It’s not just another day at the office.

You Cannot Give from an Empty Cup: How One Anti-Trafficking Organization Centers Mental Health

This post is co-authored with staff from Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART).

It’s Thursday at 3 pm.

Like every Thursday afternoon, staff gather in a small conference room in Nairobi’s city center. Their casual chatter fades as the session’s facilitator enters. She smiles before she opens with her familiar greeting, “So, how do you feel?”  

This meeting between staff and therapist has been a routine part of the HAART workweek for the last one year. Though not required, staff from all departments regularly attend. There is no formal structure or predetermined agenda. Rather, the sessions are just a way of checking in with staff, of making sure that they are ok. 

The Global Fund may not be a direct service provider, but our partner Awareness Against Human Trafficking -HAART is. They have been supporting survivors of human trafficking in Kenya for over a decade- from basic needs support to psychosocial counseling to economic empowerment activities.

They work daily with girls, boys, men and women who have been abused or exploited and who are working to overcome that trauma.  It’s rewarding and necessary work, for sure. But it can take a toll, and that toll can be greater than any even realize. As one member of the HAART team recalls, “I did not know I was experiencing secondary trauma, until during one of our debriefing sessions that I noticed I showed symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder.” 

While those who work directly with survivors understand the significance of mental health services for survivors, most give far less attention to their own mental wellbeing. 

The daily stresses of the job are commonly overshadowed by the mission. For example, as HAART staff attest, direct service work is filled with uncertainties. “One-minute a survivor is okay, the next they are having suicidal ideation. You never know when you will receive a call for a rescue.” There is comfort in predictability. And uncertainty, especially when it is a constant, can create anxiety. But treating that anxiety is rarely top of mind when a survivor in your program is battling suicidal thoughts. 

That anxiety is often exacerbated by an organization’s own limitations. There is only so much any one can do. HAART works with survivors to understand their needs and then tries to balance that with what the organization can provide.

While HAART provides counseling, training, economic assistance, school fees, health services, and legal aid to survivors, funds for victim assistance are very limited. 

Staff often have to prioritize what kind of assistance to provide despite wanting to do more. And that too can be draining. 

When these are your typical workday challenges- when hearing trafficking experiences recounted and watching the struggles of recovery is “just another day at the office,” mental health support must similarly be part of the job. At HAART, it is. 

It’s quite admirable really to see how much emphasis HAART puts on staff mental wellbeing. Several years ago, after realizing that staff burnout was not tied to case load but to the nature of the work, HAART committed to doing more to make sure its staff were taking care of themselves, mentally and emotionally. They began small- organizing all staff hiking trips, moving office meetings outdoors, practicing yoga together.  And, like all good practitioners, they listened to feedback and adapted to do better.  

Since then, HAART has added two full-time mental health professionals to its team.

These professionals engage staff in group sessions, including weekly departmental-level check-ins, and provide one-on-one support for any staff who want it. There is no limit to how many sessions staff can access. Managers too keep regular meetings with their staff. Even when there’s not much to discuss, the check-ins say a lot. The opportunity to chat with a supervisor not just about work but about life helps staff “feel valued.”

Mental health is not just a focus at the top, though advice to take time off and turn off after work hours has certainly helped foster that culture.  Staff have their own self-care routines; they journal, they swim, they meditate, some even make dance videos. But what’s more, particularly for the protection team, they each have an accountability partner- a person who holds them accountable for making sure self-care remains a priority. 

It’s human life, and that’s a feeling of responsibility that doesn’t end with the work day.

Of course, there are times when even an accountability partner is not enough. And those days when it seems impossible to abide the best-laid guidance for mental wellbeing. As HAART staff are always aware, “it’s human life,” and that’s a feeling of responsibility that doesn’t end with the work day.

However, staff are more aware of the benefits of taking care of self- a consequence of embedding mental health in HAART’s workplace culture.  Morale is higher, productivity is greater. Decision-making is easier. Knowing that the work requires quick response and that those responses impact the lives of survivors, staff report they are able to make decisions with more clarity and confidence. All of that matters, not just for staff but for all those they work with. And that is why HAART continues to prioritize mental health, for as they frequently remind each other, “You cannot give from an empty cup.” 

To learn more about HAART’s work to empower survivors of labor trafficking in Kenya, supported by GFEMS, click here.To learn more about HAART, click here.

Financial exclusion is a primary driver of vulnerability and exploitation.

Could financial inclusion be the key to reducing vulnerability to modern slavery?

This post is co-authored by Laura Gauer Bermudez – Director of Evidence & Learning, GFEMS; Shukri Hussein – Country Manager East Africa, GFEMS; Timea Nagy – Founder of Timea’s Cause; Bart Robertson – MEL Manager, GFEMS; and Leona Vaughn – Vulnerable Populations Lead, UNU FAST Initiative.

Released from the grip of a trafficker, you return to your home community. 

You lack a documented employment history, your identification documents have been stolen by your trafficker, and you may not yet have a permanent address. Each of these circumstances is precluding you from opening a bank account. Without steady financial footing, you are prone to be exploited again, entering a cycle of lost freedoms and being denied access to the very structures that can help you reclaim your agency and independence.  

This is a story of frustration, oppression, and injustice. And it is a story that is lived time and time again by survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking.  It is also the basis of what places individuals and communities at risk of exploitation.

Approximately, 1.7 billion individuals – 31% of the world’s adult population is ‘unbanked’, meaning they lack access to formal financial institutions such as banks and lenders. Addressing this issue has been part of broader development and poverty reduction strategies globally for over a decade. Yet, the connection between financial inclusion and reducing vulnerability to modern slavery is a relatively new conversation, one that the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) and the Finance Against Slavery & Trafficking (FAST) Initiative have identified as critical and are actively mobilizing resources to address. 

What is financial inclusion?

Financial inclusion means that individuals and businesses have access to useful and affordable financial products and services that meet their needs – transactions, payments, savings, credit and insurance – delivered in a responsible and sustainable way.

— The World Bank

Financial products and services can include bank accounts and savings products as well as loans and insurance. Inclusive digital financial services, spurred by a rise in financial technology (FinTech), is helping to grow access to services such as mobile money which allow banking transactions from the convenience of a personal cell phone.  

