Regular contributor Rebecca Surtees from the NEXUS Institute is back this week. This post focuses on one of the findings identified in “After Trafficking. Experiences and challenges in the (re)integration of trafficked persons in the GMS”, a regional study of (re)integration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS). The research study was commissioned by the six COMMIT governments as part of the 2nd and 3rd COMMIT Sub-regional Plan of Action (2008-2010 and 2011-2013). The study, conducted by NEXUS Institute, analysed the effectiveness of (re)integration processes and structures from the point of view of trafficked persons and the service providers that support them, uncovering whether and to what extent services currently offered to trafficking victims and their families are meeting their (re)integration needs, including any unmet assistance needs. The study was coordinated by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) and was overseen by a Regional Working Group comprised of Save the Children UK, World Vision International, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), NEXUS Institute and UNIAP.
This study was based on in-depth interviews with 252 trafficked persons from all six countries in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) about their experiences of (re)integration, including successes and challenges, as well as future plans and aspirations. The study included persons who had been identified and assisted, as well as those who were not identified and/or did not receive assistance. Understanding the diverse and complex post-trafficking trajectories sheds light on a wide range of issues and dynamics at play in the (re)integration processes in the GMS. It also highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of existing (re)integration mechanisms and processes.
Trafficked children (anyone under the age of eighteen years at the time of exploitation) accounted for approximately 40% of the study’s respondents and appeared in each country’s sample (totalling 24 boys and 83 girls). These trafficked children were primarily exploited within the region, although in a handful of cases the children were exploited in neighbouring countries, namely Malaysia and Indonesia. Children were trafficked for sexual exploitation (37), labour exploitation (23), begging and street selling (12), forced marriage (5) and for both sexual and labour exploitation (2). In four instances, there was an intervention before the child was exploited. Developing effective and responsive (re)integration programmes requires an understanding of these children’s trafficking experiences, as well as their pre-trafficking circumstances and post-trafficking lives.
Trafficked children, by virtue of their age, maturity and trafficking experience, had specific and often specialised assistance needs. Some (re)integration organisations were specialised in supporting the (re)integration of trafficked children and offered comprehensive and tailored services to children of different ages and at different stages of development. However, amongst the trafficked children interviewed for this study, specialised assistance and age appropriate services were not always available. In some cases, (re)integration services for children did not differ substantially from those for adults and most children did not describe assistance tailored to their individual needs as children. Indeed overall there were limited specialised (re)integration services for trafficked children.
Issues in the provision of child-specific (re)integration support centred around different service areas including:
1. Appropriate accommodation for trafficked children
Most trafficked children were assisted in shelter programmes at some stage after trafficking. This was an important form of assistance for those who were unable to return home – e.g. because they were without parents or a viable family environment. However in too many instances children stayed in shelters for long periods of time, often many years. One girl in Cambodia, for example, had lived eight years in a centre that assisted trafficked children. In very few instances was “kinship care” (care provided by relatives or extended family) pursued in spite of being the best alternative when family reunification was not possible. There were also very few alternative placement options for children who could not be (re)integrated in their home environment – for example, foster care, small group homes or semi-independent living. There was also limited support for trafficked children and youth in transitioning to an independent life when unable to return to family/community.
2. Medical assistance
Receiving medical assistance was important for trafficked children given the impact that trafficking had on their physical development and well being. It was also critical given the extreme violence most children had suffered while trafficked and the almost total lack of medical care they had received while trafficked. One Vietnamese girl, assisted in a shelter programme, identified medical care as a key form of support, because her family was too poor to pay for medical treatment. The availability of medical care in the shelter (and the lack of this assistance in the community) was a key factor in her decision to accept assistance. Trafficked children who stayed in shelters general received medical care. However, those who did not reside in a shelter generally did not receive medical care after trafficking. Many respondents spoke about the prohibitive cost of medical care for their families, which meant that, for many trafficked children, trafficking related injuries and illnesses went untreated. Even when medical assistance was provided, staff did not always have the training and skills to provide sensitive and appropriate services to trafficked children, which is critical when treating highly traumatised and extensively violated children.
3. Psychosocial support and counselling
Counselling and support was available to trafficked children in many shelter settings. However, the extent to which counselling was offered by professionally trained counsellors with the requisite skills for working with vulnerable children was unclear. Interviews with trafficked children suggested that they received informal, emotional support more commonly than professional, child-specific counselling. There was a need for culturally and child appropriate counselling, as well as support in developing coping tools like how to deal with stress, anger, conflict and so on.
4. Education, including integration into formal schooling
Many trafficked children had very low education levels and often lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills. Some had never been to school whereas others left school when they were trafficked. Options for educational opportunities were generally limited to children assisted in a shelter programme. Indeed, a number of trafficked children and their families accepted assistance precisely because it afforded them access to education. Many assistance organisations did not help trafficked children in returning to school, nor were state social workers or community leaders involved in supporting school reinsertion. Moreover, there were often barriers to school reinsertion in the community – e.g. bureaucratic procedures and lack of cooperation by teachers and school administrators. More than one trafficked child was told that they were “too old” to return to school, but were offered no option for “catch-up classes” or information about alternatives like non-formal education or vocational education/training.
5. Life skills education
Trafficked children commonly lacked basic life skills – e.g. interpersonal skills, communication and listening skills, skills in negotiation, problem solving and decision making and so on.
