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How can human trafficking front line responders use technology?

by Hannah Thinyane | UN University
Tuesday, 30 May 2017 13:37 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Victims are often kept in physical, emotional and digital isolation – think of workers who toil on'slave boats' for years at sea as an example

Experts have touted 2017 as a potential “tipping point in the global battle against human trafficking and modern slavery”. They have claimed that amongst others, technology and data collection are two important tools in this fight. For technology and data collection to be useful to front line responders, we must first understand how they currently identify victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, as well as what technologies they have access to and use on a regular basis. By understanding these different factors, we can ensure that any innovations that are developed are firmly rooted within front line responders' daily practices, rather than as an additional step that they have to take, in their already busy work schedules.

The United Nations University Institute on Computing and Society (UNU-CS) is collaborating with the Mekong Club on a piece of research that aims to understand how technology can be used to empower workers in situations of human trafficking and modern slavery, to enhance their agency.This research is interested in looking at ways that technologies such as mobile phones can be used to allow workers to self-identify as being in a situation of human trafficking or modern slavery.

In April, UNU-CS and Mekong Club undertook a series of focus groups in Thailand to understand the way that front line responders identify victims, as well as the problems they found with these methods. These focus groups were held with a wide range of stakeholders, including inter-governmental organizations, regional and local NGOs, government officials, and most importantly migrant workers who had been in vulnerable situations. In response to a suggestion about the potential use of a mobile-phone based simple question list, asking victims about their current situation, one focus group participant said that a benefit of this kind of technology is that “[the victims] need someone to help them think logically, especially when traffickers are feeding them the opposite”. By having multiple translations of the question list available in audio format on the front line responders' mobile phones, the aim is that it can bridge language barriers that are widespread in migrant worker communities.

This technology is specifically designed for front line responders' mobile phones, rather than migrant workers themselves. As Silvia Mera, Project Director at the Mekong Club explains, “the Thai NGOs we spoke to all confirmed that victims are often kept in physical, emotional and digital isolation – think of workers who toil on'slave boats' for years at sea as an example. Most workers don’t have access to technology as their mobile phones are taken away, or they only manage to keep simple phones that are easier to hide”. The tools is aimed to help with the initial screening phase of victim identification, to allow workers to identify themselves as in need of help, from the channels that are available already.

UNU-CS and the Mekong Club aim to finalize development of this simple technology, and pilot it later in 2017 with a broad range of front line responders.

Hannah Thinyane is principal research fellow at the United Nations University Institute on Computing and Society in Macau, China.