However, barriers to access remain common. The high cost of opening accounts, expensive transaction fees, complex application processes, and lack of access to digital services, leave many out of the formal financial system. Lack of financial literacy and gender norms that discourage women’s independent access to financial services create additional barriers to service.

These barriers limit the ability of individuals to safely save, invest, or access affordable lines of credit, all with significant consequences.  Not only is an individual left with little to no power over their own financial resources, but their exclusion from the system perpetuates further marginalization, as lack of engagement places individuals in ‘high-risk’ categories. Given that a significant level of those who are unbanked also represent those facing social exclusion – based on age, citizenship, race, gender, disability, and socio-economic status – financial and social exclusion become reinforcing.

Here are some ways financial exclusion specifically increases vulnerability to modern slavery and what kinds of products, services, and access to financial institutions can make a tangible difference in reducing that vulnerability: 

Financial exclusion limits ability to withstand economic shocks, necessitating risky labor and migration practices 

Poverty is, by far, the most ubiquitous and obvious factor driving susceptibility to modern slavery. However, it is the inability to weather economic shocks that is a defining feature. The illness or death of a primary income earner.  Financing large but socially required events such as weddings or funerals. Protracted conflict or political instability. Income or job loss due to macro-economic downturns. For those living on the margins, such shocks leave few options. The current economic downturn resulting from the pandemic is a prime example. The devastating effects of climate change are another shock, increasingly witnessed in vulnerable communities reliant on agriculture for their livelihoods.

The economically insecure have very few options to cope with and protect their families from these hardships. Those who are unbanked and with limited access to affordable credit or micro-insurance are often forced to cover these expenses by taking out sizable loans from informal money lenders at usury rates. Alternatively, others resort to irregular or risky migration as a means to meet these financial needs, which can lead to exploitative situations. Some may also receive advance payments or loans from employers, which can facilitate a bonded labor relationship.

Including survivors in the design of products and services is one of the first steps we can take to be more inclusive.

In order to most effectively serve groups at risk of slavery as well as survivors, designers of financial products should consult individuals and groups with this lived experience to understand their needs.  For instance, GFEMS invested in SafeStep, an online platform for migrant workers from Bangladesh relocating to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries for employment.

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Financial exclusion hinders reintegration of survivors

For survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery, financial exclusion represents a continuation of their trauma. Official identification documents such as passports are often stolen by their assailants, and in some cases their identities are used to defraud or amass debt. This can present a barrier to their financial recovery when they have escaped from these situations, as they struggle to open basic banking accounts for wages and even to access legal compensation they may have been awarded. Financial exclusion, a lack of access to financial services and knowledge, is not only a form of re-victimisation, but has consequential negative impacts on survivors’ financial reintegration, advancement to financial independence, and well-being and damages future opportunities for housing, mortgage, credit and employment. This leaves survivors vulnerable to repeat exploitation and abuse.

Financial exclusion perpetuates systemic risk of exploitation

Modern slavery is not only a result of individual vulnerability, but also systemic issues within industry. Market risk and volatility can be pushed down the supply chain to actors who are least prepared to cope.  Such is the case in the construction sector in India, representing over 60 million jobs. The sector is highly dependent on low-paid, migrant labor and a system of sub-contracting construction orders to micro-contractors (MC). MCs are the primary employers of these migrant workers. They often operate informally, have limited access to affordable credit, and have to manage day-to-day business operations in a highly volatile market. Delayed payments are common and work orders inconsistent. These and other challenges can limit MC’s ability and willingness to treat their workers ethically. Worker exploitation and withheld wages are the norm. 

Financial exclusion limits access to social protection schemes

The unbanked may be limited in their ability to access social protection schemes.  Initial evidence has shown that people without bank accounts or access to mobile money were most likely to be excluded or receive far less monetary support from governments than those with digital financial access during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This has  a specific impact on rural populations, indigenous communities, young people, and women. These groups, primarily who were in informal work and also more likely to borrow from informal lenders, were placed at higher risk of abuse and exploitation. 

Expanding Financial Inclusion – What’s Next?

If financial exclusion can be characterized as a lack of power and control over one’s economic resources, financial inclusion can be associated with greater financial power, control, independence, and agency, all of which are necessary to be fully free from exploitation. 

So what are the products, services, and opportunities for access necessary to spur a meaningful reduction in modern slavery vulnerability? Here are our recommendations:

Prioritise financial inclusion as a form of protection against slavery and trafficking


Recognizing the role that financial inclusion plays in reducing modern slavery vulnerability, and explicitly considering this in the wider financial inclusion field, is a key next step for governments, civil society, and the private sector.  Institutional funders and philanthropists can play a role in mandating financial inclusion activities within their portfolios to address slavery and trafficking.  Governments can integrate financial inclusion activities into their policy strategies for vulnerability reduction and the private sector can consider innovative ways to improve access to financial products and services to workers along their supply chain.  Financial services providers  should be educated on modern slavery, specifically debt bondage, to understand how their products can best reduce this power dynamic for workers across the globe.

Exponentially expand public-private partnerships to address financial exclusion


NGOs and CSOs working to address slavery and trafficking should intentionally enhance collaboration with financial service providers, mobile money operators, and government agencies that offer safety net programs to design effective and sustainable interventions that increase financial inclusion.  Similarly, private sector actors should seek opportunities to pair with NGOs and CSOs to reach and serve populations that have been left out of the formal financial system.

Establish more community-based savings and loans groups as an on-ramp to formal financial institutions


Governments and NGOs can facilitate group savings and loan initiatives such as village savings and loan associations (VSLA) and self-reliance groups (SRG). These initiatives provide access to credit as well as financial literacy training.  Group savings initiatives can be effective platforms for delivering important skills training, increasing the social capital and resilience of group members and further reducing vulnerability to modern slavery. For this reason, group savings initiatives are often a part of an integrated suite of services in economic development programming, as evidenced in the Ultra-Poor Graduation approach and many others. While these initiatives tend to sit outside the formal banking system, they exist as part of a continuum of financial services ranging from the informal to formal and can serve as an onramp to formal financial services.

