the streets or in other vulnerable conditions in Kampala are from Karamoja. Children are exploited in forced begging, domestic work, and commercial sex brothels. Recently, there have been reports of children from Karamoja being sold at markets for 20,000-50,000 UGX ($5.48- $13.70). Among children surveyed in Karamoja, the majority expressed an understanding of the risks associated with migration- many worried they would not make any money, nor have enough food to eat. Others feared they might contract a disease, be beaten, or trafficked for sex. Many children reported that migration brought the risk of being separated from friends and family forever. Yet, despite an awareness of these risks, children from Karamoja continue to migrate. 

LISTEN: STORIES FROM KARAMOJA

Adults and children participating in the survey nearly universally agreed in the importance of education, but most children in Karamoja do not regularly attend school.  Almost 60% of the children surveyed had not completed primary school while a further 38% of child respondents had no formal schooling at all. The overall literacy rate for the region stands at just 25% (compared to a national average of 68%.)  

Evidence shows that girls kept out of school are more likely to bear children at an early age, an outcome with tremendous and long-lasting educational, social, and economic impact. Surveyed boys and girls who reported they had never attended school were significantly more likely to agree that migration is the only way to make enough money to survive. For these children, migration is their only option, no matter the risk.

School is not a priority for many families in the region whose livelihoods are tied to livestock and agriculture. Even as nearly all parents agreed that attending school would enable their children to make more money in the future, parents expect their children will graze cattle and engage in other household-sustaining activities.  Almost half of parents surveyed believe that children should begin participating in elejileij or income-generating activities between the ages of 12 and 15. More than 40% of adults believe that it is good for a child under age 18 to migrate in pursuit of food and money.

While expecting their children to earn for the household, parents also expressed an understanding of the risks that migration carries, including children not making any money, not having enough food to eat, contracting a disease, or being beaten. More than half of adults believe that children who leave home often end up being sexually exploited for commercial gain. Although many adults expect children to generate income, either locally or in another town, those surveyed nearly universally agreed that parents must protect their children from people taking advantage of and hurting them. Given that many parents recognize the risks of migration but still think it is good for children to migrate, it may be that they believe that earning experience is key to their long-term ability to avoid harm. Or it may be that, for many, there seems little alternative. The risk of remaining at home is as great as leaving. In other words, people living in extreme deprivation may look for hope elsewhere even when they are aware of risks.

LISTEN: STORIES FROM KARAMOJA

A child’s risk of exploitation is influenced by other factors. In Karamoja, research shows that the relationship between child and caregiver is significant. Children that are ridiculed by caregivers are far more likely to be involved in child sex trafficking that those who are not.  More than one third of the children surveyed in Karamoja reported being ridiculed or put down by their caregivers. Having a close friend exploited in sex trafficking also indicates a high level of vulnerability- nearly one-fifth of children surveyed in Karamoja have at least one friend who has been exploited in child sex trafficking. Researchers found that keeping secrets from a caregiver is another significant predictor that a child might be involved in sex trafficking. Significantly, responses showed that caregivers underestimate how often their children keep secrets from them. 

Drawing on results of the household survey and children’s and parents’ responses, researchers estimate that one out of every five children in Napak are at high risk of sex trafficking. 

LISTEN: STORIES FROM KARAMOJA

The research conducted in Napak district produced alarming results. But it also produced evidence to help us build more targeted interventions. Read more about our programming to combat child sex trafficking in Napak district here

Research and programs referenced in this article are funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.

Protecting Uganda’s children, now and in the future, requires participation and support of the entire community.

“It Takes a Village”: Engaging the Community to End Child Trafficking

In September 2021, our partners in Uganda, Terre des Hommes Netherlands (TdH NL) and Dwelling Places, hosted the first-ever National Dialogue on Child Trafficking. While diplomats, Government leaders, media representatives, and civil society organizations (CSOs) gathered to take stock of Uganda’s collective response to child trafficking, three young girls from Napak District in northeast Uganda joined to raise their voices. 

One of these girls, joining virtually and speaking off camera, described the circumstances that led her to leave Karamoja. She had gone to Nairobi to escape hunger at home and earn enough money to pursue the education her parents could not afford. She was also fleeing an impending marriage, forced to enter a union to which she objected. Demonstrating that they were indeed more than their stories of exploitation and survival, these three young girls took the opportunity to press for action. 

national dialogue on child trafficking in Uganda
Terre des Hommes Netherlands with Dwelling Places hosted the first ever National Dialogue on Child Trafficking in Uganda in September 2021. Photo courtesy of Terre des Hommes Netherlands.

