With support from Winrock and an expanding range of engaged governments and private partners, trafficking survivors globally are creating and leading a new generation of community-based networks, connecting, and drawing strength from their own bitter experiences to help protect vulnerable people in their communities and counter the malign influence of human traffickers.
Survivors are becoming champions in the fight against trafficking, sharing information, building awareness and contributing their energy, advice and insight to blunt the exploitative tactics used by perpetrators. Though inroads have been made over the past two decades, trafficking remains a huge problem, worldwide, affecting more than 40 million people each year, according to the International Labour Organization’s global estimate on modern slavery.
Across South and Central Asia, initiatives like the Leadership for Change (LfC) program, implemented by Winrock through the USAID and UK aid-supported Hamro Samman (“Our Dignity”) project in Nepal, are empowering survivors not only to recover and reintegrate, but to actively become part of the solution.
Winrock supports the development of a 10 Year Action Plan for Survivor Leadership. #survivorslead @empwrsurvivors #EndTrafficking #saworldcongress #survivorsleadingthenextdecade #HumanTrafficking https://t.co/UxMYb12Q7X
— Winrock International (@WinrockIntl) July 29, 2021
The evolution and impact of survivor networks is lending momentum to a new, global effort to expand the international survivors’ movement, at the inaugural Survivor Alliance 2021 World Congress. The event, in which Winrock will participate, coincides with the United Nations’ World Day Against Trafficking in Persons 2021 (July 30th), and is being organized by ── and for ── trafficking survivors. The goal of the expanded global alliance is to increase survivor leadership, equip survivors to engage in trans-national collaborations, and expand opportunities for allies to engage with survivors as peers.
The approach adopted by Hamro Samman’s LfC program illustrates the shift to supporting those who have been trafficked, developing and capitalizing on the leadership potential and remarkable resilience of people who have experienced the trauma of trafficking, and now want to contribute their knowledge and action to make sure it doesn’t happen to others.
The LfC training program builds on survivors’ strengths and talents to hone leadership and build networking skills. With support from partner civil society organizations and micro-grants from Hamro Samman, LfC participants help to organize anti-trafficking awareness and other events with local government and civil society representatives across the country. These leaders are powerful communicators, speaking from direct experience about common vulnerabilities as well as new drivers and dimensions associated with the COVID-19 context, which have exacerbated trafficking vulnerabilities as employment opportunities at home are stifled, contributing to economic desperation. COVID is also dramatically affecting and complicating migration policies, as national lockdowns and border closures make it even more difficult for people who have been trafficked to escape or extricate themselves from dangerous situations. LfC participants have also become effective advocates for the development and enforcement of new government policies, services and other needed interventions to reduce human trafficking in Nepal.
In nearby Bangladesh, a survivors’ network that Winrock helped to start nearly a decade ago through the USAID Action for Combatting Trafficking in Persons (ACT) project has since evolved into an established group known as Anirban, or “the flame that never dies.” The ACT program, a predecessor of the USAID Bangladesh Counter-Trafficking in Persons (BCTIP) activity (2014-2021), worked collaboratively in 34 districts to empower survivors of trafficking and those at risk of being trafficked. Today, Anirban groups are sustaining that work, with survivors taking the lead to help others build self-confidence and identity, while raising awareness about human trafficking and advocating for survivors’ rights. Based on priorities identified by Anirban, under the newly awarded USAID Fight Slavery and Trafficking activity (2021 – 2026) activity, Winrock will strengthen survivor groups’ organizational capacity, supporting them to become a nationally registered, self-sustaining organization that will give voice to survivors for years to come.
Anirban groups are elevating issues and concerns in local communities to engender a positive attitude toward survivors, changing public perception and stigmatization of trafficked people as victims. Group members facilitate sessions in schools and madrassas on safe migration, conduct interactive meetings with journalists, local government and civil society organizations, provide leadership and training to other survivors, and promote human rights, women’s rights and “safe migration days” in their own communities.
Survivors are also designing and implementing their own plans and programs to make a difference in their communities. Saiful Islam, an active Anirban participant, grew up the youngest of seven children in a community in Rangpur District, Bangladesh. He took advantage of a series of livelihoods training opportunities through BCTIP that enabled him to get back on his feet after a broker defrauded him, causing him to sell his land and pour his savings into what he believed to be a legitimate opportunity to obtain an electrician’s job in Singapore ── only to be trapped there for a year and forced to labor as a mason, for which he was never paid.
