Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

More than catch phrases and click bait: mutual learning as a tactic for combating the exploitation of migrants

Anti-trafficking campaigns are more concerned with generating clicks than with taking effective action against exploitation. Awareness campaigns must be grounded in the lived experiences and perspectives of their target audience.

Borislav Gerasimov
20 June 2019, 9.09pm
Work in the community: pre-departure training for women potential migrants in Bangladesh, 2014.

This is a response to the above debate.

Many public awareness-raising campaigns targeting human trafficking are simplistic by design, since they are oriented towards the largest possible audience. This simplification can result in misleading messages or comical outcomes. In one example from 2015, a campaign in Bulgaria aimed to inform people about human trafficking and exploitation in the agricultural sector in Western Europe. The campaign materials appeared to offer lucrative jobs abroad picking fruit and urged the audience to call a hotline if they thought these job offers were suspicious.

While a flashy, catchy campaign can sometimes reach a lot of people, it may ultimately generate very few meaningful reactions.

The unintended effect of this campaign was that callers to the hotline were interested in signing up for the advertised jobs and were upset to find out the real purpose of the campaign. In another example from 2007, a campaign in the Czech Republic urged clients of sex workers to report suspected instances of forced prostitution. According to the campaign evaluation report, a quarter of callers to the advertised hotline thought that it was offering sexual services.

Awareness-raising – or the less pompous ‘information provision’ – is undoubtedly necessary. As David Feingold noted in his contributionto this debate, “good information does not guarantee good choices; however, [a] lack of information often guarantees bad choices”. Most awareness-raising campaigns nowadays – whether developed by NGO staff or marketing agencies – do not appear to be pre-tested to determine whether and how the target group understands them. This lack of engagement with the target audience can be a major problem: while a flashy, catchy campaign can sometimes reach a lot of people, it may ultimately generate very few meaningful reactions, as the above examples demonstrate. Donors are partly to blame for this, as they typically view reaching a high number of people as the only indicator of ‘success’.

Raising the awareness of awareness-raisers

And how ‘raised’ is the awareness of awareness-raisers? Awareness-raising should be based on mutual learning, since trafficked persons and potential migrants can teach NGOs and service providers as much as they can learn from them. Listening to the target groups, understanding their motivations, pressures, and personal constraints can go a long way in raising the awareness of NGO staff of the issues they are working on. Conversely, for NGOs, going into communities, engaging in discussions with prospective migrants as equals, and providing them with the right information in a non-judgmental way can be far more constructive for preventing exploitation. However, this type of work is not glamorous and doesn’t generate clicks, media attention, or funds.

Through our participation in the ILO’s ‘work in freedom’ project, GAATW is working with women and girls in selected source communities in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh to support them in making informed decisions about their labour migration. We also aim to enhance the capacity of community workers who interact with migrating women at the pre-decision and pre-departure stage.

Despite all the attention paid to trafficking and its prevention in the region, we notice that community workers are woefully underpaid and under-resourced. The money spent on large-scale awareness campaigns may therefore be better spent on supporting front-line workers who are in constant contact with the target group, and who are in fact engaging in mutual learning awareness raising programmes. If we can ensure that the observations, insights and questions of frontline workers are regularly analysed and next action steps are planned on the basis of those analyses, awareness raising can be based on equality, mutual learning, and respect.

Research, collective analysis, and advocacy

Awareness-raising campaigns also rarely target any broader socio-economic issues or systemic conditions that make people vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation in the first place. These can only be understood and addressed through research and advocacy grounded in the concerns of the affected groups and with their active participation in the process. GAATW employs the principles of a feminist participatory action research methodology, which prioritises women’s lived experiences and sparks action for change through collective analysis. For example, in South Asia, sensationalistic media reports of trafficking – as well as awareness-raising campaigns, for that matter – have prompted governments to restrict women’s migration to work as domestic workers in the Middle East.

These restrictions are primarily justified as a measure to prevent trafficking. However, in our research with ILO in Nepal, women told us that they still migrate. Now they only use irregular and more dangerous channels, which expose them to higher risks of trafficking and abuse. This research has provided GAATW, the ILO and Nepali partners with evidence to advocate for the removal of the restrictions on women’s migration – with some success. Similarly, our research among exploited Cambodian workers in Thailand revealed that lack of information about the constantly changing labour migration policies in Thailand was the main reason why so many end up enduring exploitative working conditions and avoid seeking justice or support.

To reduce a person’s journey to a catchy phrase and an image defeats the intended purpose of benefiting that person

This research has in turn enabled GAATW to mobilise Thai service providers and together come up with an outreach brochure for Cambodian workers and an advocacy plan targeting the governments of Thailand and Cambodia. It also reconfirmed that the persisting economic challenges and democratic deficiencies in both countries exacerbate workers’ vulnerability. We realise that we cannot directly address the entire system of government, but it is nonetheless hugely important to incorporate a systemic picture into our work.

Catch phrases and click bait cannot be an effective solution

Listening to the stories of trafficked persons, migrants, or people who are considering migrating reveals a very complex decision-making process that simply doesn’t lend itself to the generalisations and simplifications upon which most awareness-raising campaigns typically rely. To reduce a person’s journey to a catchy phrase and an image defeats the stated purpose of benefiting that person.

The ultimate aim of awareness campaigns is to reduce or prevent trafficking and exploitation. Given all their flaws and limitations, the money used for awareness-raising campaigns may be much more efficiently spent on smaller-scale direct work in communities, as well as on research and collective advocacy for change. NGOs can play a catalytic role in this process if they strive to go beyond generating clicks and return to grassroots, bottom-up approaches.

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