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.”
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.
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.Learn More
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Building Skills and a Better Future: How the Hospitality Sector Can Support Survivors to Achieve Sustainable Employment
“Towering above Mumbai’s upscale commercial hub, Four Seasons combines chic modern style with an intimate, boutique atmosphere and panoramic sea views. Let our expert team connect you with local culture, shopping and entertainment. At day’s end, return to our rooftop AER – Bar and Lounge for sunset cocktails and mingling with Mumbai’s elite.”
The website for the Four Seasons Hotel in Mumbai sells an experience of luxury and indulgence, one that appeals to many travellers, both foreign and domestic. But it is not one that youth often imagine themselves a part of, especially youth from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Though many young people may not envision their futures in a five-star hotel, Sustainable Hospitality Alliance (the Alliance) understands the tremendous opportunity that the hospitality industry affords. Unlike many other sectors, the bar for entry into the hospitality sector is not set at education or even job experience. Rather, there is a unique appreciation for self-confidence, on-the-job training and practical skills development that opens the hospitality industry to youth of any background. The Alliance works with hotel members and philanthropic, government, nonprofit, and private sector partners across the globe to connect young people with these opportunities. In helping youth develop skills to advance in the hospitality sector or related professions, the Alliance is reducing youth vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation and supporting young people to achieve financial security and a better future.
In 2020, 1 in 5 youth were not in employment, education or training (NEET). This number continues to rise as the world struggles under the weight of a global pandemic. In many cases, youth were the first let go during economic shutdowns- 1 in 6 are estimated to have lost their jobs since the outbreak began. While one month of being unemployed at age 18-20 can cause a permanent income loss of 2% in the future, poverty, malnutrition and financial insecurity are the consequences youth experience more immediately. Confronting increasingly desperate circumstances, young people are more susceptible to exploitation, abuse, and modern slavery.
Despite the heavy blow that COVID-related travel restrictions and national lockdowns dealt to the industry, hospitality can play a critical role in recovery. It remains an important driver of economic growth and job opportunities, and provides young people the chance to develop skills and experience to ensure sustainable employment, within the industry and beyond. Though GFEMS partnership with the Alliance began in 2018, the devastating effects of COVID have highlighted the significance of the intervention. In supporting young people to develop professional and personal skills and practical experience, the Alliance is building youth resilience and empowering young people with greater control over their futures.
A Partnership to Reduce Youth Vulnerabilities and Support Young Survivors
The Alliance initiated its youth employment program in 2004 to support at-risk youth (ages 18-24), including those from impoverished communities or low-income families, those living with disabilities, survivors of human trafficking, and refugees, to achieve sustainable employment. Viewing hospitality as a solution to the problem of youth unemployment, the Alliance has forged partnerships with over 200 hotels in four countries since it began 15 years ago. To date, over 6,000 young people have graduated from the Alliance’s youth employment program.
GFEMS partnered with the Alliance as part of its anti-trafficking efforts in Vietnam and Maharashtra, India, two regions with high prevalence of sex trafficking. Through this partnership, the Alliance is directly engaging survivors and at-risk individuals in its employment program, and supporting them to develop skills and experience to make them less vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. While this project is making a difference in the lives of the youth it engages, it is also informing the development of a model to be scaled and replicated across countries and industries.
A Program to Build Survivor Skills and Confidence
The Alliance’s youth employment program begins and ends at partnership. To be successful and sustainable, it needs both hotels to conduct practical training and community organizations to connect young people with the opportunity. To build these partnerships, the Alliance first conducts workshops in the region of operation to introduce representatives of hotels and local nonprofits to the program and share best practices for working with survivors. Participating nonprofit partners, including anti-trafficking organizations and youth shelters, commit to mobilizing survivors and at-risk youth for the program. (Some even travelling to harder-to-reach but high prevalence areas to engage vulnerable youth.) Hotels that join the program agree to provide on-site skills training or apprenticeships for youth who complete initial training.
