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Tackling Asia's Human Trafficking With Facebook, WhatsApp And LINE

On August 11, IOM X, the outreach arm of the International Organization for Migration, received a Facebook message from a 26 year-old Cambodian man. He was at an internet cafe in the Marshall Islands, where his fishing vessel had stopped.
The man was a victim of trafficking and finding that his Cambodian recruitment firm would not let him leave without a payment of $4,000, he turned to IOM X for help. They were quickly able to put him in touch with anti-trafficking groups in the Marshall Islands and he was later rescued, and returned to Cambodia.
This photo taken on September 1, 2011 shows a migrant laborer sitting on a Thai fishing boat in Sattahip, Thailand’s Rayong province. Thousands of men from Myanmar and Cambodia set sail on Thai fishing boats every day, but many are unwilling seafarers — slaves forced to work in brutal conditions under threat of death. (NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)
While it sounds like a relatively simple story, IOM X says it would have been much more challenging as recently as a few years ago. “Because he messaged us on Facebook, we immediately could connect him with contacts in Marshall Islands and Cambodia. Had he just called us it would have been a lot more complicated,” says Mia Barett, IOM XCommunication and PR Officer. 
This story might be a success/Cinderella story for the trafficking world, but there are a few factors to consider for how the internet and social media are fighting trafficking. (They are also a major source of recruitment but that will be discussed in another post.) 
One of the most obvious differences is speed: a few years ago the Cambodian man would have had to call IOM X long distance in Bangkok to get help, and finding their number on the Marshall Islands would have been almost impossible. On Facebook he got instant help.
Barrett says that frontline organizations working with victims of trafficking are seeing their work increasingly move to social media.
“Facebook, WhatsApp, and LINE have been really powerful tools for frontline service providers to tap into [migrant] networks. When we talk to organizations that are actively working with populations most vulnerable to trafficking, they are saying the best way to communicate information to everyone really widely is through social media,” she says
“They are also increasingly receiving requests for help and assistance online. There used to be a telephone help line, but now it’s done primarily through messages via Facebook.”
Even as recently as a few years ago this might not have been possible. Consider that Facebook only started twelve years ago in 2004 and it wasn’t opened up to global users until 2006. LINE, which is massively popular in trafficking hotbed Thailand, was only released in 2011 while WhatsApp, used in Hong Kong, was released in 2010.
As a final note, social media can also make use of photographs, which can often speak for themselves in engaging activism and assistance. One of the most famous cases is Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian domestic worker abused by her employer in Hong Kong.She was famously photographed in 2014 by a fellow Indonesian worker at Hong Kong International Airport where her employer was sending her home.
The photograph of the battered Erwiana spread across social media and triggered a reaction in Hong Kong and later international media might have been impossible years earlier.

I cover the internet in Southeast Asia.  

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