"I think a lot of people perhaps have gotten a one-sided understanding of this issue of trafficking. They see it as coercive prostitution, or just see prostitution as synonymous with trafficking, which is really not the case.
More than anything else in my 10 plus years of experience working on this issue, and living in Southeast Asia, my colleagues and I have seen that trafficking really is about a lack of economic opportunity, and it's not so much about sexual slavery or forced prostitution."
--Christina Arnold, Prevent Human Trafficking
Christina Arnold is the Founder of Prevent Human Trafficking, a DC-based nonprofit working to prevent human trafficking, particularly in Southeast Asia. I interviewed Christina for the Big Vision Podcast last month. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Christina Arnold: My name is Christina Arnold, and I'm the founder of Prevent Human Trafficking, formerly Project Hope International. We work primarily in the Washington, DC area and in Southeast Asia to promote programs that are addressing the root causes of human trafficking, and to provide sustainable alternatives to trafficking.
We have financed many micro-credit loans for women and men who want to start their own businesses as an alternative way to make a living for their families so that they're not circumstantially forced to take work that would be degrading or demeaning to them.
We do a lot of education here in the Washington, DC area, actually all over the United States. We lecture, and we're also trainers with the US Attorney's Office, so we've given trainings to police on how to identify victims of trafficking.
We have an annual study tour that we do every year to Southeast Asia for scholars, researchers, academics, students, funders, you name it, who would like to get outside of the bubble of the United States and see firsthand the circumstances that people endure, and where people are at, and what this looks like on the ground, especially in some of the very at risk areas along the Thai-Burma border, the border with Laos, and also in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Britt Bravo: On your website, you have several videos and on one of them you said that the reason that Prevent Human Trafficking exists is to help people come to terms with the real facts on trafficking and the larger, bigger issues around this issue.
BB: What are the real facts?
CA: I think a lot of people perhaps have gotten a one-sided understanding of this issue of trafficking. They see it as coercive prostitution, or just see prostitution as synonymous with trafficking, which is really not the case.
More than anything else in my 10 plus years of experience working on this issue, and living in Southeast Asia, my colleagues and I have seen that trafficking really is about a lack of economic opportunity, and it's not so much about sexual slavery or forced prostitution.
I would say that the majority of the cases are people who've been displaced by war or political conflict, especially in Southeast Asia, and they were forced to get into a kind of work. Many times they arrange their own transport. They agreed to be smuggled. They pay a smuggler to take them across the border to get them work, and then are tricked along the way and wind up in the fishing industry, wind up in very exploitative situations as domestic workers in people's homes, or factories, things like that.
A lot more airtime has been given to sex slavery, especially here in the United States, and researchers have found that a lot of this talk is unsubstantiated by research. There is actually a great piece by a professor at George Washington University, Ronald Weitzer. He wrote a brilliant piece about the moral crusade of this issue, and that's not to say that it's not to be taken seriously. I think that we need to look at the root causes for why people wind up in exploitative situations, no matter what they are, and to say that someone who is a victim of labor exploitation and trafficking deserves equal voice with someone who has had a different experience.
I think now more research is being done to point to some of the assumptions that have been made about the human trafficking "industry", if you will, to separate out the myths from the facts, and to give people a clearer idea of what we're really looking at, especially when we talk about numbers of trafficking victims.
There was also a fantastic article from the Washington Post about this very issue of numbers. They said that it's very hard to communicate to people the gravity of the situation with human trafficking unless you can put numbers around it. But they haven't found that the numbers have added up here.
If you put them next to what the Department of Justice and the Department of State put out as the official numbers, they've not been confirmed or substantiated, so people are starting to take a more nuanced, critical view of this issue of trafficking, especially if we're looking at outcomes, and what has been done in the last 10 years to really change the situation of trafficking. Have the programs that have been funded done enough to make a difference on this issue? Where is the research funding being given? People care deeply about this issue, but I think asking the hard questions, and looking for outcomes, and looking at root causes is something now that's being considered a lot more seriously.
Britt Bravo: Since what you're saying is that he definition of human trafficking is much different than what many people think of, can you tell a story of an actual person and what that means, or what that looks like, or what their experience is, and if it's a success story, even better, of how they survived? I think that helps people to understand what something is really about if it can be placed in the context of a story of a real person.
CA: Without giving names, along the Thai-Burma border there is a project that we're funding with a fantastic former Thai Senator, Mechai Viravaidya, who is also the Chairman and Founder of the Population Community Development Association of Thailand. They have an incredible grassroots network in some of the hardest to reach villages where people are most at risk, for all sorts of reasons.
We've partnered with the Partnership for Trafficking Prevention to provide micro-credit loans and education in these border towns. We've received news back that in one village, before the program was started, they had more than 17 families that had relatives or family members go into the sex industry, and other forms of exploitative labor, because they said that they just had no options, and people were desperate. They believed these talent scouts that said that they would find them good work in the city. Since this collaborative project has been in place, only one person has left the village. In a year, that's pretty outstanding.