Once partnerships are established, youth are enrolled and begin one month of “pre-training” focused on soft skills development. Consisting of three modules- Life Skills, English for Hospitality, and Introduction to Hospitality- the employment program curriculum develops core employability skills that are relevant to the hospitality sector. In honing digital skills, building financial literacy, and learning to effectively communicate, students are equipped with skills that transfer to virtually any industry. The program also strengthens confidence and job-readiness, soft skills to set young people on a successful career path.
When core training is completed, students are placed for practical skills training, generally with local hotels. On-site training typically lasts two months. After successful completion, graduates are supported to find employment in the hospitality sector or related fields.
“The training has made me employable and capable to be part of the housekeeping team in a hotel. I am learning how to provide service to guests. This training has prepared me to be confident and speak up. I feel self-motivated, excited, and willing to learn.”
Lessons to Build Stronger Programs and Scalable Solutions
Programs are rarely implemented without challenges. Learning from these challenges and adapting to meet them is how we can build effective and sustainable strategies to end trafficking and modern slavery. During the second year of program implementation, circumstances on the ground supported the decision to end the youth employment program in Vietnam. As many of the students enrolled in the Hanoi program came from rural provinces, a change in government policy that shifted support for trafficking survivors to their regions of origin deterred many from traveling to Hanoi. With the decentralization of government support, most survivors chose to remain near family and community networks. Indeed, several of the Alliance’s nonprofit partners reported that their shelters in Hanoi no longer housed any survivors.
Adding to this challenge was an important learning uncovered during the course of program implementation. While encouraging that over sixty per cent of Hanoi graduates did in fact secure full-time employment in the hospitality sector, almost half of those who enrolled in the program did not graduate. The Alliance worked with its local nonprofit partners to understand why students were dropping out of the program at such a high rate. The key finding was that location mattered. Students from rural provinces had trouble adapting in Hanoi. Separated from family and community, they lacked networks of support to fully engage with the program.
Though disheartening, this learning, reinforced by findings from other GFEMS-funded projects in Vietnam, demonstrates the significance of locally-accessible programming and tailoring programs to match survivor needs. The Alliance and GFEMS shifted remaining funding to scale up programming in India, but the Hanoi program should not be counted a loss. From this knowledge, the Alliance and GFEMS are building stronger programs, programs that take account of local circumstances and survivor needs, programs that can be scaled-up effectively within the hotel industry and replicated across sectors.
Challenges to program implementation were not confined to Hanoi. Like the rest of the world, the Alliance experienced the disruptions wrought by a global health crisis and national lockdowns. The hospitality industry was especially hard hit. Many hotels and restaurants were forced to shutter their doors and others froze new hiring, making new placements all but impossible. The Alliance also had to suspend in-person soft skills trainings indefinitely.
While no one could have predicted a global pandemic, the Alliance worked quickly to mitigate its impact on the project and more importantly, on the young people it supported. Almost immediately, the Alliance began outreach to students engaged in the employment program. These young people were provided mental health and professional counselling through one-on-one calls with trained staff from Alliance’s local partner, Kherwadi.
Moreover, the Alliance very quickly transitioned its soft-skills training to an online format to ensure students could continue learning even during the chaos and uncertainty of COVID. Further adapting to COVID challenges, the Alliance collaborated with GFEMS to find new practical skills training opportunities. Identifying industries where students’ soft skills readily transferred and where students could still gain relevant experience, the Alliance began offering placements in healthcare, food & beverage, housekeeping, and customer service. Though some students opted to defer placement until positions could be secured in the hospitality sector, many others readily engaged with these opportunities. Despite the disruptions caused by COVID, 68% of students who entered the Mumbai program in summer 2020 graduated by spring 2021. 74% had secured employment before leaving the program.
The Alliance’s youth employment program in Mumbai continues to thrive. The success of the program inspired two additional nonprofit organizations to partner with the Alliance last quarter to mobilize more students. Drop-out rates have steadily declined and students are increasingly asserting more agency in decisions about their futures. Placements may be taking a bit longer now, but it is no longer because of COVID. With enhanced knowledge and confidence, students are more aware of their options and waiting for the right employment opportunity.
