SINGAPORE – As a key technology partner in the global fight against human trafficking, Microsoft recently partnered the International Organization for Migration’s X Campaign (IOM X), USAID and the U.S. Embassy in Singapore to organise IOM X Connect Singapore, a pilot outreach programme aimed at raising awareness about the issue of human trafficking in Singapore.
According to UN estimates, 20.9 million men, women and children are victims of trafficking and exploitation worldwide, with the Asia-Pacific accounting for 11.7 million, or 56 percent of the global number – a staggering figure that most people in the region have yet to come to terms with.
As part of the programme, students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Management University (SMU) took to the streets to test Singaporeans on their knowledge of the issue using the new IOM X Learn, Act and Share App created by IOM X and Microsoft.
The findings from the pilot were presented at the IOM X Connect Singapore event on 30 November, which kicked off with an address by John Cann, Asia Managing Director, International Organizations at Microsoft, who spoke about the role technology in combatting human trafficking. Cann highlighted that while criminals are using the Internet, chat rooms and pop-up advertising sites to recruit victims with ever-increasing sophistication, counter-trafficking organisations are simultaneously realising that the same technology can play a vital role in fighting back.
One example of how technology can be leveraged effectively is the IOM X Learn, Act and Share App (downloadable from the Windows Store). With its fun and interactive user interface hosted on Surface Pro tablets, the student outreach team polled over 100 people in just 90 minutes.
Findings revealed that while the majority of Singaporeans (75 percent) knew the correct definition of human trafficking, only half were able to correctly identify who could be a potential victim. Additionally, when asked about the total number of trafficking victims worldwide, most respondents underestimated the gravity of the situation, with the average response coming up to only 11 million, or around half (53 percent) of the actual 20.9 million victims globally.
With much to be done to educate people on the issue of human trafficking in the region, Microsoft Asia’s Vice President for Public Sector, Stefan Sjöström, joined a panel of advocates, including Blair Hall, Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassy Singapore, Eunice Olsen, actress and human rights advocate, Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), and university student Deepika Daswani from SMU, who was part of the outreach team in Singapore, to discuss how the region can better leverage technology to support the fight against trafficking and protect vulnerable communities.
Here are three key takeaways from the discussions:
1. Technology builds resilient communities
Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. The massive scale of this modern day slavery has only been exacerbated by the explosion of mobile and Internet technology. However, the more available technologies become, the more they’re also helping to fortify at-risk populations.
Jolovan Wham, Executive Director, HOME, shared that with social media, human rights advocates now have new tools in their arsenal to strike back in this digital arms race. “It’s hard to reach trafficking victims and migrant workers through traditional channels as they tend to be socially isolated and lacking in support networks. But nowadays, they are using their free time to get on social media via mobile phones and data plans,” said Wham.
Through Facebook groups, HOME disseminates information about workers’ rights and where they can go in times of trouble. These online communities have not only made people more attuned to what constitutes exploitation, but have also given them the means and mechanisms to report violations. Awareness-raising goes a long way towards fostering an environment that is less conducive for exploitation to take place, and creates a sense of how people can do more to help.
2. It takes a network to defeat a network
Combatting human exploitation is a team play, not an individual sport. Technology has a major role in bringing together public, private, civic and international organizations to create networks between the people who know where the needs are, and those that have the solutions to address them.
“NGOs know very well what the issues are but they don’t necessarily know software development. Meanwhile, software developers are in abundance but they aren’t well-versed in the problems,” said Stefan Sjöström, Vice President Asia, Public Sector, Microsoft. “There are a lot of good-hearted people out there. If we provide them with a vehicle to participate, many are willing to share their time and resources,” added Sjöström.
Initiatives like 6Degree.org, a crowdfunding portal launched by IOM X and Microsoft, enable the public to participate in the fight against human trafficking, and directly support the voluntary return and sustainable reintegration of individual victims.
3. Technology enables young people to step up to the plate
“If you can’t identify the problem, you can’t fix it. This is why getting the word out is important,” said Blair Hall, Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassy Singapore. “Today, there’s no better way of doing that than through technology—particularly using technology targetted at young people.”
By tapping into platforms that this savvy demographic is already using for personal purposes, technology can be a powerful tool for piquing interest and encouraging social change. Deepika Daswani, an SMU student who was part of the IOM X Learn, Act and Share App pilot team, found that apps are a good way of connecting to youths, as they are familiar tools that can “facilitate comfort and connection”. Survey participants became enthusiastic about the interactive interface, actively tapping on the screens and seeking to learn more about human trafficking.
As Hall concluded, “Using technology is especially critical—not just for big data, network analytics and law enforcement, but for starting a conversation with the problem solvers of tomorrow.”