Provide guidance to Financial institutions on how to manage risks to vulnerable populations and ensure financial inclusion, while complying with relevant AML/CFT laws


There is a need to raise awareness in financial institutions about how these issues interact, in a way that also gives reassurance that anti-money laundering/counter terrorist financing laws and regulations are not compromised. Guidance could include ensuring considerations of risks to vulnerable populations, in relation to financial exclusion and heightened exposure to the risk of slavery and trafficking, are within banking risk assessment and management processes. Guidance could also address ‘derisking’ practices, including how and when they are an appropriate response to human rights concerns and also can unintentionally exacerbate risks to vulnerable people.

Integrate financial inclusion and financial literacy initiatives within any economic empowerment portfolio


Financial literacy is an important element in achieving financial inclusion. Yet many economic empowerment programs, particularly in the anti-slavery/anti-trafficking space, fail to include a comprehensive financial literacy training package, either due to funding shortages or limited capacity.  This lack of emphasis on financial literacy leaves participants with an inability to save, invest, and protect themselves against economic shocks after the project has ended.

Expand digital financial services and digital financial literacy campaigns


Mobile finance platforms such as MPESA, used by 31.2 million Kenyans, enables users to open a bank account without onerous form filling and provides users with access to a savings account and loan opportunities.  This ease of access creates a convenient option for at-risk groups as well as survivors who may lack the necessary papers required to open an account.  Mobile finance has been a game-changer for financial inclusion in Kenya and is seen as a model for the rest of the world.  Significant expansion of mobile money offerings alongside digital financial literacy has the potential to exponentially increase access and participation in the financial system for individuals and groups whose prior exclusion created notable vulnerabilities and barriers to their own financial independence.

Incentivize ethical business practices through the provision of financial services


Mapping the employment structure of an industry prone to modern slavery can uncover stressors that may be making it difficult for employers to abide by ethical business practices.  GFEMS is currently partnering with several organizations to provide micro-contractors in the construction industry in India with business training and conditional loans. Loan provision is contingent on the implementation of a minimum set of ethical business practices by the recipient. An impact evaluation of this project is currently underway, and we anticipate that the loans will help micro-contractors to better manage cash flow and work orders, enabling them to more feasibly adopt ethical business practices.

Invest in savings accounts for survivors and populations at high-risk of slavery and trafficking


Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) have long been touted as a vehicle for increasing assets and hope for the future among low-wealth populations.  Matched savings for low-income populations establishes a mechanism for accumulating savings and assets, an opportunity that would otherwise only be available to middle to high-income earners with matched savings through their employers.  Governments, charities, and private sector entities should consider establishing IDA accounts for select groups in order to offer the same opportunities for wealth accumulation afforded to less marginalized populations.

Include survivors in the design of products and services


In order to most effectively serve groups at risk of slavery as well as survivors, designers of financial products should consult individuals and groups with this lived experience to understand their needs.  For instance, GFEMS invested in SafeStep, an online platform for migrant workers from Bangladesh relocating to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries for employment. Extensive consultations were held with workers to understand what was most effective to meet their needs, resulting in a comprehensive budget calculator, helping migrants understand the ‘true’ cost of migration.  Consulting affected populations on their needs will ensure greater uptake and impact.

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The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery is a multi-donor fund launched in 2017 to catalyze a coherent global strategy to end forced labor and human trafficking. GFEMS programs around the world are working at the intersection of financial inclusion and modern slavery, bringing together leaders and innovators from both fields to drive impact. Activities include developing, piloting, and scaling innovative new financial products — be they to economically empower survivors of trafficking, to reduce financial fragility among migrant workers, or to alter employer behavior in the informal apparel and construction industries — and conducting and disseminating studies to increase understanding of the individual-level financial drivers of modern slavery risk.

Finance Against Slavery and Trafficking Initiative, based in the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, is working to mobilise the financial sector against slavery and trafficking. Part of this work is called the Survivor Inclusion Initiative which in its first phase has assisted survivor support organisations and participating banks in the US, Canada and UK with the opening of over 2,000 survivor bank accounts. This programme operates from the position of addressing survivor needs. It works closely with survivor support organisations to be able to support survivors in navigating the process, this includes being able to ratify survivor identity. It works to empower survivors with choices, in terms of banks and account types e.g. online banking for those not comfortable with face-to-face account opening. It supports banks to address and overcome documented challenges such as ‘de-risking’ and perceived conflicts with anti-money laundering or counter terrorism financing rules.

For many migrants, returning home can bring new trauma.

The Long Return: Supporting Reintegration for Returning Migrants in Bangladesh

Farishta* was sick and bleeding when she arrived at the recruitment agency. She had been dropped there only after her illness had become severe enough that her employers worried she might not survive. Concerned about their own futures, the couple that had exploited and abused Farishta as a domestic worker in their home for the last six months finally returned her to the same recruitment agency in Saudi Arabia that had placed her. But, after a day, the agency delivered Farishta to the police. Claiming she was in the country illegally, the police held Farishta for another eight days, and for another eight days, she was denied medical attention. Farishta was told she could go home if she could quickly arrange the cost of a ticket back to Bangladesh. From the police station, Farishta contacted her husband who was able to borrow BDT 40,000 (USD $471) to bring Farishta home. It seemed her harrowing experience was coming to an end.

However, when Farishta returned to Bangladesh her struggle continued. She was shunned by her family, her oldest son refusing to call her mother. While coping with the emotional trauma of rejection, Farishta’s physical health continued to deteriorate. Still bleeding and growing weaker every day, Farishta borrowed money to see a gynecologist who advised surgery and medication. Farishta could afford neither. Though she had escaped abuse and exploitation at the hands of her overseas employer, the trauma Farishta experienced and continued to endure after returning home was overwhelming. She had thoughts of taking her own life.

Struggling to reintegrate into her family and community, Farishta was introduced to Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a community-based migrant workers’ organization in Bangladesh.

With OKUP’s support, Farishta began to heal physically and mentally.

She received needed medical treatment and psycho-social counseling. At the same time, OKUP provided counseling to Farishta’s family to help them understand her trauma and to engage them in supporting Farishta’s recovery. Farishta’s relationship with her family has improved and she is reconnecting with her eldest son.