“The training program has helped me to be a courageous and independent individual. I have a strong feeling that the things that I have learned in this training will help me to work towards building my career. I wish to work and make it to a higher position in a top-tiered hotel.”
In June, the Alliance publicly launched the curriculum that lies at the heart of its youth employment program. The core employability curriculum, developed with inputs from industry experts and education specialists, is designed to empower youth with relevant and transferable job skills. It is a free resource, for use by community and training organizations around the world. In supporting young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to build skills and confidence, the Alliance is opening sustainable employment pathways, and reducing vulnerability to abuse and exploitation.
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.
From Repatriation to Reintegration: Centering Survivors to Effect Systemic Change
Every year, approximately 50,000 girls and women are trafficked to India across Bangladesh’s western border. In India, they are forced to labor, sold into prostitution, or trafficked out to be exploited and abused in another country. Around 500,000 Bangladeshi women and children from 12-30 years old have been illegally trafficked to India in the last decade.
Despite a common understanding of the problem, efforts to eradicate trafficking and repatriate victims of modern slavery are failing thousands of women and girls. Communities in Bangladesh’s Khulna Division have proven especially vulnerable to trafficking. Situated at the border with India, Khulna Division is already a high-risk community with overpopulation, extreme poverty, and remoteness of location exacerbating these risks. Criminals are only emboldened by extremely low conviction rates for trafficking cases. Even when trafficking victims are identified in India, they languish in shelter homes for years before they are able to return home.
When survivors return to Bangladesh, they remain susceptible to re-trafficking. They are often ostracized by their communities or burdened with a social stigma that hinders recovery and reintegration efforts. These challenges, combined with a lack of employment and educational opportunities, leave survivors vulnerable to further exploitation. In a recent study, our implementing partner in Bangladesh found that 30% of the survivors they currently support had been trafficked multiple times before.
As has been seen across the globe, COVID-19 takes its heaviest toll on those who are the most vulnerable. In Bangladesh’s Khulna Division, there has been no exception. According to the US State Department’s most recent TIP Report, increasingly widespread job loss, wage cuts, and poverty in Bangladesh’s rural areas and urban slums due to the pandemic has forced some children into begging and commercial sex. In 2020, NGOs in Bangladesh reported traffickers lured victims with promises of “COVID-19 free” locations.
Justice and Care, an international nonprofit, has been supporting survivors, pursuing justice, and securing at-risk communities for over a decade. In partnership with GFEMS, Justice and Care is implementing programming in Bangladesh’s Khulna Division to provide trauma-informed and survivor-centric care, train border guards and law enforcement officials to identify and respond to cases of human trafficking, and build the capacity of government and aftercare service providers. In other words, we are working together to provide end-to-end support for survivors and to change the systems that enable human trafficking.
A holistic care model
Trafficking can take many forms and not all individuals experience trauma the same way. While working with governments and institutions to prevent further traumatization through timely and survivor-centric repatriations, Justice and Care remains focused on the individuals that experience trafficking and exploitation. When possible, the same caseworker that is introduced to a survivor in an Indian shelter supports and guides a survivor through repatriation and reintegration in Bangladesh. This individualized pairing helps establish trust between survivor and caseworker and supports a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of a survivor’s needs. In Bangladesh, a survivor is provided immediate shelter and psycho-social counseling while survivor and caseworker together draw up a longer-term individualized care plan.
Justice and Care have helped me in more ways than I can count. My family got grocery when we did not have any food during the lockdown, and I am also getting support in pursuing a case against my trafficker.
Reforming systems to achieve sustainable change
With survivors at the center of all of their programming, Justice and Care works with various stakeholder groups to ensure a coordinated and survivor-centric response to trafficking. Having piloted a successful initiative to train border guards on victim identification and care before partnering with GFEMS, GFEMS support enabled an expansion of this program. Over the last 12 months, more than 200 staff from Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) have been trained to identify, intercept, and refer victims of trafficking. As a result, 40 individuals have been intercepted and identified as victims by the BGB at the border and referred to Justice and Care.
