Combating Trafficking Through Technology

Nusrat Jahan Pritom

18 April, 2019 12:00 AM printer

Combating Trafficking Through Technology

Technology is both a blessing as well as a curse. It depends on the minds of the human beings who are using it. Take the example of an app which was created to combat modern day slavery. Mekong Club and the United Nations University Institute on Computing and Society (UNU-CS) have jointly come up with a brilliant idea to combat this curse of mankind by using technology. The app called ‘Apprise - Victim ID’ is the first of its kind and aims to enhance front-line responders’ (FLRs) screening of potential trafficking victims. Front-line responders are those individuals working on the ground on victim identification, such as NGO workers, law enforcement officials and social auditors. By “enhancing” it is meant that the app is a tool developed to increase frequency, inclusivity, confidentiality and consistency of screening - with the objective of increasing human trafficking victim identification so that more victims can have access to justice.

You might ask why identifying the victim is important? To begin with, think of the scenario of the victim as a girl from some remote village in our country trafficked to an unknown destination in Thailand! The girl who has not even been anywhere from her hometown, not even in Dhaka, suddenly finds herself among the wrong people in a land where neither she knows anybody nor understands the language! And it is not only from our country but every year thousands of people get trafficked from Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Bhutan, Vietnam, etc. According to statistics, around 45.8 million people are modern day slaves, 30 million of which are in Asia alone. The number of people who enter slavery every year is 9.2 million; that’s 25,000 per day, 1000 per hour, 1 in every four seconds. The number in Bangladesh is 1.5 million, close to 1% of the population. Identification of trafficking victims is crucial for the fight against this global issue. Besides the humanitarian aspect, identification is pivotal from a legal standpoint. International law provides victims of crime with a fundamental right of access to justice. If trafficked victims are not quickly and accurately identified, they cannot be rescued from exploitation and, if they are not rescued, they cannot exercise their rights. Moreover, identification provides investigative opportunity, namely to gather intelligence and evidence with which to investigate and detain the exploiters. This is particularly important in the context of human trafficking, where only 0.8% of total prosecutions end up with convictions (TIP report, 2016). Yet, identification of victims does not even hit the 1% mark, according to a report by Mekong Club.

“The idea for the Apprise App came from private manufacturing companies that felt that a tool was needed to allow factory auditors to be able to interview international workers who did not speak their language,” said Matt Friedman, an international human trafficking expert and CEO of the Mekong Club. “Because migrants that come from other countries are more vulnerable to be exploited, the app helps audit companies to communicate with workers to find out if there are any work related issues. This tool can significantly help to identify labor-related problems faced by these workers.”


Identifying the victim has never been an easy case, not even for the responders. To begin with, the victims may not be familiar to the language. Under such cases, how could she talk about her problem? As said earlier, it so happens that victims of slavery are often migrants who do not speak the language of the destination country. If they are approached by a front-line responder, but no translation service is available at that time, they are likely to lose the only opportunity they have to be identified and thus be deprived of their right to access justice. Mekong Club shared a report of a survey conducted with over 200 auditors which uncovered that 71% of them select workers for screening based on the language capability, and an overwhelming majority (95%) stated that they speak one or two languages at most. When investigating manufacturing facilities where the workforce speaks a variety of languages, which is common in Southeast Asia, auditors would not be able to ensure inclusivity of workers screening.


Sometimes, there may be an interpreter in the scene. But the victim may not be able to trust him! During field research, trafficking victims shared that they can’t trust a translator provided by an employer. If we picture ourselves in their shoes, we can understand why! It must be very daunting to confide to a complete stranger though he may be an interpreter! When there is a lack of trust between each party, it is likely to be difficult to assess workers’ vulnerability in their working condition. Last but not least, there is fear of reprisal. Victims are often not interviewed alone but either in groups, near to their managers and supervisors, or know they are being watched (especially in cases of sex trafficking or forced begging), so they will not talk to strangers and share their stories for fear of being punished. During field research, a female worker who used to work in seafood processing factory shared that she used to work in the factory for 6 years doing over 4 hours of overtime a day but never got compensated for it. She was told by her employer to lie to labour inspectors, and the employer would always be there to listen to what she said. She shared she wished the labor inspector could use a mobile app such as Apprise when visiting factories, so that no one could hear her answers, or track the answers back to her, since the data collected by the app is anonymous. She said, “No one wants to get in trouble by telling the truth but they all need help.” Lack of consistency is another factor here. There are often differences among the screening questionnaires and vulnerability indicators used by different groups and this sometimes leads to confusion and wrong interpretation of the situation. Moreover, questionnaires used to screen workers’ interviews within manufacturing premises often do not include specific questions on labour exploitation: only 13% of survey responders claimed that they collect information regarding indicators of forced labour, such as child/juvenile labour, debt bondage and threats and violence.


For all these reasons, Apprise app is a great app that can revolutionize the scene. Not only does it help the victims, it also helps the rescuers to help the victims. Sometimes, that is also extremely important! With all that said, how does the app actually work? The app is downloaded on the front-line responder’s phone. The front-line responder then chooses the questionnaire that best suits the context. The phone is handed to the person who is being interviewed, who can pick his own language – using flags as symbols. A series of ‘yes/no’ questions will play through audio files and the interviewee can answer them. At the end of the questionnaire, the app tabulates a clear indication of vulnerability for the person(s) interviewed.


The app isn’t the only project by Mekong Club. “The Mekong Club is also working with blockchain technology to help recruitment agencies to add transparency to their labor contracts with international migrants. Using this technology, employees can ensure that the agreement they sign will not be changed. This protects migrants from being exploited when they arrive their destination site,” said Matt. The Mekong Club is also working to bring the private sector and NGOs together to put in place a united plan of action to address modern slavery in supply chains.