Family support was critical for Farishta’s recovery and reintegration, but Farishta also needed a sustainable livelihood for herself and her family. After excelling in OKUP’s life skills training course, she was referred to a partner organization, Caritas Bangladesh, for assistance to start a small business. Farishta is now raising ducks and chickens, selling eggs to earn money for her family. She has plans to acquire more animals and to remain at home in Bangladesh.

Though her migration experience was one of pain and exploitation, Farishta found a way forward with the support of OKUP and others working to strengthen reintegration support for returning migrants. While providing necessary psychosocial and livelihood support to survivors like Farishta, OKUP is working with a consortium of GFEMS-funded partners to raise community awareness of the challenges returnees face and to advocate improvements in government services and response. Together, we are supporting returnees to sustainably reintegrate and reforming systems to better serve survivors and vulnerable migrants. Farishta, while still managing her own trauma, has begun working with other returnees in her community to help them recover and thrive.

The Challenges of Return

Remittances are the lifeblood of millions of families in Bangladesh. In 2019, remittances sent via formal channels topped $18.3 billion USD- or 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. For families of overseas workers, this money accounts for 85 percent of daily expenditures; sixty percent of these families are totally dependent on remittances for their daily expenses. Multiple family members often rely on the wages of a single migrant worker, creating pressure on migrant workers to “succeed” abroad.

The expectation that migration will improve a family’s financial situation often shapes a migrant’s return experience. Those who return with no money or savings are commonly viewed as “failed” migrants and are ostracized by communities and even families. For the women and men who are deceived, exploited, and abused as overseas workers, rejection at home only adds to the trauma and isolation experienced abroad. Women especially are shunned by communities and family members for sexual abuse they endured, either real or perceived. According to a recent report by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, 52% of more than 300 female returnees interviewed felt there was “a change of social attitude” towards them after their return. Many reported that they had become common targets for gossip; that they experienced an increase in judgmental attitudes towards them upon return; and that they were regularly subjected to derogatory remarks from community members. Significantly, none of the interviewees made any formal complaints to any authority regarding their treatment. The outbreak of a global pandemic in early 2020 only increased the social stigma surrounding returnees as they were now branded carriers of COVID-19. Without improved systems and services to provide returning migrants needed psychosocial and livelihoods support, many will again turn abroad and to the same unsafe channels of migration.

Afsari’s Story

Confronting extreme financial hardship at home, Afsari made the decision to seek work abroad after hearing she could earn a decent wage. Afsari endured 15 months of exploitation and abuse before she was able to earn enough to pay off the debt of BDT 160,000 (approximately $1,890 USD) owed to a labor recruiter. Afsari returned home, but without the wages she had been promised and now under the weight of new trauma. She was introduced to Caritas where she completed tailoring training, began teaching tailoring classes, and received seed money to begin her own tailoring business. Afsari now earns enough to cover her family’s daily needs, including schooling for her daughter, and is saving for her future.

Supporting Sustainable Reintegration

According to IOM, “reintegration can be considered sustainable when returnees have reached levels of economic self-sufficiency, social stability within their communities, and psychosocial well-being that allow them to cope with (re)migration drivers.” When sustainable reintegration is achieved, future decisions about migration become a matter of choice, rather than necessity. This is what we are working to achieve with our partners in Bangladesh. Supported by funding from the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) is leading a project with OKUP and Caritas Bangladesh to provide short- and long-term support for survivors and vulnerable migrants and advocate for strengthened government response and reintegration programs.

Working together, CAFOD, OKUP, and Caritas Bangladesh are able to provide holistic services to returnees and vulnerable migrants, ensuring migrants can access needed support from the moment they return to that when they no longer need it. With an understanding that migrants have different migration experiences and different needs upon return, partners in the consortium leverage their unique strengths and networks to provide each returnee tailored yet comprehensive support.

Recovery and Reintegration Begins the Moment a Migrant Returns

OKUP provides short-term emergency service for returnees, including airport pick up and shelter services. In the worst of scenarios, OKUP coordinate airport transfers of bodies to the families of the migrant worker; they also support families to apply to the government to pay for the funeral costs. In addition, OKUP aids with medical referrals and applications for government health grants that can pay a migrant’s medical costs. They provide psychosocial counseling to returnees and their families, and, in instances of severe trauma, OKUP extends long-term counseling support.

Beyond emergency support, OKUP have established community-led groups of returnee migrant workers known as migrant forums and facilitates their regular meetings to provide information to returnees and vulnerable migrants on relevant matters including how to access loans and other financial support. During one recent meeting, more than 200 migrants were supported to access government benefits- a vital lifeline as the pandemic continues to shake financial security.

Sustainable Reintegration Must Engage the Community

OKUP also engages the community to support reintegration efforts. Through outreach and awareness-raising activities, OKUP is helping communities understand the unique challenges migrants confront and working to reduce the social stigma that attaches to them upon return. With more than a decade of experience supporting returnees and vulnerable migrants, OKUP understands the significance of community engagement, and employs traditional and non-traditional methods, including theatrical performance, to build these networks of support. For example, in an OKUP-sponsored play about a woman’s migration journey and her abuse overseas, the focus is on her return and the importance of community support. These efforts are reaching thousands; in just one quarter, OKUP’s outreach activities engaged over 17,000 individuals across 8 high-migration districts.

Sustainable Reintegration Must Include Livelihoods Support

Building on OKUP’s sustainable reintegration efforts, Caritas Bangladesh provides skills and entrepreneurship training to prepare survivors and vulnerable migrants for sustainable employment. Participants are able to self-select their economic reintegration activities, selecting a business track that draws on their own skills and interests. With agency to determine their own futures, survivors and returnee migrants can choose employment opportunities that meet their own needs, increasing the likelihood of success and sustainability.
To date, Caritas Bangladesh has supported over 600 individuals to start their own small businesses. After completing entrepreneurship training and courses covering subjects such as business principles, trade licensing, and accounting, graduates are supported to develop small business plans before Caritas Bangladesh transfers seed money to help them push these ideas forward. Caritas Bangladesh currently supports survivors and vulnerable migrants across nearly 50 different vocations, from animal husbandry to tailoring to auto work.