People will tell you pretty straightforwardly, "The reason that I sent my son or my daughter, (or my whoever family member) to go and work in a big city is because we're completely out of options here. Our rice crops have failed, and we don't know what to do. We keep having more and more people come across the Thai-Burma border. We need work that can sustain the village community."
There was a woman I met a couple of years ago who said that all she ever wanted was to build her own noodle shop. When I asked her how much money that was and how she was trying to save for it, she was in a shelter at the time. She said that first she started out as a domestic worker, and then wound up in sex trafficking. She said that two hundred dollars was the amount of money that she was trying to save up.
After working for more than seven years, she hadn't even been able to save a fraction of that money that was needed to fund her dream. That's the most exciting thing for us is to be able to say, here is a real problem that exists, people know where these vulnerable populations are, and we can fund these enterprises that allow, not just that person, but their whole family and the whole community to be able to sustain themselves. That's a pretty powerful thing, and it's proof that it is possible to prevent human trafficking before it begins. That's probably the clearest example I can give you of how these programs work when the villagers themselves say, "Oh, yeah, a year ago this many people went missing from our village and this year only one person."
BB: In the same video you talked about how a lot of the solutions that you're working to support, the people in the community come up with them and they are the ones implementing them. What are the solutions that the communities have come up with, and also, it sounds like micro-loans are one way to prevent trafficking. Are there other tools? What are other ways to prevent it?
CA: Lack of education about people that are in search of people in desperate situations that can be lured into these exploitative jobs is a big part of it. Many people, especially in the up country areas of Thailand, along the Burma border, are not necessarily talking to each other and getting the information about what happens to people's family members especially, when they came home sick, or didn't come home at all.
We found out, after having a consultation with the village leaders, that they said that if they could have forums, or if they could have a play, a street drama, where people could do a retelling of some of these stories, without putting attention on one particular family, then this would raise the awareness of everyone in the village to the tricks and the ploys of some of these traffickers.
For example, one family had somebody who had a really fancy rented car, borrowed fancy jewelry, and nice clothes on show up at the door of a poor rice farming family, who was in a little shack without running water or electricity, and say, "We've heard that your family is very hard working, and we're here to offer you a job. We're starting a new restaurant in Bangkok or whatever," It's very hard, I think, for some of these people to see, "Oh, that's one ploy of traffickers."
Putting together those stories and experiences, and then being able to have a community put on a theater of sorts, like street theater, or sit and discuss it. One of the ideas that they came up with, which they started years ago with the Population Community Development Association of Thailand, was to have village banks. What would happen is that many times someone in the village -- say, for example, their rice crop didn't yield, or they ran into some other trouble, or a family member died and they needed to borrow money for the funeral-- would wind up getting very deeply into debt with some of these loan sharks because they didn't have access to credit, and they had no extended family to borrow money from.
They set up a village bank where everyone in the village invests money in the village bank, and then once a month they have a meeting and decide who in the community is in an emergency situation. They vote to let them borrow from this village bank, and that's a community solution that's worked very, very well for them.
Again, asking the question, at what point did people fall into debt? What happened to get them into the situation where they were so desperate that they wound up in these exploitative situations?
BB: What brought you to this work? Why do you do this work?
CA: I guess my whole life has been preparing me to do this work. I was born in India, in Bombay, and I have four brothers and sisters. There were five of us that were born in South and Southeast Asia, and I lived there until I was 21.
When I was growing up, I was very aware of the class differences, and the different ways that people would treat children who were from lower class families. I also lived in Sri Lanka right about the time that sex tourism became a big deal, and saw it firsthand. I spent a lot of time thinking about why these things happened to people that are just poor. They don't have the resources to be able to do better by their family, and you see that it goes on through generations. Wanting to do something to help change that has been a long journey.
I came to the States for the first time when I was 21 to live and brought with me this idea that started in Thailand, when I was working in some of the orphanages there, hearing stories that sounded very similar to stories that I'd heard in other countries in Southeast Asia.
At that point we didn't have a name for it. Human trafficking hadn't been institutionalized, and the U.S. didn't have the Trafficking Victims Protection Act yet, that was passed in 2000. I found a really amazing group of people here in the States that really wanted to do something to help change circumstances for people in these situations.
It started out small. It started out actually with a Rockefeller Grant to do a study trip back to Thailand, and the area, to find out what was being done for at risk populations. That's grown into an every-year trip back to that part of the world to continue doing research, meeting with community members, and keeping those ties strong with the grassroots networks that we built over the last eight years.