The girls asked the leaders in attendance to bring their friends- children still being exploited in Nairobi- back home to Uganda. They then requested steps be taken to support children from Karamoja, Napak District to access education. Many children dropped out of school because their parents could not afford the fees. The girls pondered why Karamoja saw so many of its children trafficked and why so many migrated from the region only to end up in child labor, begging, or sexual exploitation. 

The State Minister for Disaster Preparedness, the Guest of Honor, offered a response to the girls. She called on the private sector to do its part to end child trafficking and advised civil society organizations to harmonize and coordinate services to ensure all survivors receive the same standard of care and protection. She committed her Ministry to provide food relief for survivors at the Koblin rehabilitation centre in Napak District; and she pledged her advocacy on behalf of education for children in Karamoja. Addressing the girls, she promised the government would do more to end child trafficking.

The following week, in Karamoja, TdH NL facilitated the participation of eight children in the first Annual Stakeholders’ feedback meeting, an opportunity to give feedback on the GFEMS-funded TdH NL project and share their opinions and recommendations. To the Resident District Commissioner, the District Chairperson, the District Education Officer, and other local Government leaders, to the child protection champions, teachers and administrators, and religious and cultural leaders in attendance, the children made several requests. They asked for the continuation of trainings and dialogues on positive parenting to sensitize parents and caregivers on risks of child trafficking. They also requested stricter enforcement of laws against child trafficking, and asked for support and advocacy to change harmful cultural practices and social norms. In addition, they requested more opportunities for their voices to be heard in discussions on how to protect children.

A young girl presents children’s asks to project stakeholders. TdH NL facilitated the participation of eight children in the first Annual Stakeholders’ feedback meeting in September 2021.

But the children were not done. In one last urgent appeal, they requested that the Government reopen schools immediately. For children in the region, these young advocates explained, schools play a critical role in preventing child trafficking and sexual exploitation. Recognizing the significance of schools in protecting children, the District Education Officer committed to working with local groups to provide access to education until the nation’s schools re-open. Amongst an audience of local officials and decision-makers, these children made their voices heard.

TdH NL and Dwelling Places (TdH NL’s implementing partner) have been working to prevent child sex trafficking in the Napak district of Karamoja and other hot spots in Eastern Uganda since 2014. It is from this experience that TdH NL and Dwelling Places have learned the value and necessity of listening to children most affected by the issue and supporting them to be agents of change in their communities. Indeed, engaging children and youth to combat sexual exploitation and abuse has been and remains a defining feature of TdH NL’s programming, and it may be the most critical. It is part of a comprehensive strategy to protect Karamoja’s children, a strategy that calls the entire community to action to end child trafficking.

A Community at Risk

Karamoja is a young population. The average age is just 15 years old.  It is also a growing population. On average, a woman in Karamoja will give birth to eight children, much higher than a national average of five children and soaring above Kampala’s average of three children.  With a poverty rate among the highest in the world and a literacy rate of just 25%, Karamoja’s children confront various challenges that put them at increased risk of exploitation. 

To reduce these vulnerabilities, TdH NL and Dwelling Places, with funding from the Global Fund, are creating referral, response, and reporting mechanisms to build a “protective shield” for 2,000 children in Karamoja.  They are engaging children, parents, teachers, survivors, community leaders, and law enforcement to raise awareness of child trafficking risks, enhance prevention and monitoring, and shift harmful cultural norms. Protecting Karamoja’s children, now and in the future, requires participation and support of the entire community. This is what our partners are working to do.

Building Community Awareness

In the communities of Karamoja, this begins with raising awareness. Community dialogues are at the core of TdH NL’s awareness-raising activities. These are an opportunity for community members to learn more about what makes children susceptible to trafficking or exploitation and what families and the community can do to better protect their children. Building from the findings in a recent Global Fund commissioned study on child sex trafficking, parents are made aware of behaviors and interactions that can negatively affect their children and even contribute to increasing vulnerabilities to trafficking or exploitation. For example, findings show that children who are ridiculed by caregivers are far more likely to be involved in child sex trafficking than those who are not.  Among children surveyed in Karamoja, more than one third reported being ridiculed or put down by their caregivers. (See our previous post for more research findings.) For many participants, TdH NL reported, the training was a real “eye-opener”, revealing links between parent-child relationships and trafficking risks. When TdH NL introduced positive parenting messaging, parents were receptive.  They pledged to change their behavior and relation to their children, and committed to sharing positive parenting messaging with others in their communities.   