It is admirable to see the Government of Bangladesh is committed to improving reintegration services for migrant workers.

— Richard Sloman, CAFOD

Sustainable Reintegration Must be Supported by Government

While supporting individual returnees to reintegrate, the consortium is also advocating local and state government to strengthen referral systems. OKUP is coordinating with the Wage Earners’ Welfare Board to strengthen referral services from the airport to ensure returnees in need of support are identified and referred for services. Though COVID has imposed new challenges, diverting government resources and capacity, progress is being made. OKUP reports that new cases are starting to be referred. Building on these advocacy efforts, CAFOD, in collaboration with a team of research consultants, recently published a report identifying gaps in the current referral system. The report includes several recommendations and is being used as an advocacy tool for the government to strengthen referral systems. The consortium remains steadfast in its advocacy efforts and continues to press relevant officials to take action. In 2022, the consortium will be hosting a series of referral guideline workshops with government Ministry officials to discuss findings from the referral research.

“It is admirable to see the Government of Bangladesh is committed to improving reintegration services for migrant workers. These workshops provide an excellent opportunity to develop a strong, holistic and inclusive referral mechanism which will dramatically improve the support returnee migrants, particularly survivors of abuse and exploitation, receive when they return to Bangladesh.”
Richard Sloman (CAFOD)

While CAFOD, OKUP, and Caritas Bangladesh are providing critical support to vulnerable individuals and communities, their partnership is what is transforming systems and creating sustainable change. Sharing knowledge, building partner capacity, and providing comprehensive and holistic care, they are supporting returnees through recovery and reintegration. Working together, they are changing the systems that enable modern slavery to thrive.

*Some names in this blog have been changed to protect identities.

Trauma-informed care is critical to the wellbeing of survivors of trafficking.

From Repatriation to Reintegration: Centering Survivors to Effect Systemic Change

Every year, approximately 50,000 girls and women are trafficked to India across Bangladesh’s western border. In India, they are forced to labor, sold into prostitution, or trafficked out to be exploited and abused in another country. Around 500,000 Bangladeshi women and children from 12-30 years old have been illegally trafficked to India in the last decade.

Despite a common understanding of the problem, efforts to eradicate trafficking and repatriate victims of modern slavery are failing thousands of women and girls. Communities in Bangladesh’s Khulna Division have proven especially vulnerable to trafficking. Situated at the border with India, Khulna Division is already a high-risk community with overpopulation, extreme poverty, and remoteness of location exacerbating these risks. Criminals are only emboldened by extremely low conviction rates for trafficking cases. Even when trafficking victims are identified in India, they languish in shelter homes for years before they are able to return home. 

When survivors return to Bangladesh, they remain susceptible to re-trafficking. They are often ostracized by their communities or burdened with a social stigma that hinders recovery and reintegration efforts. These challenges, combined with a lack of employment and educational opportunities, leave survivors vulnerable to further exploitation. In a recent study, our implementing partner in Bangladesh found that 30% of the survivors they currently support had been trafficked multiple times before.

As has been seen across the globe, COVID-19 takes its heaviest toll on those who are the most vulnerable. In Bangladesh’s Khulna Division, there has been no exception. According to the US State Department’s most recent TIP Report, increasingly widespread job loss, wage cuts, and poverty in Bangladesh’s rural areas and urban slums due to the pandemic has forced some children into begging and commercial sex. In 2020, NGOs in Bangladesh reported traffickers lured victims with promises of “COVID-19 free” locations.

Justice and Care, an international nonprofit, has been supporting survivors, pursuing justice, and securing at-risk communities for over a decade. In partnership with GFEMS, Justice and Care is implementing programming in Bangladesh’s Khulna Division to provide trauma-informed and survivor-centric care, train border guards and law enforcement officials to identify and respond to cases of human trafficking, and build the capacity of government and aftercare service providers. In other words, we are working together to provide end-to-end support for survivors and to change the systems that enable human trafficking. 

A holistic care model

Trafficking can take many forms and not all individuals experience trauma the same way. While working with governments and institutions to prevent further traumatization through timely and survivor-centric repatriations, Justice and Care remains focused on the individuals that experience trafficking and exploitation.  When possible, the same caseworker that is introduced to a survivor in an Indian shelter supports and guides a survivor through repatriation and reintegration in Bangladesh. This individualized pairing helps establish trust between survivor and caseworker and supports a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of a survivor’s needs.  In Bangladesh, a survivor is provided immediate shelter and psycho-social counseling while survivor and caseworker together draw up a longer-term individualized care plan. 

Justice and Care have helped me in more ways than I can count. My family got grocery when we did not have any food during the lockdown, and I am also getting support in pursuing a case against my trafficker.

— Survivor participant

Reforming systems to achieve sustainable change

With survivors at the center of all of their programming, Justice and Care works with various stakeholder groups to ensure a coordinated and survivor-centric response to trafficking. Having piloted a successful initiative to train border guards on victim identification and care before partnering with GFEMS, GFEMS support enabled an expansion of this program. Over the last 12 months, more than 200 staff from Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) have been trained to identify, intercept, and refer victims of trafficking. As a result, 40 individuals have been intercepted and identified as victims by the BGB at the border and referred to Justice and Care.

Programming does not just target law enforcement, however. Justice and Care works to build the capacities of government stakeholders as well as aftercare service providers on both sides of the border.  Supporting survivors even before their return to Bangladesh, Justice and Care is committed to reforming a repatriation process that can strand a survivor in an Indian shelter for up to six years.  Victims of trafficking in India, when fortunate enough to escape exploitation and abuse, find that escape is just the first step in a long journey home. A complex and bureaucratic system prolongs the process as judges require survivors to stay in country until testimony is given or Bangladeshi officials stall in confirming a survivor is a Bangladeshi citizen. Survivors must gain approvals from police, border officials, social workers, and local and federal officials before they can be repatriated.

Survivors must be a voice in determining survivor care.