It's a pretty neat thing to be able to link the experiences that people are having in South and Southeast Asia with what we're seeing here in the U.S. There are trafficking situations. People are looking at this issue now, taking it seriously. I just think more focus needs to be put on root causes, and put on prevention. The State Department actually has within its mandate prevention. They have the three P's, as they call them - prosecution, protection and prevention. Prevention has not been given much funding, and I think that we can see now after almost 10 years of work on this issue that some things are definitely being understood better, like the whole debt bondage situation. That's mostly why people wind up trafficked, and that was just highlighted in this year's Trafficking in Persons Report from the State Department, which was encouraging as well, because it is now giving more attention to the plight of people who have been trafficked into exploitative labor situations as well.
BB: And if you had unlimited resources and funding, what would be your dream project or program?
CA: I actually have a dream project that we are trying to figure out how to get funding for. It is an observatory to study human trafficking in Southeast Asia, and it is a group of academics and researchers and activists from all over the world. I'd say we have got more than 15 people on-board now for this idea, which is to put all the research that has been done on this issue into one place where people can access it. We can do more on both ends to figure out how to be most helpful to the organizations that are providing services and dealing with this issue on the frontlines by asking, "Is the grant funding going where it should go," and "what are the effective practices that we can promote." I think a lot more attention could be put on that. We are just looking for funding for it now.
It is pretty amazing the person that is heading up this initiative is actually going to be coming to the U.S. in April, and we will be doing a lecture and documentary screening tour with him. His name is Pierre Le Roux and he has researched in that area for 25 years, speaks five languages, and has a very strong, more than a feeling, he has a very strong opinion that human trafficking can be stopped.
He has real numbers, and he says that people tend to get very depressed about it, because it seems so overwhelming, but with this observatory, the idea would be to get all of the intelligence that we have on trafficking, and things like, where trafficking victims are coming from, what are the top reasons that they are winding up in these situations, and get some of the best minds involved to come up with substantive information that can actually make a difference to the lives of people who are being affected.
BB: For people who are listening, who are feeling like, "I want to do something about this, either I want to support to Prevent Human Trafficking, or just help some way overall, " what can they do?
CA: Anything that you can imagine. We need all kinds of help, anything from donations to getting involved with helping to fundraise for this observatory, to going overseas. If it is a donor, or somebody who wants to get involved in funding sustainable solutions, we take people every year in the summer to visit the projects first hand and see what is being done over there. In kind donations of all kinds, office supplies, donating miles that people can go and work with some of our partner organizations in Thailand.
Every year we send all kinds of volunteers who would like to spend three months or more volunteering their time with partner organizations. That is something that has really been meaningful on both ends for the people that go, and then also for the organizations that are grateful for their help.
We have a scholarship fund that gives scholarships to at-risk children along the Thai-Burma border; that is something else that can be gifted in honor of family members. A lot of people like that. Someone donated a yacht to our organization this year! That was probably the most interesting donation we have gotten. Computers, anything you can think of, we will find a way to use it to advance the cause.
BB: Is there anything else you want people to know about the issue of human trafficking?
CA: I think that something that is very important, especially for the second generation of human rights activists that are interested in this issue, is that the desire to get out there and do something, to help stop human trafficking, is something that is felt by a lot of people now that they have seen the Lifetime series on human trafficking, and different documentaries that have been circulating.
It solicits a very emotional response from people, people who want to go on their spring break and go and free victims of trafficking in various parts of the world where they may not speak the language. I think they need to take an optimistic view first off that yes, everyone can do something to stop human trafficking, but then think about how their skills can be best used, or how they can be most effective in that goal that they have of wanting to ameliorate human suffering.
I think that we hold tremendous power in our hands. I think everyone whether it's volunteering a couple hours of their time or helping to translate documents, or doing something that contributes in a serious way to an organization's effort is more useful than, I think, hopping on a plane and going out with the aim of rescuing victims of trafficking from various parts of the world.
I think that working here in the United States is important too because a lot of the organizations that we are honored to work with in that part of the world have told us that it's the access that we are able to provide them to organizations and caring individuals here that allows their work to continue.
For example, Dining for Women is a fantastic organization that promotes the idea that chapters all over the country can donate the money that they might have spent on a meal out to an organization that is working to promote human rights, women's education and sustainable programs such as the ones we run. They actually raised over $13,000 for a project of ours along the Thai-Burma border, which was phenomenal, and that is something that anybody could do. Anybody could join their effort and start a chapter in their own neck of the woods. I think that approach, funding sustainable work that is being done, maybe people can't travel all the way over to Thailand, but in their own backyards, they can do a lot to change the lives of people that otherwise would not have any options.
Related Blog Posts:
• Dining for Women's post about raising money for Prevent Human Trafficking.
• Jay Dedman's post about spending 3 weeks in Southeast Asia with Ryanne Hodson videoblogging for Prevent Human Trafficking.
•Prevent Human Trafficking's video blog.
Photo used with permission from Prevent Human Trafficking. Christina is in the pink shirt.