Fighting Human Trafficking and Migrant Exploitation in Cyber Space
Winrock and partners are using digital tools and information sharing systems to thwart traffickers, protect migrants and expand access to support services.
In many countries around the world, people seek hope and improved livelihoods beyond their communities, even if it means leaving family and friends behind. They’ll migrate to earn remittances to send home: money for a grandparent’s operation, a sister’s school fees, or to help parents pay for food and housing.
Human traffickers prey on these aspirations. They lure people, including children, into forced labor, using violence, threats and financial coercion. They steal, destroy, or alter their victims’ documentation. As life increasingly shifts online during the COVID era, traffickers and their agents are lurking there, too, using social media platforms, mobile messaging apps, webcams and chatrooms to ensnare people seeking work.
While traffickers weaponize technology for exploitation, Winrock is collaborating with community-based organizations, private sector partners including information and technology firms, and governments intent on using technology to empower vulnerable populations to access economic opportunities. In Southeast and Central Asia ─ two regions with the highest rates of labor outmigration ─ Winrock and partners are employing tech-based solutions to reach laborers, prevent trafficking and expand access to information for people looking for work abroad, and grievance mechanisms for trafficking survivors.
Winrock is utilizing innovative technology solutions to counter trafficking-in-persons (CTIP) and promote safe migration through a variety of activities with partners in countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan, among others. Through USAID’s regional Asia CTIP and country-specific CTIP projects, as well as the Safe Migration in Central Asia activity, Winrock and partners are deploying tools to defend against traffickers and improve migrant workers’ safety.
“Technology resources, such as cell phone apps expand our ability to ensure that we can support vulnerable populations confronted with potentially unsafe work environments and false promises in their migration journey,” says Kelly Cronen, Winrock’s director of human trafficking and safe migration. “These technology solutions radically expand access to information supporting vulnerable persons who may not otherwise have access to resources.”
The USAID Asia CTIP project is partnering with Migrasia Global Solutions, for example, on a social media system operated by trained migrants empowered to assist fellow migrants with crucial information, referrals, and help gather evidence on recruiting agencies that exploit migrants. The system trains Filipino migrants to connect to reliable information online, using Facebook and TikTok, providing detailed information about costs as well as reparations for migrants or others defrauded by fake offers. Documentation is submitted to Philippines authorities who regulate recruiting agencies and have the power to order refunds. In 2022, Migrasia assisted migrants to obtain refunds for illegal recruitment fees totaling 975,000 Philippine pesos, or about $17,300.
Currently, Migrasia operates more than 20 Facebook pages with over 93,000 followers. In 2022, the system reached over 20,500 clients with in-person and online assistance. Facebook posts through June 2022 reached nearly 1.15 million users. Migrasia also keeps data including detailed complaints against unethical recruiting agencies who charge illegal fees to migrants seeking work. The documentation is supplied to law enforcement and authorities in both source and destination countries, leading to the arrests of people involved in an illegal recruitment scheme that exploited Filipino workers who are looking for work in Europe. In 2022, the system’s enforcement efforts resulted in the revocation of the licenses of several unethical money lenders and employment agencies.
“If you count their posts, that reach is almost … 1.5 million [people] ─ and that’s in roughly nine weeks,” says Ryan Yooprasert, a USAID Asia CTIP program officer in Thailand. Migrasia’s “work also led to the arrests of a few people who were operating an illegal recruiting scheme of migrants to Europe. Their staff are people from the migrant communities that have been empowered to be able to provide services in languages that migrants can understand, at a place they are already spending time: Facebook.”
Another USAID project, Thailand CTIP, project is making extensive use of technological tools, improving connectivity and communications between migrant workers, response groups, and government, to reduce the chances of exploitation and promote freedom of movement. The project partnered with Mars Petcare, the global pet food and nutrition company, and the Andaman Friendship Association, a community-based organization that advocates for fishers, to pilot several technologies helping to protect vulnerable workers from trafficking and exploitation.