Their individual stories may differ, but survivors share a lived-experience of surviving a certain type of trauma and abuse that is essential to the development of effective trauma-informed survivor care programs. In partnership with GFEMS, Justice and Care conducted a Caregivers’ Empowered training session to prepare survivors for mentorship and counseling roles.
Since October 2020, these champion survivors have conducted mentoring sessions with 44 survivors. While providing information on services and care activities for newly repatriated victims, they also assess peers’ mental and physical health and work to address any challenges that survivors are confronting. In follow-ups with participants, “the recipient survivors reported that they felt the peer mentors had understood their problems perceptively, listened attentively and demonstrated empathy- that they felt better emotionally as a result of the session and all asked for ongoing sessions.”

India and Bangladesh have taken steps to speed up the repatriation process, but survivors still wait 18 to 22 months to return home.  With an understanding of the traumatic effects of a prolonged shelter stay, Justice and Care is taking steps to expedite return and ensure survivors are repatriated within 12 months. They have forged partnerships with government officials, government-run institutions, and aftercare providers in India and Bangladesh.

Furthermore, they have convened bilateral repatriation stakeholders including Bangladeshi and Indian Rescue, Recovery, Repatriation, and Integration Task Forces to sensitize them to victim-centric and trauma-informed practices, including timely repatriations. They continue to advocate with the Ministry of Home Affairs to push through the adoption of the Standard Operating Procedures to shorten the timeline for repatriations, enhance cross-border coordination, and center survivors in the process. After a recent meeting with the Bangladeshi Ministry of Home Affairs and U.S. government officials, Justice and Care was invited to provide input into a training manual being developed by the US Department of Justice for law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh. Currently working with 44 referral partners in India including the Rescue, Recovery, Repatriation and Integration Task Force in Pune and West Bengal, UNODC, and the Department of Women and Child Development, Justice and Care is building a network of support that centers survivors from the point of first contact. In strengthening local capacities, they are also ensuring that that support is sustainable and scalable beyond program end. 

This spring, Justice and Care hosted a special event for survivors. “Season of Wingspread” brought together 34 survivors to share their experiences and to recognize and celebrate what each had achieved towards stable recovery and reintegration. Until systems change and recovery and reintegration support is no longer needed, Justice and Care remains a model of care to replicate.

Our work with Blue Dragon has successfully raised awareness of trafficking for hundreds of at-risk individuals.

Raising Awareness and Centering Survivors: Anti-Trafficking Programming in Northern Vietnam

Stretching to include Vietnam’s northernmost point, Ha Giang is often referred to as Vietnam’s final frontier. Steeped in rugged mountains and grand landscapes, Ha Giang is an overwhelmingly rural province, and home to a large ethnic minority population. Its long porous border with China makes migration a way of life for many in the region. While high poverty rates and a reliance on low-margin agriculture spur migrants to cross the border, these conditions also leave many vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. The majority of people trafficked in Vietnam are from regions characterized by high rates of poverty and unemployment; they also disproportionately belong to ethnic minority groups. 

In the remote villages of Ha Giang, risks are exacerbated by a general lack of awareness of trafficking across the province. Many respondents of a household survey conducted in the region understood trafficking as something that happened by force, by abduction or threat of violence. But traffickers are not often so bold. Case research in the same province revealed that the majority of trafficking survivors knew their traffickers before they were exploited, underscoring the importance of awareness-raising to anti-trafficking programming.   

We partnered with two local civil society organizations, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation and Sustainable Hospitality Alliance (the Alliance), to implement comprehensive anti-trafficking programming in Vietnam, in Ha Giang province and Hanoi respectively. With an understanding of the particular vulnerabilities to trafficking in northern Vietnam, Blue Dragon and the Alliance developed programs that focused on prevention, survivor support, and deterrence. While providing support and resources for vulnerable individuals and communities, together, these programs also target the systems that enable trafficking in persons. 

Lured by False Job Offers and Fake Marriages

The Vietnamese government estimates 90% of people trafficked from Vietnam are trafficked into China. Eighty percent are sexually exploited. In an analysis of court records from prosecuted trafficking cases in Vietnam, Blue Dragon found that deception was the most common recruitment strategy employed by traffickers. Over a third were lured by fraudulent job offers, 25% by false relationships, and another 25% by fake offers of marriage to Chinese men. “The main trick,” according to a member of a local NGO, “is ‘cheating or luring’ by pretending to build a relationship with victims gradually. Then traffickers trap victims by inviting them to hang out, go shopping at markets, trips near border areas, etc.” The overwhelming majority of these cases (97%) were for commercial sexual exploitation or forced marriage.

The main trick is ‘cheating or luring’ by pretending to build a relationship with victims gradually. Then traffickers trap victims by inviting them to hang out, go shopping at markets, trips near border areas, etc.

The More You Know: Raising Awareness of Trafficking Risks

To help raise awareness of the risks of trafficking and ultimately minimize those risks, Blue Dragon conducted a series of events across Ha Giang province, in collaboration with community stakeholders including village leaders, Women’s Union members, commune police officers, teachers and students. While screening at-risk households and providing support to at-risk individuals, Blue Dragon also led village-, community-, and school-based interventions to increase awareness. Each of these interventions explained the risks associated with irregular migration abroad, including sexual exploitation and forced labor. They also warned against actions, such as migrating without a contract or indebtedness before migration, that might increase one’s vulnerability. To raise awareness of support mechanisms should a case of trafficking be suspected, programming included guidance on who to contact and information on the anti-TIP hotline.

While targeted at prevention, these local interventions included a message of deterrence. The same analysis of court data revealed that traffickers commonly operate in the same impoverished and vulnerable communities as those they traffic.  When confronting a lack of viable livelihood options, traffickers frequently act opportunistically, looking to escape their own desperate circumstances. By including an emphasis on the severity of the crime and the penalties that it can incur in its programming, Blue Dragon aimed also to deter would-be traffickers. 

Raising Awareness, Decreasing Risk of Trafficking

Post-intervention surveys reveal that these efforts are making a difference. Generally, project findings show a positive relationship between being exposed to awareness-raising activities and understanding of trafficking risks and vulnerabilities. At baseline, for example, only 40% of migrant households in Meo Vac (an intervention district) reported migrating for work with a contract. At program end, 64% were more likely to migrate with a contract. Findings also demonstrate a significant rise in awareness of whom to contact with trafficking concerns, including the provincial anti-TIP hotline. At endline, 28% of respondents listed the hotline as a reporting mechanism versus just .04% at baseline. With a better understanding of the risks of trafficking, migrants are less at risk of exploitation. 