Programming does not just target law enforcement, however. Justice and Care works to build the capacities of government stakeholders as well as aftercare service providers on both sides of the border. Supporting survivors even before their return to Bangladesh, Justice and Care is committed to reforming a repatriation process that can strand a survivor in an Indian shelter for up to six years. Victims of trafficking in India, when fortunate enough to escape exploitation and abuse, find that escape is just the first step in a long journey home. A complex and bureaucratic system prolongs the process as judges require survivors to stay in country until testimony is given or Bangladeshi officials stall in confirming a survivor is a Bangladeshi citizen. Survivors must gain approvals from police, border officials, social workers, and local and federal officials before they can be repatriated.
Survivors must be a voice in determining survivor care.
Their individual stories may differ, but survivors share a lived-experience of surviving a certain type of trauma and abuse that is essential to the development of effective trauma-informed survivor care programs. In partnership with GFEMS, Justice and Care conducted a Caregivers’ Empowered training session to prepare survivors for mentorship and counseling roles.
Since October 2020, these champion survivors have conducted mentoring sessions with 44 survivors. While providing information on services and care activities for newly repatriated victims, they also assess peers’ mental and physical health and work to address any challenges that survivors are confronting. In follow-ups with participants, “the recipient survivors reported that they felt the peer mentors had understood their problems perceptively, listened attentively and demonstrated empathy- that they felt better emotionally as a result of the session and all asked for ongoing sessions.”
India and Bangladesh have taken steps to speed up the repatriation process, but survivors still wait 18 to 22 months to return home. With an understanding of the traumatic effects of a prolonged shelter stay, Justice and Care is taking steps to expedite return and ensure survivors are repatriated within 12 months. They have forged partnerships with government officials, government-run institutions, and aftercare providers in India and Bangladesh.
Furthermore, they have convened bilateral repatriation stakeholders including Bangladeshi and Indian Rescue, Recovery, Repatriation, and Integration Task Forces to sensitize them to victim-centric and trauma-informed practices, including timely repatriations. They continue to advocate with the Ministry of Home Affairs to push through the adoption of the Standard Operating Procedures to shorten the timeline for repatriations, enhance cross-border coordination, and center survivors in the process. After a recent meeting with the Bangladeshi Ministry of Home Affairs and U.S. government officials, Justice and Care was invited to provide input into a training manual being developed by the US Department of Justice for law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh. Currently working with 44 referral partners in India including the Rescue, Recovery, Repatriation and Integration Task Force in Pune and West Bengal, UNODC, and the Department of Women and Child Development, Justice and Care is building a network of support that centers survivors from the point of first contact. In strengthening local capacities, they are also ensuring that that support is sustainable and scalable beyond program end.
This spring, Justice and Care hosted a special event for survivors. “Season of Wingspread” brought together 34 survivors to share their experiences and to recognize and celebrate what each had achieved towards stable recovery and reintegration. Until systems change and recovery and reintegration support is no longer needed, Justice and Care remains a model of care to replicate.
Raising Awareness and Centering Survivors: Anti-Trafficking Programming in Northern Vietnam
Stretching to include Vietnam’s northernmost point, Ha Giang is often referred to as Vietnam’s final frontier. Steeped in rugged mountains and grand landscapes, Ha Giang is an overwhelmingly rural province, and home to a large ethnic minority population. Its long porous border with China makes migration a way of life for many in the region. While high poverty rates and a reliance on low-margin agriculture spur migrants to cross the border, these conditions also leave many vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. The majority of people trafficked in Vietnam are from regions characterized by high rates of poverty and unemployment; they also disproportionately belong to ethnic minority groups.
In the remote villages of Ha Giang, risks are exacerbated by a general lack of awareness of trafficking across the province. Many respondents of a household survey conducted in the region understood trafficking as something that happened by force, by abduction or threat of violence. But traffickers are not often so bold. Case research in the same province revealed that the majority of trafficking survivors knew their traffickers before they were exploited, underscoring the importance of awareness-raising to anti-trafficking programming.
