Tex­ting Out an SOS

▶▶Mes­sag­ing apps are help­ing some women es­cape hu­man traf­fick­ing ▶▶“It’s a life­line, and an im­por­tant one”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - Politics/policy - −Mary Pilon

So­phie Otiende is a late adopter. It was only last sum­mer, she says, that she be­came ob­sessed with her smart­phone. Even so, she had a bet­ter ex­cuse than the rest of us for con­stantly check­ing her de­vice. Otiende is a con­sul­tant in Nairobi with the non­profit Aware­ness Against Hu­man Traf­fick­ing. By last spring, 31 women— in a group spread across war-torn Libya and linked via so­cial me­dia—had found her on Face­book through the or­ga­ni­za­tion and asked for her help. The first thing she could do, the en­dan­gered women told her, was join their group chat on What­sApp.

Soon, Otiende was us­ing the free mes­sag­ing app to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion to each of the women in Libya, who’d met in per­son or found one an­other through so­cial me­dia over sev­eral weeks and formed a sup­port group. Many said they were afraid for their lives and needed a way out, so Otiende and her col­leagues be­gan sup­ply­ing them with the di­rec­tions, pa­per­work, and points of con­tact needed to flee to Kenya, with as­sis­tance from the Kenyan Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs & In­ter­na­tional Trade and the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion. By De­cem­ber 2014, all 31 women had es­caped sex slav­ery and be­gun build­ing new lives in Kenya, ac­cord­ing to Otiende. “They risked ev­ery­thing,” she says. “We were con­stantly wor­ried about them. But we were able to com­mu­ni­cate.”

In some ways, the In­ter­net and so­cial me­dia have fu­eled the prob­lem of hu­man traf­fick­ing around the world. It’s never been eas­ier to buy or sell forced la­bor. The In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­ga­ni­za­tion says it’s a $150 bil­lion mar­ket vic­tim­iz­ing some 21 mil­lion peo­ple—4.5 mil­lion of whom are sex­u­ally ex­ploited. At the same time, many vic­tims have ac­cess to mo­bile de­vices, and in­creas­ingly, traf­ficked women are us­ing mes­sag­ing ser­vices to get help.

“If you’re vul­ner­a­ble and iso­lated, the more im­por­tant that cell phone be­comes for you,” says Mark La­tonero, a fel­low at the Data & So­ci­ety Re­search In­sti­tute in New York, who’s stud­ied tech­nol­ogy and hu­man traf­fick­ing. “It’s a life­line, and an im­por­tant one.”

Many abused or traf­ficked girls and young women are given phones as a way for their abusers to keep tabs on them, says Jameela Nishat, founder of the Sha­heen Women’s Re­source and Wel­fare As­so­ci­a­tion, a non­profit shel­ter in Hyderabad, In­dia. Nishat says 10 of her vol­un­teers use What­sApp to com­mu­ni­cate with about 100 women and girls who wouldn’t be safe try­ing to meet with a door-to-door case­worker. “It helps them tell us things,” she says. “They can share with us the good and

the bad.” Through mo­bile mes­sag­ing, Nishat says, the women and girls liv­ing in con­fine­ment can seek ed­u­ca­tion, med­i­cal treat­ment, and coun­sel­ing, as well as emo­tional sup­port. Like Otiende, she’s also used it in more dra­matic cases, giv­ing step-by-step guidance for es­cape or res­cue.

The women also use apps such as Line and Tele­gram, but most of­ten they men­tion What­sApp, which had 900 mil­lion users as of Septem­ber. Face­book, which paid $22 bil­lion for What­sApp in 2014, didn’t re­spond to re­quests for com­ment for this story. When the com­pany an­nounced the ac­qui­si­tion, Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Mark Zucker­berg said part of What­sApp’s ap­peal was that it could be a kind of “911 for the In­ter­net.”

Hu­man-rights ad­vo­cates say so­cial me­dia ser­vices could do more to block traf­fick­ers from ad­ver­tis­ing and so­lic­it­ing young peo­ple on their sites. In 2011, Mi­crosoft of­fered six grants to­tal­ing $185,000 to re­searchers fo­cused on the role of tech­nol­ogy in traf­fick­ing. That same year, Google gave $11.5 mil­lion in grants to 10 an­ti­traf­fick­ing and an­ti­slav­ery or­ga­ni­za­tions.

With an eye to traf­fick­ing vic­tims who have only dis­pos­able “burner” phones and can’t use apps, Univer­sity of Alberta com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sor Gor­don Gow and his stu­dents comb clas­si­fied ads at sites such as Back­page .com for the phone num­bers of sex work­ers, then send them SMS text mes­sages with con­tact info for the Cen­tre to End All Sex­ual Ex­ploita­tion. Gow says about 10 per­cent of the 5,000-odd mes­sages his team has sent have elicited a re­sponse—some a sim­ple “thank you,” oth­ers ask­ing for more de­tailed as­sis­tance, such as re­fer­rals to po­lice or re­hab fa­cil­i­ties.

Each blast—typ­i­cally from 100 to 300 mes­sages—costs the or­ga­ni­za­tion $10 in wire­less charges, Gow says. “From our point of view, this is a prac­ti­cal and cost-ef­fec­tive way of di­rectly reach­ing this pop­u­la­tion,” he says. “The mes­sages say, ‘We’re here to help you if you need it,’ and it gives a high re­li­a­bil­ity of ac­tu­ally reach­ing some­one.”

Reach­ing some­one is just the be­gin­ning, Otiende says. In Kenya, her or­ga­ni­za­tion is help­ing the Libya es­capees find jobs, shel­ter, and coun­sel­ing for post-trau­matic stress. Mi­grants, refugees, and other dis­placed peo­ple re­main par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to slavers, she says: “The prob­lem is that we al­ways feel two steps be­hind where the traf­fick­ers are.”

The next fron­tiers, says Otiende, in­clude In­sta­gram, Twit­ter, and YouTube. Her group is try­ing to put as much of its re­sources on­line as pos­si­ble, to help more peo­ple in Kenya and else­where. “To fight, we need to be able to stay up to date with what’s out there,” she says. “We need to be able to evolve.”

The bot­tom line Traf­ficked women and the non­prof­its try­ing to help them are turn­ing to mes­sag­ing apps to share in­for­ma­tion.

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