Psychology in action

Child Trafficking From Prevention to Protection: Community Based Collaboration

Although human trafficking for sexual exploitation is not a new phenomenon, it has dramatically increased so that the number of individuals involved is now 10 times greater than those victimized by the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 19th century.

By Rita Chi-Ying Chung, PhD

As a result of the Japanese bombing of Southern China during World War II, both my parents became separated and vulnerable children. They wandered, following groups of displaced people looking for their parents and family members and scavenged for food while trying to ensure their own safety. Eventually they found their way to New Zealand where I was born and raised. Being a child of refugees and growing up in a British colony, it became evident to me that immigrants and refugees encountered numerous psychosocial adjustment challenges. Living in the Chinese community in New Zealand, I became a cultural broker and advocate assisting Chinese immigrants with language translation and educating them about accessing service systems. My research interest in immigrants and refugees was rooted in these experiences, and naturally evolved into the focus of my professional career. Recently, my research has focused on Asian children trafficked for commercial sex work.

Although human trafficking for sexual exploitation is not a new phenomenon, it has dramatically increased so that the number of individuals involved is now 10 times greater than those victimized by the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 19th century. This is a lucrative global business generating large profits for traffickers and organized crime syndicates. Estimates of approximately $9.5 billion per year globally spent on trafficking (O’Neil, 2000) make it the fastest-growing source of profit for organized criminal enterprises worldwide. Every region of the world is affected by some form of human trafficking. According to the United Nations (2006), 700,000 to 2,000,000 women and children are being trafficked yearly worldwide, which equates to approximately 2,000 to 6,000 women and children being trafficked on a daily basis. Within Southeast Asia, over 225,000 people are trafficked. It is estimated that in the past 30 years over 30 million women and children in Asia have been victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation (Chung, 2006) and that 80% of trafficking victims are women and girls with up to 50% of them being minors (USDS, 2008).

Working with complex and multidimensional issues such as child trafficking, it is necessary to collaborate with researchers in other disciplines. Working with anthropologists, economists, historians, demographers, international lawyers, sociologists, public health specialists, etc. has provided me with a macro understanding of child trafficking. Working with multiple disciplines and in multiple countries has also underscored my long-held questioning of the applicability of western, anglo-based theories, models, and interventions, as well as the use of western empirical research methodologies in this work. Growing up in a traditional Chinese culture, what I learned in my studies in psychology did not make a lot of sense to me, since I found it difficult to directly apply these Western methods, theories, models, interventions and skills to the Chinese culture. Furthermore, although psychology gave me an excellent foundation and understanding of psychosocial issues, it did not provide me with a wider scope of knowledge and understanding of the complex variables that impact individuals, families, and communities. I view psychological issues intertwined with other perspectives/disciplines. Hence, all my research has focused on examining psychosocial issues from cross-cultural and interdisciplinary perspectives.

Because my research focuses on human rights and social justice, the core of my research is community based. Building and working in partnerships and collaborating with community and spiritual leaders, and community members are critical. After all, who knows more about these issues, the person studying the situation or those living in the situation? Obviously it is the latter. Therefore, working in collaboration with the community is pivotal to my work and helps gain a holistic understanding across disciplines.

Working on issues such as forced migration and human trafficking, one naturally collaborates with professionals from other disciplines. However, collaborating is not always easy. The psychological perspective in forced migration and human trafficking is often not perceived as a critical stand alone issue. When I have mentioned the psychosocial issues to my colleagues from other disciplines there is a quick response “yes, we always think of the psychosocial”, however, when one explores further it becomes obvious that the psychosocial is seen as a secondary issue, and often not fully understood as a key element. The result is a continual struggle to include the psychological concerns as a major consideration.

I realized that it is impossible to completely stop trafficking due to the complexity and the multidimensionality of issues that includes the interrelationship between poverty and culture. When I talk to children about trafficking and to trafficking returnees and survivors, I am humbled by this experience. Their willingness to share with a stranger their pain and shame, and yet at the same time, display incredible strength and resilience is profound. I have come to accept the fact that there is a high probability that many of the children I talk with will be trafficked and some will become sex workers. I am not there to judge, but to provide assistance in a collaborative manner, to the trafficking survivors and potential trafficking victims. Therefore, I have moved to incorporate both prevention and protection in my work, oftentimes in very poor communities talking with community members about safe migration rather the unrealistic goal of preventing trafficking. At the same time, as a psychologist, I must be proactive in advocacy work related to prevention and intervention of potential human rights issues from regional, national, and global levels.

I was fortunate to be invited by an INGO to work in Asia on human trafficking as an outcome of my international presentations and my publications. I believe that to be change agents and advocates for the populations you work with, it is important to publish, present, and disseminate your work. In addition, it is essential to attain the skill of respectfully communicating, negotiating, and educating various individuals and organizations ranging from government officials, NGOs, aid workers, spiritual leaders, community members, and trafficking survivors. Although I may not agree with governmental policies, I remain respectful and open during my discussions, because my goal in doing this work is to form true partnerships and collaboration with communities and other disciplines in both preventing trafficking and ensuring safe migration. Ψ