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Winrock International

Keeping Migrants Safe

“I decided to go to Malaysia because I was desperate,” says Chantrea Soun, a mother of four in the Kampong Cham province of Cambodia. Soun and her family were living with her aunt in a small village near a rubber plantation, just scraping by. Soun’s husband, Kiry (names have been changed), made a meager living working on a cashew farm. When Soun heard she could make up to $300 a month working in a factory in Malaysia, she took the chance. Her stay in that country, harrowing though it was, ended before the pandemic. Many have not been so lucky.

COVID-19 has closed borders, reduced air travel and disrupted life around the globe. It has been especially difficult for migrants, those trapped far from home in countries where they can no longer work but cannot leave. As the U.S. government’s largest implementer of counter-trafficking work, Winrock has made the safety and security of migrants a top priority. Since the pandemic erupted, Winrock has pivoted its work to concentrate on ensuring that migrants have the food, shelter and sanitary supplies they need and on amplifying important public health messages to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The USAID Asia Counter Trafficking in Persons (Asia CTIP) project, implemented by Winrock, instituted COVID-19 rapid-response webinars for frontline organizations to share news and responses to the pandemic. Winrock’s USAID Cambodia Countering Trafficking in Persons (Cambodia CTIP) project is supporting returned migrants, supplying emergency food and hygiene provisions and helping simplify COVID-19 prevention strategies so they will be more readily understood and implemented.

In Bangladesh, members of a trafficking survivor group have played a major role in identifying trafficking victims in need of livelihood support, and one trafficking survivor who changed his life by starting an electronics shop has supported 14 trafficking survivors and their families with food and hygiene items during the pandemic. The USAID Bangladesh Counter Trafficking in Persons (Bangladesh CTIP) project, together with partner organizations, distributed more than 100,000 packages of COVID-19 educational materials, and then coordinated with local counter-trafficking committees to identify survivors living in remote rural villages so they can receive relief packages from the government.

The USAID Thailand Counter Trafficking in Persons (Thailand CTIP) project, a Winrock-implemented project that works with vulnerable migrants in the agriculture, construction and fishing sectors, had already produced a toolkit geared toward organizations and agencies serving migrant workers and victims of trafficking. In response to the pandemic it added a section of information on COVID-19 just for migrants, focusing on the need for knowledge in the face of the disease.

As for Soun, her life has improved since she returned from Malaysia. The motorcycle she received through Cambodia CTIP allows her to sell vegetables and earn a small income to better feed her family. She and Kiry can’t yet afford to buy land, but they are working toward that goal. When asked how she feels about her trafficking ordeal, Soun’s answer is simple: “My feeling is that I don’t want to leave anymore.”