Building awareness means educating parents and community members on risk factors for child trafficking and how to reduce those risks. But it also means changing cultural norms that harm children. Girls in particular experience high rates of gender-based violence, fueled by its widespread cultural acceptance in the region. Early marriage or forced marriage is common.  Married young, it is more likely a girl will not earn an education, experience poor health, have more children over her lifetime, and earn less in adulthood. In other words, she becomes more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Boys too suffer the consequences of entrenched gender norms. Traditional perceptions of male masculinity contribute to a culture of repression, silence, and continued exploitation for young boys who fall victim to child trafficking. Findings from a recent Global Fund commissioned study on child trafficking indicate that boys are just as likely to be trafficking victims as girls, but this is a largely unseen and unreported problem. Reluctant to report, boys are unlikely to receive the support they need to recover. Community dialogues explain the harm that such culturally-accepted practices can inflict and encourage participants to rethink practices and customs that put children at risk.  Local religious and cultural leaders- community members who hold incredible sway and garner trust in Karamojong villages- are encouraged to lead change.

Significantly, community dialogues are not a one-way conversation.  Participants share their experiences and concerns, feedback that is critical to building programs that work best for Karamojong communities. While explaining the challenges that families and children in Karamoja confront, including food insecurity and hunger, raids, unemployment, high dropout rates and low enrollment in schools, forced marriage, and peer pressure, community members also offer insight on what can be done to make their children less vulnerable.  In multiple dialogues, for example, participants expressed that children needed more opportunities for education or vocational training. The indefinite closure of schools in response to the pandemic has made children even more vulnerable, a trend that will certainly outlast the outbreak as 30 percent of Ugandan learners are likely never to return to school

Turning Awareness into Action

While raising awareness of the risks and signs of child trafficking or exploitation is a critical first step in protecting a community’s children, it is not enough. Community members must know how to respond. Information on where and how to report child trafficking is shared during community dialogues, but TdH NL also conducts more targeted outreach. They train teachers and administrators throughout Napak district to monitor for exploitation- for example, to pay attention to attendance and behavior patterns and to take action against it. Most critically, students and youth are engaged to play an active role in prevention, monitoring, and response. 

As members of Community Child Rights Clubs (CCRCs), peer support groups facilitated by TdH NL, young Karamojongs learn about their rights and actions that violate them; they are taught about reporting and referring mechanisms; and they are encouraged to share this knowledge with other young people in their communities. Adults, including teachers, serve as club patrons and Child Protection Champions or child advocates supporting the CCRCs. To date, this project has supported the establishment of 35 CCRCs, engaging more than 680 children and youth. 

Children, parents, teachers, survivors, village leaders, government officials- the entire community plays a role in preventing child trafficking. With programs informed by on-the-ground research, our partners are engaging the community to protect Karamoja’s children, and they are changing systems to ensure freedom and opportunity for all children.

To learn more about the Global Fund and how you can get involved, click here.

Programs referenced in this article are funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.

For many migrants, returning home can bring new trauma.

The Long Return: Supporting Reintegration for Returning Migrants in Bangladesh

Farishta* was sick and bleeding when she arrived at the recruitment agency. She had been dropped there only after her illness had become severe enough that her employers worried she might not survive. Concerned about their own futures, the couple that had exploited and abused Farishta as a domestic worker in their home for the last six months finally returned her to the same recruitment agency in Saudi Arabia that had placed her. But, after a day, the agency delivered Farishta to the police. Claiming she was in the country illegally, the police held Farishta for another eight days, and for another eight days, she was denied medical attention. Farishta was told she could go home if she could quickly arrange the cost of a ticket back to Bangladesh. From the police station, Farishta contacted her husband who was able to borrow BDT 40,000 (USD $471) to bring Farishta home. It seemed her harrowing experience was coming to an end.