Saiful is one of the lucky ones; he ultimately made it home. Today, as a member of Anirban, he conducts personal outreach to other survivors and vulnerable people in his community, using his experience as a cautionary tale at community meetings and schools to inform audiences about trafficking prevention, and sharing strategies to ensure safe migration. He also speaks to families about the risks of child marriage and how it interrupts education, providing specifics on why it is illegal in Bangladesh. In some cases, when families with whom he interacts are in crises due to entanglements with traffickers or suspected traffickers, Saiful puts them directly in touch with services, using his knowledge of community-based referrals to social and support programs. Visiting homes in person, he listens, empathizes and helps to develop practical alternatives and solutions for impacted families, all from the point of view of someone who has been through it.
After the onset of the COVID pandemic in early 2020, Saiful joined with BCTIP and local government administrators to make and distribute facemasks, and to identify families that needed urgent relief. Even more impressively, he used his own money to start a fund of BDT 15,000 (almost $200) to support vulnerable families. His motivation is driven in part by the memory of his difficult transition home — a process that has become even more challenging for survivors due to travel restrictions resulting from the pandemic. He wants to spare others this pain, and to help the most vulnerable.
“As long as I am alive,” he says, “I will try my best to help them.”
As survivors like Saiful and others engage, share, and act, they are attracting new supporters and expanding the range of services available for prevention and response.
In early 2021, Winrock’s Ashshash (“Assurance”) project, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Bangladesh, teamed up with a private sector firm to provide COVID relief to trafficking survivors. Later, Ashshash and a local organization, INCIDIN Bangladesh, collaborated on the country’s first National Referral Mechanism Road Map, designed to expand and coordinate services for trafficking survivors. As part of the initiative, survivors are working with the Bangladesh Ministry of Home Affairs and other organizations to establish prevention and service protocols between agencies, promote the use of service directories, identify skill-building and alternative livelihood opportunities, and convene joint advocacy meetings.
In addition to gains made by survivors through projects like Hamro Samman and Ashshash, informal Survivors’ Forums in Cambodia are achieving similar outcomes, providing new opportunities for survivors to find and secure livelihoods and to access services, offering support and a fresh start.
The USAID Cambodia CTIP project, first implemented by Winrock from 2015-2020 and now in its second, 5-year iteration, has helped nearly 2,000 stranded migrants return home, working with local partners to assist with food, medical treatment and counseling as they reintegrate. Survivors’ Forums facilitated by Cambodia CTIP offer invaluable avenues for returnees to network, and to share ideas and information. At one such forum, a Cambodian fisherman who was trafficked and forced to work on a Thai fishing vessel met his future wife, a Cambodian woman who was trafficked along with her mother in domestic servitude in Malaysia. Their story is a testament to the restoration of hope that is possible through survivor engagement and advocacy networks.
Accessing opportunities to join survivor networks is now recognized as an important element of successful reintegration, critical to helping traumatized and vulnerable returnees to heal and develop agency.
A first-of-its-kind study conducted by the Institute of Development Studies in partnership with the USAID Asia CTIP, implemented by Winrock, identified survivors’ own definitions of successful reintegration, examining experiences among trafficking survivors in order to understand what they think constitutes successful reintegration, and what they feel could best support them in their journeys. The study revealed that basic material survival (food, clothing, shelter) and reconnecting with family are of paramount importance.
But it also noted that “Many survivors spoke about hopes such as the desire to find work that is meaningful, to build their own businesses in such a way as to improve their communities, and to create societal changes so that trafficking happens less and is less stigmatized.” The report presents evidence and opinions from survivors, themselves, about the most effective support systems and approaches to reintegration, rather than from the perspective of service providers. The research by Asia CTIP, as well as other studies the project has conducted with partners, including one that examines misconceptions and assumptions in TIP data, are helping to inform implementation of counter-trafficking projects and to ensure that survivors are empowered.
The approach is working, as survivors become increasingly empowered and encourage others in their communities to get involved, connect and link to services that enable them move forward and help to prevent others from falling into trafficking traps.
Madina, a Kyrgyz citizen and trafficking survivor who tapped legal aid and other services through the USAID Safe Migration in Central Asia (SMICA) activity, said it’s important for survivors to share their experiences and to help others understand the risks associated with seeking work in a foreign country, before it’s too late.
Madina, (whose name was changed to protect her identity,) shared elements of her survivor journey in a story in USAID Publications Exposure: “There are many Kyrgyz migrants. All of them are vulnerable, especially now (during COVID),” Madina said. “I would encourage them to contact helplines, NGOs, and lawyers. I got help … others might, too.”
Survivors like Madina, many of them women and economically vulnerable migrants, are rising, speaking up, and reaching out, drawing on their own hard-won knowledge to ensure that others are not ensnared.
As they connect with each other, they are finding new allies and supporters among both the private and public sectors, becoming part of a formidable new wave of anti-trafficking advocates that the United Nations, other policymakers and survivors themselves increasingly see as a critical component of the strategy to reduce and ultimately eradicate the scourge of trafficking.