We partnered with two local civil society organizations, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation and Sustainable Hospitality Alliance (the Alliance), to implement comprehensive anti-trafficking programming in Vietnam, in Ha Giang province and Hanoi respectively. With an understanding of the particular vulnerabilities to trafficking in northern Vietnam, Blue Dragon and the Alliance developed programs that focused on prevention, survivor support, and deterrence. While providing support and resources for vulnerable individuals and communities, together, these programs also target the systems that enable trafficking in persons.
Lured by False Job Offers and Fake Marriages
The Vietnamese government estimates 90% of people trafficked from Vietnam are trafficked into China. Eighty percent are sexually exploited. In an analysis of court records from prosecuted trafficking cases in Vietnam, Blue Dragon found that deception was the most common recruitment strategy employed by traffickers. Over a third were lured by fraudulent job offers, 25% by false relationships, and another 25% by fake offers of marriage to Chinese men. “The main trick,” according to a member of a local NGO, “is ‘cheating or luring’ by pretending to build a relationship with victims gradually. Then traffickers trap victims by inviting them to hang out, go shopping at markets, trips near border areas, etc.” The overwhelming majority of these cases (97%) were for commercial sexual exploitation or forced marriage.
The main trick is ‘cheating or luring’ by pretending to build a relationship with victims gradually. Then traffickers trap victims by inviting them to hang out, go shopping at markets, trips near border areas, etc.
The More You Know: Raising Awareness of Trafficking Risks
To help raise awareness of the risks of trafficking and ultimately minimize those risks, Blue Dragon conducted a series of events across Ha Giang province, in collaboration with community stakeholders including village leaders, Women’s Union members, commune police officers, teachers and students. While screening at-risk households and providing support to at-risk individuals, Blue Dragon also led village-, community-, and school-based interventions to increase awareness. Each of these interventions explained the risks associated with irregular migration abroad, including sexual exploitation and forced labor. They also warned against actions, such as migrating without a contract or indebtedness before migration, that might increase one’s vulnerability. To raise awareness of support mechanisms should a case of trafficking be suspected, programming included guidance on who to contact and information on the anti-TIP hotline.
While targeted at prevention, these local interventions included a message of deterrence. The same analysis of court data revealed that traffickers commonly operate in the same impoverished and vulnerable communities as those they traffic. When confronting a lack of viable livelihood options, traffickers frequently act opportunistically, looking to escape their own desperate circumstances. By including an emphasis on the severity of the crime and the penalties that it can incur in its programming, Blue Dragon aimed also to deter would-be traffickers.
Raising Awareness, Decreasing Risk of Trafficking
Post-intervention surveys reveal that these efforts are making a difference. Generally, project findings show a positive relationship between being exposed to awareness-raising activities and understanding of trafficking risks and vulnerabilities. At baseline, for example, only 40% of migrant households in Meo Vac (an intervention district) reported migrating for work with a contract. At program end, 64% were more likely to migrate with a contract. Findings also demonstrate a significant rise in awareness of whom to contact with trafficking concerns, including the provincial anti-TIP hotline. At endline, 28% of respondents listed the hotline as a reporting mechanism versus just .04% at baseline. With a better understanding of the risks of trafficking, migrants are less at risk of exploitation.
Findings also demonstrate a significant rise in awareness of whom to contact with trafficking concerns, including the provincial anti-TIP hotline. At endline, 28% of respondents listed the hotline as a reporting mechanism versus just .04% at baseline. With a better understanding of the risks of trafficking, migrants are less at risk of exploitation.
