Want to fight human trafficking? Check out VFF's holistic model

The Visayan Forum Foundation provides ICT training to human trafficking survivors. The NGO’s founder and executive director, Cecile Flores-Oebanda, shares best practices for fighting modern slavery. Photo by: Noelle Huskins / CC BY-SA

The word “slavery” evokes images of toiling laborers in agricultural plantations, a tragedy many would consider a thing of the past after having been abolished throughout the world.

In reality, human trafficking — the modern form of slavery — is one of the fastest growing criminal industries, with up to $30 billion in profits and more than 27 million global victims. These are made to work as sex slaves or forced into domestic servitude, agricultural labor, sweatshop factory labor, begging, and other dangerous and demeaning occupations.

“There is no silver bullet in the fight against trafficking,” Cecile Flores-Oebanda, founder and executive director of the Visayan Forum Foundation, a multiawarded Philippine nongovernmental organization established in 1991 to protect, liberate and empower marginalized migrants, especially women and children.

The U.S. State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons report noted that not one government has done enough to fight human trafficking. Further, of the 188 countries and territories that were assessed in the report, more than 20 — including Mauritania — are classified as countries whose governments have not made significant efforts to combat the problem. Mauritania, which has a long history of hereditary slavery, only criminalized slavery in 2007.

With 12 million of its 90 million citizens working overseas, the Philippines is a top recruitment hub for traffickers. Organized crime syndicates and corrupt public officials collude to prey poverty and desperation, and use a combination of fraud, coercion and deception to enslave about 150,000 Filipinos at any given time.

Flores-Oebanda emphasized that only a holistic model can realistically address the problem, and any group that seeks to combat human trafficking will have to navigate through complex and interconnected cultural, political and economic factors. On top of that, anti-trafficking advocacy is also dangerous territory — traffickers and their powerful backers will stop at nothing to protect their profits. So how to move forward?

The head of VFF shared with Devex six best practices learned during the organization’s relatively successful campaign against human trafficking, which has helped more than 70,000 trafficking victims or potential victims over the past two decades:

1. Build partnerships.

NGOs do not have law enforcement power or deep pockets, while traffickers are highly organized, have considerable resources and use networks effectively. The only way to make headway is through strong partnerships.

“When more people and organizations get involved, we hit them where it hurts and their risk versus profit equation changes,” Flores-Oebanda said. In many human trafficking hubs, like the Philippines, victims are not only trafficked overseas but also internally, usually from rural to urban areas. After studying common trafficking routes, VFF initiated its most celebrated innovation: a multisectoral intervention in ports, airports and other transit areas.

VFF entered into agreements with shipping companies to integrate human trafficking awareness into their operations. This involved training the staff of shipping companies to identify potential victims. To improve detection, shipping companies created a special lane for child passengers with no adult companions. Companies also committed to safeguarding potential victims until they could be endorsed to waiting social workers in destination areas. In the nation’s main ports, the organization helped create task forces with representatives from the coast guard, maritime police, stevedoring workers’ groups and transport companies to profile and intercept potential victims and apprehend suspected traffickers.

2. Pop culture is a powerful mobilization tool.

Existing data is inconclusive because of the clandestine nature of human trafficking, but most experts agree that women and the youth are the most at-risk demographics. "A large, socially engaged movement is integral to the solution,” Flores-Oebanda said.

Capitalizing on the popularity of iPhones, VFF started a youth mobilization campaign called iFight. The campaign, with 5,000 members and growing, is being launched in academic institutions all over the Philippines and focuses on enlisting young “fighters” to serve as anti-trafficking ambassadors and provide preventive information to their peers, families and churches, including reporting mechanisms in cases of suspected trafficking.

Flores-Oebanda also persuaded world boxing icon and local congressman Manny Pacquiao to use his “star power” against human trafficking. Pacquiao, posing in red boxing gloves and vowing to “knock out” human trafficking, helped challenge the culture of acceptance around trafficking in a way VFF would not have been able to on their own. His speeches to legislators and civil society groups on the need for a bigger budget for agencies tasked to combat trafficking also received massive media mileage.

3. Prevention is the best defense.

While rescues and convictions are highly visible and easily measurable success markers, they need to be buttressed by preventive measures. Flores-Oebanda mentioned the case of potential victims who were intercepted in Manila and set free, but once again intercepted, two months later, under different names in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

“Many victims of trafficking have nowhere to go. And they live in fear of retaliation from traffickers. Unless these problems are addressed, the cycle is repeated,” she emphasized.

Survivors and potential victims are not only provided protection, counseling, and medical and legal support at safe houses and halfway houses, they also receive livelihood and skills training to reduce their vulnerability to re-trafficking upon their return to communities.

For example, out of the 42,000 beneficiaries of VFF’s STEP-UP project with Microsoft, a community-based information technology training program, 43 percent found jobs and 36 percent went back to school. Community watch groups supported by VFF also provide women and youth with opportunities to for microenterprise development.

4. Get off the bandwagon and innovate.

Flores-Oebanda explained that VFF’s goal is to develop successful interventions, get these practices institutionalized in public and private firms, then move on to the next challenge. The organization’s latest research reveals that indigenous people and disaster-hit areas are among the most vulnerable to trafficking, so the organization is working on ensuring anti-trafficking measures are mainstreamed into disaster management mechanisms and into services offered to indigenous peoples.

When reports emerged of Philippine parents being complicit in the exploitation of their children, VFF partnered with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to reach more than 90 parishes and use the Church’s moral authority to build on the value of family unity and the duty of parents toward their children.

Being forward-looking is also essential. When most advocacy groups reacted to a recent exposè linking Philippine embassy officials to the abuse of Filipino overseas workers in Kuwait was to call for the sacking of public officials, VFF, on the other hand, focused on lobbying for structural reforms such as safer shelters for overseas workers, a consolidated database and monitoring system for repatriated workers, and weeding out unscrupulous recruitment agencies.

5. Know the law and practice due diligence.

Flores-Oebanda and her organization are no strangers to threats and harassment from traffickers and critics eager to put a stop to their operations. Apart from a healthy dose of courage and a strong record of results, VFF’s most valuable weapon is its well-trained staff.

In a highly charged rescue situation, especially for a crime as difficult to prove as human trafficking, a single misstep could result in the case being dismissed, or the victims sent back into the same set of risky circumstances.

VFF’s social workers are well-versed in the law and stay calm in the face of bribery and intimidation from suspected traffickers. They carefully gather evidence, coordinate with counterparts in government, and follow all official procedures to gain temporary custody over potential victims. Many times, they have been charged with “illegal detention” — a common harassment tactic — but no case has prospered because all bases were covered.

6. Diversify your donor base.

Bilateral donors are valuable, but there is an emerging group of nontraditional donors, both private and public, whose program requirements may be more flexible and tailored toward local NGOs. Some of these organizations have a specific focus on the anti-human trafficking sector, which ensures funding sustainability. Recently, VFF has been funded by a wide pool of donors like Anti-Slavery International, Katie Ford Foundation, Freedom for All, Walk Free, Skoll Foundation and the Wholistic Transformation Resource Center.

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

About the author

  • Sharmila Parmanand

    Sharmila is currently an instructor at the University of Vermont. She has a master’s degree in gender and development and has supervised and conducted research projects on human trafficking and related issues. She has also worked as a debate and public-speaking consultant in more than 20 countries.

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