However, when Farishta returned to Bangladesh her struggle continued. She was shunned by her family, her oldest son refusing to call her mother. While coping with the emotional trauma of rejection, Farishta’s physical health continued to deteriorate. Still bleeding and growing weaker every day, Farishta borrowed money to see a gynecologist who advised surgery and medication. Farishta could afford neither. Though she had escaped abuse and exploitation at the hands of her overseas employer, the trauma Farishta experienced and continued to endure after returning home was overwhelming. She had thoughts of taking her own life.

Struggling to reintegrate into her family and community, Farishta was introduced to Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a community-based migrant workers’ organization in Bangladesh.

With OKUP’s support, Farishta began to heal physically and mentally.

She received needed medical treatment and psycho-social counseling. At the same time, OKUP provided counseling to Farishta’s family to help them understand her trauma and to engage them in supporting Farishta’s recovery. Farishta’s relationship with her family has improved and she is reconnecting with her eldest son.

Family support was critical for Farishta’s recovery and reintegration, but Farishta also needed a sustainable livelihood for herself and her family. After excelling in OKUP’s life skills training course, she was referred to a partner organization, Caritas Bangladesh, for assistance to start a small business. Farishta is now raising ducks and chickens, selling eggs to earn money for her family. She has plans to acquire more animals and to remain at home in Bangladesh.

Though her migration experience was one of pain and exploitation, Farishta found a way forward with the support of OKUP and others working to strengthen reintegration support for returning migrants. While providing necessary psychosocial and livelihood support to survivors like Farishta, OKUP is working with a consortium of GFEMS-funded partners to raise community awareness of the challenges returnees face and to advocate improvements in government services and response. Together, we are supporting returnees to sustainably reintegrate and reforming systems to better serve survivors and vulnerable migrants. Farishta, while still managing her own trauma, has begun working with other returnees in her community to help them recover and thrive.

The Challenges of Return


Remittances are the lifeblood of millions of families in Bangladesh. In 2019, remittances sent via formal channels topped $18.3 billion USD- or 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. For families of overseas workers, this money accounts for 85 percent of daily expenditures; sixty percent of these families are totally dependent on remittances for their daily expenses. Multiple family members often rely on the wages of a single migrant worker, creating pressure on migrant workers to “succeed” abroad.

The expectation that migration will improve a family’s financial situation often shapes a migrant’s return experience. Those who return with no money or savings are commonly viewed as “failed” migrants and are ostracized by communities and even families. For the women and men who are deceived, exploited, and abused as overseas workers, rejection at home only adds to the trauma and isolation experienced abroad. Women especially are shunned by communities and family members for sexual abuse they endured, either real or perceived. According to a recent report by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, 52% of more than 300 female returnees interviewed felt there was “a change of social attitude” towards them after their return. Many reported that they had become common targets for gossip; that they experienced an increase in judgmental attitudes towards them upon return; and that they were regularly subjected to derogatory remarks from community members. Significantly, none of the interviewees made any formal complaints to any authority regarding their treatment. The outbreak of a global pandemic in early 2020 only increased the social stigma surrounding returnees as they were now branded carriers of COVID-19. Without improved systems and services to provide returning migrants needed psychosocial and livelihoods support, many will again turn abroad and to the same unsafe channels of migration.

Afsari’s Story

Confronting extreme financial hardship at home, Afsari made the decision to seek work abroad after hearing she could earn a decent wage. Afsari endured 15 months of exploitation and abuse before she was able to earn enough to pay off the debt of BDT 160,000 (approximately $1,890 USD) owed to a labor recruiter. Afsari returned home, but without the wages she had been promised and now under the weight of new trauma. She was introduced to Caritas where she completed tailoring training, began teaching tailoring classes, and received seed money to begin her own tailoring business. Afsari now earns enough to cover her family’s daily needs, including schooling for her daughter, and is saving for her future.

Supporting Sustainable Reintegration

According to IOM, “reintegration can be considered sustainable when returnees have reached levels of economic self-sufficiency, social stability within their communities, and psychosocial well-being that allow them to cope with (re)migration drivers.” When sustainable reintegration is achieved, future decisions about migration become a matter of choice, rather than necessity. This is what we are working to achieve with our partners in Bangladesh. Supported by funding from the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) is leading a project with OKUP and Caritas Bangladesh to provide short- and long-term support for survivors and vulnerable migrants and advocate for strengthened government response and reintegration programs.