A Focus on Survivor Support
Despite the heightened risk of trafficking in Ha Giang province, no trafficking survivors reported receiving reintegration support prior to Blue Dragon’s intervention. Across government, law enforcement agencies, and social service organizations, efforts to identify and provide survivor support remained fragmented, making it difficult for survivors to access needed services and resources. Blue Dragon worked with each of these stakeholders to strengthen channels of coordination and information-sharing and to implement the National Referral Mechanism –a cooperative framework through which trafficking victims are identified and referred for services- at the provincial level. Ha Giang authorities have since referred or directly provided reintegration support to thirty-five trafficking survivors, but the mechanisms put in place will ensure many future survivors receive the resources and support they need.
Beyond enhanced coordination, Blue Dragon supported a training program to better prepare social workers engaging directly with survivors. Commenting on the usefulness of the intervention, one program graduate shared, “We used to attend training on the local policies and regulations relating to trafficking in persons, but this is the first time ever we have been trained on how to work with survivors to support them effectively.”
This is the first time ever we have been trained on how to work with survivors and support them effectively.
Social workers trained through the Blue Dragon program were locally-based. The social workers, as well as the service providers involved in the program, understood the socio-economic conditions in each community and almost all were able to communicate with survivors in their native languages or dialects. While this ensured services were accessible to survivors, the program’s emphasis on survivor-centric support empowered survivors to choose services that best supported their individual needs, whether that be housing, healthcare, or vocational training. When survivors are given agency to determine their own paths forward, their freedom becomes more sustainable. 46 of 52 survivors supported by Blue Dragon were “successfully reintegrated,” meaning their risk of re-trafficking was significantly diminished, they were effectively managing their trauma, and building a sustainable new lifestyle.
The Significance of Survivor-Centric Programming
The Sustainable Hospitality Alliance (the Alliance) program similarly supported survivor reintegration by providing livelihood training, specifically by helping survivors develop skills necessary for work in the hospitality sector. As part of GFEMS anti-trafficking portfolio in northern Vietnam, the Alliance established a training program in Hanoi. Sixty-three percent of those who graduated from the program did in fact secure full-time employment in the hospitality sector. However, almost half of those who enrolled in the program did not graduate. Though disheartening, understanding this dropout rate is critical to building more effective interventions. The majority of students who discontinued the program lacked networks of peer support. Trainees, who were from rural provinces, including Ha Giang, had trouble adapting in Hanoi. This finding, combined with the positive response to Blue Dragon’s locally accessible programming, demonstrates the significance of tailoring programs to meet survivor needs. (From this learning, the Alliance and GFEMS shifted remaining funding to the Alliance’s programming in India.)
We partnered with Blue Dragon and the Alliance to combat trafficking in northern Vietnam. While programming directly impacted hundreds of individuals, many hundreds more will benefit from enhanced community awareness and improved social services. Moreover, lessons learned from these interventions will shape future interventions. From these programs, we can build stronger, more sustainable solutions to end trafficking in persons.
This article and the projects it references were funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State.
How GFEMS and Willow International are partnering to empower survivors, build resilience in Uganda
As a part of our partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, GFEMS is pleased to share the launch of our new project with Willow International. Coupled with other efforts in the portfolio, the Fund’s objective in this project is to build resiliency against exploitative recruitment among vulnerable populations in Uganda. This includes not only pre-labor migration support, training, and resources, but also rehabilitation and reintegration services for survivors, reducing their risk of re-trafficking.
Ethical recruitment is a key focus of the Fund’s efforts. Working within our intervention framework, we target reduction in supply of vulnerable individuals, demand for cheap goods and services, and the enabling environment that allows modern slavery to persist and traffickers to operate with impunity. This project specifically targets reduction of the supply of vulnerable individuals.
The project will expand a range of pre-migration and survivor services, including holistic survivor care services, legal support, and educational, vocational, and economic training and opportunities for survivors and at-risk individuals. These services aim to empower workers with the skills and resources they need to recognize risky employment situations and create sustainable livelihoods within their communities and families.
Willow’s trauma-informed survivor care program is a multi-faceted rehabilitation program helping survivors heal from trauma, be free from re-victimization, reconcile with family, and eventually reintegrate into the community. Willow will work with survivors to provide the tools and support necessary to learn a vocation, start a business, or pursue education to re-enter society as fully engaged
productive members. The survivor-led approach reintegrates survivors and at-risk individuals into the economic fabric of Uganda by providing a choice of alternative livelihood pathways, including connection to jobs in growth sectors.
