Recently widowed and with a newborn baby, Pannha* left her home in Cambodia to work in Malaysia – where she was promised a job in a sewing factory. When she arrived, however, she was given an umbrella, a bag and a metal bowl, and brought to the market.
The job she was promised, never materialised. Instead, she was told to beg for money or be sent to jail with her baby.
Each day, Pannha asked strangers for a few coins. While she made a significant amount from begging, she was unable to keep the money as her broker ordered her to pay back the cost of transportation to markets, housing, electricity, food, bowl, umbrella, bag, water supply and the rest for paying debt. When she was able to escape, eventually, she returned to Cambodia. But her life did not improve. She was a victim of human trafficking, and her life is in no better condition than when she left two years earlier.
Over the last 15 years, this type of story has been repeated over and over. Young people continue to be persuaded to work in richer countries. When they arrive, the jobs promised to them never materialise. Instead, they are forced into jobs they didn’t want or didn’t sign up for. In these jobs, they face violence, extremely difficult working conditions and exploitation.
It’s a sad admission that the problem hasn’t ended, despite the millions of dollars that have been poured into anti-trafficking work in the Greater Mekong Sub-region for well over a decade.
So what has been working?
Unfortunately, it’s hard to say. To date there has been no substantial evidence to demonstrate the impact of the collective effort of prevention work on anti-trafficking. The approach, to date, to stop human trafficking has been mostly built on assumptions.
With this in mind, World Vision undertook a rigorous quantitative survey to find answers, test our approach, and to build the much-needed evidence to guide future prevention work. Our anti-trafficking teams in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, with the technical support of a leading international research university, interviewed 10,000 children, youth and adults to find out why children and young people continue to be at risk of human trafficking.
What this research study revealed is that the majority of children and youth already know how to migrate safely. They know they should have their passports or national identity cards with them when they travel. Yet, many are not doing this. For instance, only 37 per cent of Cambodian children and youth migrated with the proper identity documents, and even fewer left copies of these identity documents at home with their family members.
The research also found that more Laotian and Cambodian young people are migrating for work than their counterparts from Myanmar and Vietnam. These young people in Laos and Cambodia are unlikely to consult their parents before making a decision to work in another country.
Young people were also aware of the negative experiences that could be associated to migrating for work. In fact, a third of all children and youth who had previously migrated for work said they had endured at least one of the following negative experiences: excessive working hours, debt used a form of control by the employer, withholding of wages by the employer, physical or mental abuse, or dangerous working conditions. Among Cambodian children and youth, one out of three who migrated had endured at least one of these negative experiences.
Yet despite these findings, surprisingly, the majority of children and youth were able to send money to home to their families. And herein lies the key motivating factor. For many young people migrating for work, money is what matters. If young people can send money home, they’ve succeeded in their mission; the negative experiences they endure are collateral damage.
With the Asian Development Bank reporting the gap between rich and poor continuing to expand in the Greater Mekong Region, the poor are getting more desperate to find better work opportunities – whether at home or abroad. What’s more, immigration restrictions in this region make it hard for low-skilled workers to migrate legally for work. And while good anti-trafficking laws do exist across the region, sadly they are not applied everywhere or are not adequately enforced or resourced, so that children and youth are not adequately protected.
In 2013, the International Organization for Migration estimated that 3 million to 5 million people in the Greater Mekong Region migrate for work. While it may be lofty to dream of human trafficking ending, there are things that can be done to decrease the risk.
In World Vision’s regional anti-trafficking work, we’ve moved from trying to scare young people about the dangers of trafficking to empowering them with knowledge about ways to stay safe if they decide to migrate. Our team in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar work with thousands of young people to ensure the region’s youth know how to applying for and protect proper travel and work documents. We help youth identify potentially risky work opportunities. We advise young people to know at least one trustworthy companion during the journey and at their destination and make sure they know who to call for help.
This research study shows us that this approach is working.
But it also tells us that we as an anti-trafficking community need to take a wider lens to this issue by addressing greater societal gaps and economic inequalities.
And for this – we know that organisations cannot act alone.
Domestically, the governments should provide easier systems that provide the low-cost passports and work permits in a timely manner. With this in place, more young people will be able to access documents that can protect them and allow them to work legally in destination countries. It is important that the government sign MoUs with the destination countries to protect the migrants well in advance when they need help. At the destination countries, countries that receive migrants should also have the ability to count all workers, regardless of citizenship, and ensure that labour rights are extended to everyone.
For communities and for the public, increased understanding about the importance of education is crucial. Parents need to put their children’s education ahead of the desire to increase income after children finish primary school. Through the research study, we have learned the value of both formal and informal education – including child and youth clubs – ensures awareness of human trafficking and its main risks. Through informal education, communities should understand how to migrate safely and be able to identify some of the tricks of traffickers so that they can be more knowledgeable before they choose to leave home.
Furthermore, the government should ensure services provided by both embassies and consulates in migration destination countries ensure help is available for migrants facing hard times. Embassies and consulates should offer support such as transportation and temporary safe accommodation, especially for those who escape from abuse and exploitation.
Like Pannha, we all want to improve our living conditions. But for those with very limited options, many will continue to take the risk of unsafe migration despite the potential of harm. The responsibility to protect migrant workers and their family members from exploitation must be shared by governments, civil society organisations and citizens. We need to address the underlying structures that perpetuate and allow exploitation. We need to do better.
*Name changed to protect identity
John Whan Yoon is the regional manager for End Trafficking in Persons, World Vision East Asia.