Working together, CAFOD, OKUP, and Caritas Bangladesh are able to provide holistic services to returnees and vulnerable migrants, ensuring migrants can access needed support from the moment they return to that when they no longer need it. With an understanding that migrants have different migration experiences and different needs upon return, partners in the consortium leverage their unique strengths and networks to provide each returnee tailored yet comprehensive support.


Recovery and Reintegration Begins the Moment a Migrant Returns

OKUP provides short-term emergency service for returnees, including airport pick up and shelter services. In the worst of scenarios, OKUP coordinate airport transfers of bodies to the families of the migrant worker; they also support families to apply to the government to pay for the funeral costs. In addition, OKUP aids with medical referrals and applications for government health grants that can pay a migrant’s medical costs. They provide psychosocial counseling to returnees and their families, and, in instances of severe trauma, OKUP extends long-term counseling support.

Beyond emergency support, OKUP have established community-led groups of returnee migrant workers known as migrant forums and facilitates their regular meetings to provide information to returnees and vulnerable migrants on relevant matters including how to access loans and other financial support. During one recent meeting, more than 200 migrants were supported to access government benefits- a vital lifeline as the pandemic continues to shake financial security.

Sustainable Reintegration Must Engage the Community

OKUP also engages the community to support reintegration efforts. Through outreach and awareness-raising activities, OKUP is helping communities understand the unique challenges migrants confront and working to reduce the social stigma that attaches to them upon return. With more than a decade of experience supporting returnees and vulnerable migrants, OKUP understands the significance of community engagement, and employs traditional and non-traditional methods, including theatrical performance, to build these networks of support. For example, in an OKUP-sponsored play about a woman’s migration journey and her abuse overseas, the focus is on her return and the importance of community support. These efforts are reaching thousands; in just one quarter, OKUP’s outreach activities engaged over 17,000 individuals across 8 high-migration districts.

Sustainable Reintegration Must Include Livelihoods Support

Building on OKUP’s sustainable reintegration efforts, Caritas Bangladesh provides skills and entrepreneurship training to prepare survivors and vulnerable migrants for sustainable employment. Participants are able to self-select their economic reintegration activities, selecting a business track that draws on their own skills and interests. With agency to determine their own futures, survivors and returnee migrants can choose employment opportunities that meet their own needs, increasing the likelihood of success and sustainability.
To date, Caritas Bangladesh has supported over 600 individuals to start their own small businesses. After completing entrepreneurship training and courses covering subjects such as business principles, trade licensing, and accounting, graduates are supported to develop small business plans before Caritas Bangladesh transfers seed money to help them push these ideas forward. Caritas Bangladesh currently supports survivors and vulnerable migrants across nearly 50 different vocations, from animal husbandry to tailoring to auto work.

It is admirable to see the Government of Bangladesh is committed to improving reintegration services for migrant workers.

— Richard Sloman, CAFOD


Sustainable Reintegration Must be Supported by Government

While supporting individual returnees to reintegrate, the consortium is also advocating local and state government to strengthen referral systems. OKUP is coordinating with the Wage Earners’ Welfare Board to strengthen referral services from the airport to ensure returnees in need of support are identified and referred for services. Though COVID has imposed new challenges, diverting government resources and capacity, progress is being made. OKUP reports that new cases are starting to be referred. Building on these advocacy efforts, CAFOD, in collaboration with a team of research consultants, recently published a report identifying gaps in the current referral system. The report includes several recommendations and is being used as an advocacy tool for the government to strengthen referral systems. The consortium remains steadfast in its advocacy efforts and continues to press relevant officials to take action. In 2022, the consortium will be hosting a series of referral guideline workshops with government Ministry officials to discuss findings from the referral research.

“It is admirable to see the Government of Bangladesh is committed to improving reintegration services for migrant workers. These workshops provide an excellent opportunity to develop a strong, holistic and inclusive referral mechanism which will dramatically improve the support returnee migrants, particularly survivors of abuse and exploitation, receive when they return to Bangladesh.”
Richard Sloman (CAFOD)

While CAFOD, OKUP, and Caritas Bangladesh are providing critical support to vulnerable individuals and communities, their partnership is what is transforming systems and creating sustainable change. Sharing knowledge, building partner capacity, and providing comprehensive and holistic care, they are supporting returnees through recovery and reintegration. Working together, they are changing the systems that enable modern slavery to thrive.

*Some names in this blog have been changed to protect identities.

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