Putting Out Fire: A Global Collaboration Against Human Trafficking


Exploitation, vulnerable communities and trafficking have all existed throughout history. Even now, human trafficking is one of the fastest growing crimes worldwide and the exploitation of people is widespread and ingrained in society.

Why it continues to prevail is a complex issue. Human trafficking itself creates vulnerabilities in people and communities and feeds from existing vulnerabilities such as poverty, addiction, incarceration, gender inequality and racial discrimination. Human trafficking is a lucrative business——it is a trade of human lives. The situation is a complex one. Victims can be trafficked by individuals from their own communities, sometimes by those who were once in similar situations. Some traffickers may have even escaped their own vulnerabilities by exploiting others.

Sadly, there will always be communities and people at risk and those willing to exploit them, but the aspect that can be changed is the high-profit, low-risk environment that allows this process to flourish. It is essential to remember the human misery, degradation and destruction that this crime causes to both individuals and communities. Whilst this is a familiar human narrative, the conditions in which exploitation can flourish are harder to uncover. For one, it is difficult to trace the profits that this crime generates, since these can pass through legitimate financial institutions. It is not always simple to identify whether goods were produced by exploited people in local shops and online stores. Finally, it is not always apparent whether businesses and enterprises in towns and cities are exploiting trafficked people.

A collaborative systemic solution

The solution to disrupt this system is complicated but nevertheless must be tackled as an urgent priority and it is reliant on collaboration. Imagine the global issue of exploitation as a large fire where individuals, governments, communities, banks and businesses each hold a bucket of water that can extinguish the fire together. If time is spent arguing over who should throw water at the fire first, the blaze will rage on. Similarly, focusing solely on one strand of the modern slavery ‘system’ (e.g. ethical supply chains) would allow human trafficking and exploitation to persist. If only the government pitches in by creating laws, policies and practices to prosecute trafficking, there will not be an end to the disaster. If there are only activists and individuals passionate about their cause fighting for it to end, there will not be a real change. The conflagration will be completely extinguished only when everyone, in their jobs, positions, actions and choices, tackles this issue as a coordinated response.

The challenge is the time, money and effort required to prevent human trafficking. If all the attention and funding are spent on the survivors of fires, those nearby in other smouldering buildings, the most vulnerable in society, will continue to risk being engulfed. The result would be a never-ending supply of exploited people. It is imperative to balance important rescue work with vital preventative action. The high-profit and low-risk nature of human trafficking are the circumstances and conditions that fuel the fire in the first place.

Preventative action: Investment in protecting those most vulnerable

The first step to prevent human trafficking and exploitation is to understand where and how the issue prevails. Data sharing platforms that provide important, easily accessible and real-time insights on the mechanisms of human trafficking and exploitation are fundamentally important. Founded by IBM and STOP THE TRAFFIK as well as supported by pro-bono legal support from Clifford Chance, the Traffik Analysis Hub addresses this need by collating data from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), news outlets, businesses, survivors and financial institutions. The data can provide usable insights on where to focus prevention work. Importantly, this global platform enables the picture of trafficking to be examined and analysed by region, type of exploitation, recruitment channel, control method and more. This is a crucial tool as trafficking emanates in many different forms depending on the region or community where it occurs.

Preventative work can be seen in collaboration between law enforcement agencies and financial institutions. The experience of a survivor passing through the criminal justice system is complicated and often fraught with difficulties, which is a contributory factor to low rates of prosecution cases for trafficking. However, when law enforcement agencies and financial institutions share data on trafficking hot spots, premises used, as well as traffickers’ names and other form of evidence, they can identify transaction patterns that may allow for victimless prosecutions. In turn, this makes it harder for traffickers to launder the proceeds of their crimes, thereby potentially disrupting or halting their operations.

There are several businesses that are moving the prevention of human trafficking higher up in their agendas, making it an integral part of their operations to ensure their supply chains do not involve human slavery or forced labour. This is a challenging area because there are no quick, easy or cheap ways to address this crime and subcontracting is a common practice that is notorious for concealing exploitation. With the active promotion of transparent supply chains and the sharing of best practices, the eradication of slave labour can be kept as a priority and adopted as part of everyday business operations.

Knowledge is power and it is vital for disrupting crime and empowering others to act

Trafficking is fundamentally a money-making enterprise, with perpetrators earning significant profits from the exploitation of human beings. These proceeds of crime must somehow be legitimised to conceal the illicit source of income. Financial institutions are used by perpetrators as well as victims of trafficking. As such, financial institutions occupy a relatively unique position to combat modern slavery, as they have access to transactional financial data. Retail banks and money transfer services that have direct contact with customers (potentially traffickers and victims) could identify behavioural indicators of exploitation. The combination of access to behavioural and transactional red flags make financial institutions a crucial part in the detection and disruption of human trafficking.

What can be done?

The answer depends on the situation, whether the issue is approached by an individual, a charity, a business, a bank or the government. However, there are three guiding principles that are universally applicable.

Being aware and spreading awareness

There is an increasing availability of research, risk narratives and ‘spot the signs’ resources that are tailored to specific communities. Individuals can talk about trafficking with family and friends in the workplace and at home; that way, crucial information can be shared. Knowledge is power and it is vital for disrupting crime and empowering others to act.

Sharing stories and data

Widespread sharing of stories and information is incredibly useful. Utilising the stories of what has happened to individuals can provide key data points that can allow financial institutions to look for the proceeds of crime in their systems, enable law enforcement agencies to prosecute and create a richer picture. This will allow prevention work to be targeted and effective. Each individual in their own communities may see the signs of exploitation or see something that does not look ‘right.’ One should act on these instincts and contact the local relevant authorities such as law enforcement agencies, helplines and NGOs or use reporting apps. Sharing stories should not be limited to individuals, transparency is also required from financial institutions, banks, governments and NGOs. Sharing information about work that has been effective as well as successful practices and interventions can be helpful.

Seeking solutions tailored to the circumstances and taking action

There are several consultancy companies that provide tailored advice on how to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking in supply chains. Financial institutions can prioritise sharing and using data to develop typologies and strategies that allow them to identify and seize proceeds of crime. Governments should prioritise funding for the prevention, rescue and rehabilitation of survivors. NGOs must collaborate in genuine and generous ways, sharing what has worked in communities, making relevant data available to others and uniting wherever possible in their approach to tackle this crime.

All these actions need to be done concertedly as this issue is widespread and systemic, requiring everyone to play a part. These actions must also not happen in isolation. When financial institutions share transaction data with law enforcement agencies, businesses commit to removing slavery from their supply chains and individuals make ethical choices, an environment that fights the exploitation of fellow humans can be created.

A matter of urgency

The issue blazes on and demands urgency. Human trafficking, by its very nature, is hidden but it does not take much scratching at the surface to see its widespread and damaging prevalence. For the person trapped in an exploitative situation, it is a life or death matter. For the person about to be unwittingly lured into slavery or forced into sexual exploitation, prevention work is of crucial importance. This matter concerns everyone and each person must play a part in stamping it out. 

Rebekah Lisgarten, director of operations, STOP THE TRAFFIK

To share anonymously your story of exploitation or human trafficking anywhere in the world, please download the STOP APP: https://www.stopthetraffik.org/stopapp/

To contribute or utilise a global data-sharing platform on human trafficking, visit the following site: https://www.traffikanalysis.org/

How can your business or FI be supported in prevention work? Find out more: https://www.stopthetraffik.org/what-we-do/consultancy-services/

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