Rehabilitation and reintegration for survivors is critical to sustainable success of anti-slavery interventions. It can have a ripple effect throughout the community – ending interlocking cycles of abuse, poverty, and exploitation.
GFEMS incorporates rigorous research and evaluation agendas into all of its programs. In our partnership with Willow in Uganda, we will:
- Measure the effectiveness of aftercare services in meeting the needs of survivors,
- Evaluate the impact of training and education on survivor participation in the economy and how the provided services decrease victims’ vulnerabilities to re-trafficking,
- Assess how Willow International’s Community-Based Care Program differs from traditional shelter-based models and how this affects the reintegration process for forced labor victims.
GFEMS looks forward to providing updates on this project and sharing our learnings with the anti-trafficking community. For updates on this project and others like it, subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.
This article and the Willow International project were funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State.
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Strengthening Justice for Survivors in India with STCI
Maharashtra has been one of the states hit hardest by COVID-19 in India. The pandemic has exacerbated many vulnerabilities, particularly for those experiencing poverty, including vulnerability to trafficking. As the pandemic continues, traffickers are adapting their methods, including the use of online methods, particularly in regards to the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC).
GFEMS is working to end impunity for traffickers and strengthen justice delivery for survivors.
With funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and working with Save The Children India (STCI), the Fund is addressing the enabling environment that allows trafficking to persist.
Working with a local NGO, GFEMS aims to ensure that the trafficking cases brought to trial are more efficiently resolved by interpreting the law in the spirit in which it was enacted, improving evidence examination, and ensuring the coordination of justice system actors.
GFEMS projects focus on sustainable solutions with impactful long-term outcomes. The STCI project is no exception. Long term success will be achieved by supporting a justice delivery system that is strengthened, sensitized, and coordinated, resulting in effective prosecution of traffickers. The project will also ensure that survivors have faith in the system, based on improved support and responsiveness of the courts and legal representatives. Specifically, STCI will build capacity and extend mentorship to government stakeholders and legal actors – prosecutors, judges, District Legal Services Authority legal aid lawyers, and paralegal volunteers – and extend legal counseling and assistance in court and police stations to survivors of CSEC. The training and mentorship are designed to increase sensitivity among judges toward victims, helping ensure that victims participate as an integral part of the justice delivery system.
In addition to a planned evaluation of intervention effectiveness, GFEMS plans to conduct learning activities to answer questions such as:
- What are critical aspects of the law that are left to judges’ interpretation that could be used in victims’ favor?
- How do victims perceive justice and the justice delivery process?
- Does the addition of a victim-centric lens in prosecutor training result in greater or more sustained victim participation in the prosecution process?
- If we train and give ongoing support to one specific arm of the anti-trafficking ecosystem (i.e., the justice system), does it contribute to reduced prevalence in the target geography?
GFEMS looks forward to sharing more information about this project as it is implemented, and is grateful for the support of the U.S. Department of State and the partnership of STCI.
This article and the STCI project were funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.
First Successful Implementation of the National Referral Mechanism in Ha Giang
In many cases, recovery and reintegration services by local or regional governments are not well enough equipped or lack the coordination needed to effectively provide services to survivors. However, capacity of local governments to provide survivor care is an essential part to systems change. Without it, survivors can be re-trafficked
In Ha Giang province, Vietnam, GFEMS supported Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation to develop a model for the implementation of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) at the local level, leading to significant improvements in victim identification and service delivery for the first time. As the Fund’s partner in Vietnam, Blue Dragon has assisted nine survivors and their families to access benefits from the NRM thus far.
NRM is a set of regulations that instructs government officials on how to identify and refer victims of trafficking to rehabilitation services and support survivors in receiving assistance and care. While the NRM is designed to ensure that victims of trafficking receive the support they require to overcome their trafficking experiences, reintegrate into the community, and avoid re-trafficking, fully implementing it has been a challenge across Vietnam.