Findings also demonstrate a significant rise in awareness of whom to contact with trafficking concerns, including the provincial anti-TIP hotline. At endline, 28% of respondents listed the hotline as a reporting mechanism versus just .04% at baseline. With a better understanding of the risks of trafficking, migrants are less at risk of exploitation.

A Focus on Survivor Support

Despite the heightened risk of trafficking in Ha Giang province, no trafficking survivors reported receiving reintegration support prior to Blue Dragon’s intervention. Across government, law enforcement agencies, and social service organizations, efforts to identify and provide survivor support remained fragmented, making it difficult for survivors to access needed services and resources. Blue Dragon worked with each of these stakeholders to strengthen channels of coordination and information-sharing and to implement the National Referral Mechanism –a cooperative framework through which trafficking victims are identified and referred for services- at the provincial level.  Ha Giang authorities have since referred or directly provided reintegration support to thirty-five trafficking survivors,  but the mechanisms put in place will ensure many future survivors receive the resources and support they need.

Beyond enhanced coordination, Blue Dragon supported a training program to better prepare social workers engaging directly with survivors. Commenting on the usefulness of the intervention, one program graduate shared, “We used to attend training on the local policies and regulations relating to trafficking in persons, but this is the first time ever we have been trained on how to work with survivors to support them effectively.” 

This is the first time ever we have been trained on how to work with survivors and support them effectively.

— Training Participant

Social workers trained through the Blue Dragon program were locally-based. The social workers, as well as the service providers involved in the program, understood the socio-economic conditions in each community and almost all were able to communicate with survivors in their native languages or dialects. While this ensured services were accessible to survivors, the program’s emphasis on survivor-centric support empowered survivors to choose services that best supported their individual needs, whether that be housing, healthcare, or vocational training. When survivors are given agency to determine their own paths forward, their freedom becomes more sustainable. 46 of 52 survivors supported by Blue Dragon were “successfully reintegrated,” meaning their risk of re-trafficking was significantly diminished, they were effectively managing their trauma, and building a sustainable new lifestyle.

The Significance of Survivor-Centric Programming

The Sustainable Hospitality Alliance (the Alliance) program similarly supported survivor reintegration by providing livelihood training, specifically by helping survivors develop skills necessary for work in the hospitality sector.  As part of GFEMS anti-trafficking portfolio in northern Vietnam, the Alliance established a training program in Hanoi. Sixty-three percent of those who graduated from the program did in fact secure full-time employment in the hospitality sector. However, almost half of those who enrolled in the program did not graduate. Though disheartening, understanding this dropout rate is critical to building more effective interventions. The majority of students who discontinued the program lacked networks of peer support. Trainees, who were from rural provinces, including Ha Giang, had trouble adapting in Hanoi. This finding, combined with the positive response to Blue Dragon’s locally accessible programming, demonstrates the significance of tailoring programs to meet survivor needs. (From this learning, the Alliance and GFEMS shifted remaining funding to the Alliance’s programming in India.)

We partnered with Blue Dragon and the Alliance to combat trafficking in northern Vietnam. While programming directly impacted hundreds of individuals, many hundreds more will benefit from enhanced community awareness and improved social services. Moreover, lessons learned from these interventions will shape future interventions. From these programs, we can build stronger, more sustainable solutions to end trafficking in persons.

This article and the projects it references were funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State.

Trauma-informed care is crucial to the empowerment of survivors.

Making trauma-informed care the norm for survivors

Trauma-informed care is crucial to the empowerment of survivors. It ensures survivors are not re-traumatized during legal proceedings or while receiving recovery services; provides self-ownership over their own recovery; and helps them to lead safe and empowered futures. Yet, it is frequently not implemented by governments, law enforcement, judiciary, or care providers, who are frequently survivors’ first point of contact in the recovery process. GFEMS prioritizes trauma-informed care curriculum development and implementation to ensure that survivors have the tools and care they need for long term recovery and success.

In Maharashtra, India, GFEMS has partnered with International Justice Mission (IJM) to strengthen trauma-informed care in the state’s child welfare system. Child Welfare Committees (CWCs) are quasi-judicial bodies that support children in need of care and protection, including trafficking victims. IJM has trained all CWC members in Maharashtra on safe placement and case management, ensuring that stakeholders directly responsible for survivor rehabilitative care are equipped to make the best decisions in the interest of the child and operate as efficiently and responsibly as possible. To further build on this training, IJM has instituted a state-wide mentorship program with care experts, who have provided CWC members with guidance on over 260 cases. Facilitating regular case management roundtables, the project includes collaborative problem solving and case discussions for CWC members, ensuring that survivors receive comprehensive rehabilitation and support. The project has also made a series of infrastructure upgrades to selected CWCs, developing models for child-friendly spaces in the state.

By building the capacity of state institutions, including the CWCs, to deliver effective survivor care, the program is a blueprint for the provision of trauma-informed restoration that is replicable across other states in India and beyond. These types of care practices are needed globally to eliminate modern slavery and human trafficking for good.

This article and the project it references were funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State.

GFEMS partners with Hope for Justice to improve survivor care in Uganda

GFEMS partners with Hope for Justice to improve survivor care in Uganda

As a part of our partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, GFEMS is excited to share the launch of our new project and partnership with Hope for Justice. Coupled with other efforts in the portfolio, the project objectives are to: 

  • Provide rehabilitation services to survivors of sex trafficking in Uganda
  • Improve and standardize rehabilitation and trauma-informed care practices within the region
  • Build capacity for service delivery for the national network, Uganda Coalition Against Trafficking in Persons (UCATIP). 

See more of our work combatting sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking is a key focus of the Fund’s efforts. Working within our intervention framework, we target reduction in the supply of vulnerable individuals, demand for sexual exploitation, and the enabling environment that allows modern slavery to persist and traffickers to operate with impunity. This project specifically targets the supply of vulnerable individuals and the enabling environment. 