Life skills were vital to help trafficked children move on from trafficking and to successfully (re)integrate in their family and/or community. Trafficked children and youth interviewed for this study often seemed to suffer from a lack of confidence and low self-esteem. One boy, trafficked for labour in China, described his feelings about being tricked into his trafficking situation. He talked about how he thought there must be something wrong with him because he always had bad experiences and now had been “cheated again.” Later, while accommodated at a shelter, he came into conflict with another boy staying there and chose to run away because he didn’t know how to resolve the problem.
6. Vocational training
Depending on the age and needs of the trafficked child, vocational training may be appropriate. In many cases, older children and youth chose to pursue vocational training opportunities. Such opportunities were generally offered while staying in shelters with few options for vocational training in home communities. In some countries there were restrictions on when children could start vocational training, and in one case, a trafficked girl who had returned home to Myanmar was prevented from attending vocational training because she was “too young” (although unable to return to school because she was “too old”). Instead, she worked for a year until she was eligible to be trained. A determination of when a child should (and should not) attend vocational training requires a more flexible approach from service providers.
7. Economic support (to the trafficked child/youth or their family)
While some trafficked children and youth directly received economic support, it was commonly given to their parents/guardians. Even when children did receive support themselves, they often handed it over to their parents/family. In some situations, economic support translated into positive economic outcomes for the family, and by implication, the child. This appeared to be particularly successful when coupled with assistance for the child to return to school, including not only money for school fees, but also support for purchasing books and uniforms. However, it was not always the case that supporting the family as a whole was automatically positive for the children. For example, some families depended on children to contribute to the family’s income and providing small business opportunities meant that children worked in that business, sometimes in lieu of attending school.
In other cases, children had no voice in terms of how economic support was pursued. Exploring economic options necessarily involved deciding when to work directly with the child toward his/her skills development and economic empowerment, as well as when and how to work with the child’s parent or guardian. For example, one boy, trafficked internally in Myanmar for labour, was assisted to return to school by a local community-based programme. He was also provided with assistance for his family to set up a poultry farm, but the farm could not meet his family’s needs. His father was ill and unable to work every day. Therefore the boy also needed to continue to contribute to his family’s income. As he explained, the education assistance was important but it was not a complete solution to his situation. The overarching factor, ultimately, should have been a determination of the child’s best interest, which could only have been assessed by involving the child in this decision-making process.
8. Legal assistance and support during legal proceedings
Many trafficked children, including some who were very young, were involved as victim/witnesses in legal proceedings against their traffickers and there seemed to be limited options to decline to be involved. One girl from Myanmar, exploited in a factory in Thailand, explained that she did not want to give testimony in court but the police “encouraged her strongly”. Trafficked children, like adults, generally gave testimony and statements on multiple occasions through translation and in an environment where they did not understand the language. Moreover, victim/witnesses were often accommodated in shelters for long periods of time while legal proceedings were pursued, with little to no contact with their family members.
9. Family mediation, counselling and support
Many trafficked children came from problematic family environments and were unable to return to live there because problems were unresolved. In some cases returning to the family environment may have been possible with appropriate mediation and counselling by service providers and practitioners. This form of assistance was generally lacking in the region. Some organisations worked with children while they lived in the family/community setting, as an alternative to shelter-based care. While not an option for all trafficked children (some originated from very unhealthy and difficult environments), it was a constructive approach for families, which, when supported during (re)integration (e.g. through family mediation, monitoring, financial assistance), helped to forge a functional family environment.
10. Case management and follow-up after (re)integration
Children were likely to require a longer period of monitoring and follow-up as part of (re)integration given their specific situation and vulnerabilities and because they were not in a position to care for themselves as children. In addition, the types of assistance needed by children – e.g. education – are longer term, often a matter of several years. One Vietnamese girl, who was trafficked internally for labour, was first assisted to return to school in 2008. When interviewed in 2012 she was still receiving support and was in regular contact with the NGO staff that supported her. By contrast, some trafficked children received little to no case management and monitoring.
11. Child-specific protocols and procedures in the provision of (re)integration support
Many trafficked children had been victimised from a very young age and over long periods of time. Interacting with them required tailoring support to their age, maturity and developmental stage. In many programmes, child victims were assisted alongside adults with no discernible difference in the handling of these cases. The implementation of child-specific protocols and procedures appeared to have been very limited.
It was also concerning that children were not consulted about their assistance in many cases, with the needs of trafficked children determined solely by service providers, or by service providers in consultation with their parents or guardians. One girl from Myanmar, trafficked for begging and street selling in Malaysia, was assisted by an organisation upon her return, assistance that she very much needed and was grateful to receive. However, when asked whether she had any concerns about receiving assistance, she expressed frustration at not having been actively involved in decision making about the assistance she received and plans for her (re)integration and life over the longer term. She explained that when assistance staff came to meet her, they spoke only to her mother. They did not consult with her.
Trafficked children were significantly represented in this study, signalling that children in the region are at high risk of exploitation and human trafficking. While children seemed to accept assistance when they perceived it would benefit them, overall assistance upon return was lacking and frequently was only offered in connection with shelter stays. Greater attention (and resources) are needed to more adequately support the specific and diverse needs of trafficked children in moving on from their trafficking experiences, particularly in the long term and in their home communities. This will involve not only improving the capacity of anti-trafficking professionals working with children, but also mainstreaming (re)integration services for trafficked children into the social protection framework which should, in principle, be equipped with specialised skills in working with vulnerable children. Critically, trafficked children need to be (voluntarily) involved in the development and monitoring of (re)integration programmes designed to assist them. Only with their participation and input will (re)integration programmes and policies in the region be able to meet their needs and interests.