One application available on Google Play, called Doc2Work, enables migrants to upload, store and share documents including visas, medical clearances and vaccination records, work permits, and other information. The app serves as a platform-based document storage system, which can help protect migrants from unscrupulous employers who may withhold hard copies of paperwork, making migrants more susceptible to exploitation. Without proof of documentation, migrants may face deportation, fines up to $10,000, and in some cases, may become detained. As of June 2022, the app accumulated 1,519 downloads with nearly 400 active users accessing it regularly. It includes resources to inform workers of their rights, benefits, reminders of needed document renewal dates, expected fees and costs associated with obtaining work and travel approvals.
The USAID Thailand CTIP project also worked with partners and the Thai government to test improved connectivity for fishers when at sea, including a vessel monitoring system that uses satellite-based text messaging to enable workers at sea to inexpensively send and receive texts from people on shore, including family members, nongovernmental organizations or authorities, if in need of support. The pilot was successful, and in late 2021, Thailand CTIP began scaling a program called Connectivity at Sea in partnership with Etneca and Nauticomm, two Thai firms, to support expanded chat applications and training on use of the systems from boats outside cellular signal range.
The Doc2Work app created by Diginex is modeled on SafeStep, a mobile app developed for use in Bangladesh and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to provide migrants with more access to resources and reliable information. It has been downloaded more than 5,000 times since its launch in 2020.
“SafeStep empowers workers by providing them with resources to think through the financial costs of migrating and the confidence to navigate their journey,” says Lauren Purnell, program manager with Winrock’s Human Rights, Education and Empowerment team. “There is a lot of misinformation about migration shared in person and online, so we wanted to provide an information source that migrants can trust, that is interactive and can be customized to their destination.”
SafeStep provides country-specific information through its chatbot and migration checklist, ensuring accessibility to all necessary documents, digitally. The program supports migrants through e-learning content offered in both English and Bengali. A chatbot connects users to a live operator for emergency services if needed and offers prompts for additional support services through a help center, which enables workers to ask questions, report abuse or file complaints.
The program, developed with funds from the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery in partnership with Winrock, ELEVATE and Diginex, provides support to workers migrating from Bangladesh to GCC countries including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Walt Disney Company and a private foundation have also provided funding for the program to expand into Malaysia and provide survey functionality of employers.
Former Secretary General of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies Shamim Ahmed Chowdhury Noman has expressed the need for embassies and destination countries to adopt the SafeStep app, citing what he called “digitalization in the entire migration sector” as the key to ending migrant exploitation.
In Central Asia, the SMICA activity is working to disrupt unsafe migration by collaborating with partners to create a website and Telegram (a multi-platform messaging service) chatbots for use in the Kyrgyz Republic and Uzbekistan. In partnership with the Kyrgyz government, SMICA helped to update a website administered by the Ministry of Labor’s Center of Citizen Employment abroad, www.migrant.kg, which now serves as a reliable, multifaceted resource for workers to connect to authorized employment agencies, find information about legal migration to destinations including Russia and South Korea, and learn about laws and regulations that prevent trafficking.
The site connects to a government telephone hotline, as well as real-time communication through Telegram and WhatsApp networks, resulting in the identification and referral of trafficking cases. The site has become the government’s third-most used, with up to 4,000 unique visitors daily, and is accessed by Kyrgyz migrants from many locations in the world.
In Uzbekistan, Winrock initiated the Salom Migrant Bot in cooperation with the Uzbekistan Sub-Commission on CTIP. The Telegram system acts as a virtual consultant on migration and trafficking, helping migrants to gain a better understanding of their rights and obligations for obtaining employment and housing abroad. It also provides hotline numbers to report suspected TIP directly to law enforcement. Within days of its launch in 2021, the chatbot was used to report several cases of TIP in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. So far, Salom Migrant has been accessed more than 300,000 times for various services.
The SMICA project also makes extensive use of social media outlets to expand awareness of trafficking, holding online regional “flash mob” campaigns around international observance days like the United Nations’ World Day Against Trafficking In Persons (WDATIP) each July and International Migrants’ Day in December. The campaigns are effective. During the 2021 WDATIP event, for example, SMICA saw a 35% increase in the number of calls made to the hotline.
Winrock and partners are harnessing the power of technology, improved connectivity, and information-sharing resources and tools to combat TIP and better protect migrant workers. These tools are empowering the world’s increasingly mobile workforce to maintain control of their circumstances, plug into safety nets if needed, more rapidly report trafficking and fraud, and knowledgeably manage their migration and employment journeys – from beginning to end.