3 girls in the trees

On the supply side, GFEMS and Hope for Justice will provide holistic rehabilitation services to survivors, including shelter, psychosocial support, and medical care at its reintegration centers, Lighthouses in Kampala. Hope for Justice will also trace survivors’ families and, when safe, will work with the family to provide reintegration support. Working with local partner, Platform for Labor Action (PLA), the project will facilitate access to vocational training, apprenticeships, and sustainable employment opportunities for survivors over age 16 to reduce their risk of re-trafficking. In addition, with the support of PLA, the project will facilitate access to legal support for survivors of child trafficking. To improve access to care and services long-term, GFEMS and Hope for Justice will support the members of CAPITU to strengthen coordination and improve the standard and consistency of care for survivors in the region. 

To address the enabling environment and reduce risk of re-traumatization for survivors, the project will focus on improving trauma-informed care within the justice system. Police, magistrates, and prosecutors will be trained on trauma-informed care and practices. This reduced risk level should also make their testimony more effective for the prosecution of traffickers and provide a critical step in deterring traffickers. 

Further, the project partners will work with the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab to develop a suite of evidence-based, trauma-informed Standards of Care resources. Hope for Justice will implement these resources as a part of its services at Lighthouses. Throughout the project, GFEMS will monitor the uptake of the resources and their impact on quality of survivor care. 

GFEMS looks forward to providing updates on this project and sharing our learnings with the anti-trafficking community. For updates on this project and others like it, subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn

This article and the Hope for Justice project were funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State.

Interested in working with us on survivor empowerment?

Strengthening Justice for Survivors in India with STCI

Strengthening Justice for Survivors in India with STCI

Maharashtra has been one of the states hit hardest by COVID-19 in India. The pandemic has exacerbated many vulnerabilities, particularly for those experiencing poverty, including vulnerability to trafficking. As the pandemic continues, traffickers are adapting their methods, including the use of online methods, particularly in regards to the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). 

GFEMS is working to end impunity for traffickers and strengthen justice delivery for survivors. 

With funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and working with Save The Children India (STCI), the Fund is addressing the enabling environment that allows trafficking to persist. 

Working with a local NGO, GFEMS aims to ensure that the trafficking cases brought to trial are more efficiently resolved by interpreting the law in the spirit in which it was enacted, improving evidence examination, and ensuring the coordination of justice system actors. 

GFEMS projects focus on sustainable solutions with impactful long-term outcomes. The STCI project is no exception. Long term success will be achieved by supporting a justice delivery system that is strengthened, sensitized, and coordinated, resulting in effective prosecution of traffickers. The project will also ensure that survivors have faith in the system, based on improved support and responsiveness of the courts and legal representatives. Specifically, STCI will build capacity and extend mentorship to government stakeholders and legal actors – prosecutors, judges, District Legal Services Authority legal aid lawyers, and paralegal volunteers – and extend legal counseling and assistance in court and police stations to survivors of CSEC. The training and mentorship are designed to increase sensitivity among judges toward victims, helping ensure that victims participate as an integral part of the justice delivery system.

In addition to a planned evaluation of intervention effectiveness, GFEMS plans to conduct learning activities to answer questions such as: 

  • What are critical aspects of the law that are left to judges’ interpretation that could be used in victims’ favor?
  • How do victims perceive justice and the justice delivery process? 
  • Does the addition of a victim-centric lens in prosecutor training result in greater or more sustained victim participation in the prosecution process?
  • If we train and give ongoing support to one specific arm of the anti-trafficking ecosystem (i.e., the justice system), does it contribute to reduced prevalence in the target geography? 

GFEMS looks forward to sharing more information about this project as it is implemented, and is grateful for the support of the U.S. Department of State and the partnership of STCI.


To stay updated on this project, and projects like it, subscribe to the GFEMS newsletter and follow us on Twitter. 

This article and the STCI project were funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.

Survivor Workforce Development: Nomi Network partnership brings trafficking survivors into safe and sustainable jobs

Survivor Workforce Development: Nomi Network partnership brings trafficking survivors into safe and sustainable jobs

In collaboration with the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), GFEMS has partnered with Nomi Network to reduce the prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) and strengthen long-term economic opportunities for survivors of and women vulnerable to CSE in West Bengal, India.

Nomi Network is a US-based organization that, in partnership with both local organizations in source communities and an extensive network of private sector job placement partners, provides job training and employment opportunities for women vulnerable to CSE in India and Cambodia.  In India, Nomi Network currently operates a unique Workforce Development Program (WPD) in collaboration with its field partners in seven locations. With GFEMS funding, Nomi Network will redouble support to two of these local partners in West Bengal, supporting hundreds of new and existing trainees in the WPD and, in the process, establish nearly 500 job placements.

In West Bengal, a lack of stable job opportunities forces many women, especially those in vulnerable communities, to leave school seeking income to support their families. This financial instability leaves many women at high risk of falling into forced labor or CSE. West Bengal is also home to India’s second-largest population of individuals in the Scheduled Castes, who are subject to socio-economic discrimination and, therefore, heightened vulnerability, as well as a sizable population of Nepalese-Indians who are similarly discriminated against.

Nomi Network’s Workforce Development Program addresses these drivers by training women in a combination of life and technical skills training, culminating in job placements and one year of high-touch follow up. The program equips women with skills to meet market demand, places them in jobs that generate long-term income stability, and provides individualized support to reduce risk of re-trafficking or exploitation. Nomi Network’s approach tailors skills training to the market needs in each community to ensure participants are trained in jobs that fill a tangible gap. High-achieving graduates are hired to teach new cohorts of trainees, serving as local role models and deepening community involvement. The program is also trauma-informed, supporting the recovery process for survivors of CSE and helping build their self-advocacy and leadership skills. 

By ensuring that WDP participants have a safe and secure economic future, Nomi Network works to permanently reduce vulnerability to CSE and further develop a successful model that is both scalable and replicable.

GFEMS looks forward to sharing the successes and lessons learned from our work with Nomi Network. Learn more about the Norad partnership and the GFEMS portfolio.

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