Mission partners B and K have spent the last decade working to prevent human trafficking in South Asia. K shares some of that journey, and reflects on the challenges the pandemic has brought.
I came to South Asia after university, doing work in the slums for a year. After a few months I went to a conference and someone spoke about children in the red light area and human trafficking. That talk hit me like nothing else before. I remember weeping as I left the seminar. Later that night, I was struck that I get to go to sleep in a safe, warm bed with all I need – yet all around there are children who have the opposite. They don’t have safety, they have fear, things being forced on them repeatedly.
I prayed: “God, is this your way of telling me that you want me to be involved in stopping this?” and asked for an opportunity to experience anti-trafficking work in that year if it was what God wanted me to do. And that is what happened – I spent a month each in two projects, working to rescue girls and caring for those who had been rescued.
I came back to the UK and was a social worker for a number of years, working with children and families to widen my experience. I contacted mission agencies and God opened the doors through Church Mission Society for me to return to South Asia.
B and I met early in my time in South Asia, and share a passion to empower communities and churches to recognise and prevent trafficking. While my background is in social work, B has theological training, so we can approach the issue from different angles.
We started working in a rural mountain area, building a project from scratch alongside a local church network. Our first job was to convince people that trafficking was a problem. Even though it was being reported in the newspapers, people thought, “This doesn’t happen here. It happens in the cities.” But in the cities, they say, “No, it doesn’t happen here. It happens somewhere else.” This is a really common problem with trafficking: everybody believes it happens elsewhere.
It took us two years to earn the trust of the local people and enable local leadership to see this was a problem that they needed to do something about. We formed a small team and did some analysis to see how big the problem was and what other issues there were.
We ran training for church leaders, school leaders, wherever we could get an inroad, with anywhere from five to 500 people. We ran programmes with all ages, because both adults and children are trafficked. In schools, we focused on how to keep safe, to recognise the methods of a trafficker. Then with parents, how to prevent these things from happening in the first place, and with leaders the responsibility to look out for the whole community.
Not just strangers
Most people are trafficked by people they know: a neighbour, somebody they grew up with, people they don’t suspect. And that’s why it works. It’s not just a stranger coming in and it’s not about kidnapping. It’s people willingly going.
We trained our team in issues of domestic violence, sexual abuse, physical abuse and child protection, which are very much related to human trafficking. The team and community needed to become comfortable talking about delicate issues – relationships, sex and so on – which took a while.
New context, same goal
A couple of years ago we moved to a new area, in a city. We still work to prevent trafficking, through a network including schools and different health organisations. Our goal was to train these organisations in how they can prevent trafficking. I don’t necessarily think we need to have a separate anti-trafficking programme – awareness should be embedded within all professions.
Human trafficking is not something you can just address head on – it needs approaching from different angles, which is why we did training on domestic violence and sexual abuse. All these issues are connected. I would really love to see churches getting involved in the needs of their own communities, helping the vulnerable without needing to call it an anti-trafficking programme.
COVID-19 – an unknown impact
Generally, where there is economic hardship, trafficking thrives. Even with COVID-related travel restrictions, it will happen. I heard that traffickers were dressing girls to look older, to make them look as if they were going to work as nurses.
There were fewer people visiting the red light areas, but this will change. I think as soon as travel opens up, there will be explosions of people being taken here and there. And traffickers will have an easy way in, because so many people will be desperate and they prey on that desperation.
The more tangible impact of the pandemic is that many NGOs, schools and health networks became more focused on relief work, while others have had to reduce travel and react to reduced funds. Organisations’ desire to be involved in anti-trafficking went way down. As schools return, there is so much to catch up on.
We hope to be able to re-establish connections with organisations and to work with them on how they can prevent trafficking in their own fields.
Passion for prevention
In anti-trafficking work, the rescue part is where there is drama and clear stories, but we need to stop people ending up there in the first place. By the time people are rescued, huge harm has been done.
And rescue alone will never stop the issue. Prevention is harder to quantify, and complicated – but in issues of domestic violence, child protection and trafficking, prevention is crucial.