Previous to the GFEMS and Blue Dragon intervention in Ha Giang, few victims were being identified and none had received financial assistance or support services for reintegration. Many victims returned to their communities without assistance and were unaware of how to seek victim support or services. Ha Giang, like many other provinces, faced difficulties in ensuring the interagency collaboration necessary to apply NRM policies. As part of the project, Blue Dragon aimed to support government partners in Ha Giang to develop an effective provincial level mechanism for implementation of the NRM policies.
With support from GFEMS, Blue Dragon and relevant government authorities, primarily the Department of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs (DoLISA) and the police, tested the NRM by applying it in one district of Ha Giang. Four survivors of trafficking who had recently returned from exploitation in China were identified. Local DoLISA staff worked with police to confirm the victims’ identities and experiences. After receiving their identity confirmation certificates, the province released an emergency assistance payment for each survivor as stipulated in the policy. The certificates also qualified each survivor for reintegration services, such as free vocational training, health care, and psychological care, should they choose to seek them.
After this initial success in one district, Blue Dragon collaborated with DoLISA to support NRM implementation throughout the entire province. Blue Dragon supported its government partners to develop a provincial-level mechanism for the local implementation of national referral mechanism policies, strengthen inter-agency information-sharing mechanisms, and institutionalize these within existing reporting structures. These efforts proved successful at building coordination among the anti-trafficking stakeholders involved, overcoming a significant barrier to the provision of effective support to survivors.
As a result of this collaboration and implementation of the NRM, 9 trafficking survivors were identified, referred, and received reintegration support from government sources during the project. The success of this intervention model provides a template for strengthening local systems for victim support and protection that can be scaled and replicated across other provinces in Vietnam and potentially beyond. It forms the basis of comprehensive survivor care, necessary for full systems change.
Read more on the Fund’s work.
This article and the Blue Dragon project were funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.
Navigating Repatriation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Bangladeshi Survivors with Justice and Care
In collaboration with the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), GFEMS has partnered with Justice and Care to address commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) of Bangladeshi women trafficked into India.
The project operates in the Khulna and Dhaka Divisions of Bangladesh, where women and families are extremely vulnerable to trafficking. Many are trafficked across the border into India, but receive intermittent or disjointed access to services while going through the repatriation process due to their foreign nationality. Justice and Care, which was established to focus on CSE and has worked extensively in India and Bangladesh, will provide expertise on navigating the Indian migration and justice systems in repatriating Bangladeshi victims.
Working collaboratively, the GFEMS-Justice and Care project is addressing these issues through four primary activities:
- Mapping the bureaucratic process of repatriation of victims from India to Bangladesh, working to improve efficiencies in the process and reduce overall time to bring survivors home.
- Working with NGO providers in India to ensure coordinated trauma-informed services for survivors, minimizing disruptions to the care plan and providing support throughout the repatriation process. Upon return to Bangladesh, Justice and Care will continue providing wraparound rehabilitation and reintegration services, supporting survivors on their path to self-sufficiency.
- Training service providers in the local Bangladesh community to support survivors after repatriation using trauma-informed systems and care.
- Working with extremely vulnerable families in the Khulna and Dhaka Divisions to prevent re-trafficking and provide alternatives for women considering risky migration.
The activities within this project align closely with the Fund’s approach to ending modern slavery. On the supply side, the project works with vulnerable families to reduce risk of trafficking due to financial shocks and provide adequate rehabilitation so that victims are not re-trafficked. To address the enabling environment, GFEMS is working with communities to accept survivors of trafficking and to combat the social stigma that can lead to victims being cast out of their communities, forcing a return to CSE due to lack of other options and support.
Along with other projects under the Norad partnership, GFEMS aims to gain significant learnings from this project, including the effectiveness of various rehabilitation techniques and services, an understanding of repatriation from India to Bangladesh, effectiveness of reintegration services, and more details on CSE rehabilitation in the Bangladeshi context.
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