HCI Against Human Trafficking


I found my calling when I started incorporating my skillset in the humanitarian sector and exploring the role of HCI in combatting human trafficking, helping the victims to overcome the psychological effects, and providing them with the necessary assistance to successfully reintegrate into society. I have been inspired and encouraged by the possibilities UX professionals have to make a significant positive change in people’s lives and decided this is a cause I wanted to support. After listening to some stories that children I worked with at an orphanage in Kenya shared with me, it became impossible to go through my life without doing anything to fight this global issue that turned into a multi-billion dollar business. I was in Kenya, but when I saw the lack of response from parties that these children depend on, I realized the magnitude and complexity of the issue, not just in Kenya, but around the globe. As the founder of the Mekong Club Matt Friedman said, the trafficked kids are not mad at traffickers as much as those who stand by, doing nothing. I thought the reason is that one common tactic of traffickers to keep control of the victims is creating emotional dependency and connection. It is their way to recruit them as potential traffickers once they grow up without knowing anything better. Victims quickly realize the psychological challenges and uncontrollable sickness of the perpetrators, feeling of responsibility and shame, the power of the public to stop it, and blame their ambivalence. It creates their fear of stepping back into society, feeding the control of the traffickers. Their biggest question is “Where were you?”

I read somewhere that silent treatment and gaslighting while seeing someone suffer is one of the cruelest forms of psychological abuse, especially if it is someone who trusted you. Some have said that under extreme circumstances, it can be referred to as psychological murder. I cannot even fathom moving away from the effects of being sold into sex slavery by your own family under the silence of those who could do something to help escape, just to face society full of stigma around mental health. After learning about some of the tortures victims have to endure, I thought it would take me more than one lifetime to recover from extreme PTSD. Focusing her research on the psychological effects of victims, Katerina Calco describes it as “a comparative work that examines and compares the characteristics and effects of three other forms of trauma: torture, sexual assault, and the Holocaust.” Many victims shared stories such as being kidnapped, witnessing murders, being tortured if they tried to escape, and then being labeled as crazy when they try to speak up. Similar to victims of sexual abuse. Some of those who are unaware of the seriousness of the issue like to state that the victim is attention-seeking and jealous. One can’t help but begin questioning the moral code of these people and overall humanity. It’s easy to say “I can’t handle this, it’s too disturbing for me.” In fact, Matt Friedman could not publish an original script for a book due to sharing information from survivor stories that were deemed too disturbing. It is one thing to mentally take care of yourself because we could not help anyone if we were psychologically affected. Children need us to be mentally stable and ready to explore the world and inspire their imaginations of the possibilities to make the world a beautiful place. We are old enough to know that in reality, a safe and beautiful world is not always the case, in our history or in the present, but as one of the native American sayings states – we are borrowing the world from our children and need to return it in the best condition possible. There have never been as many slaves in the world as there are now and it’s another story to ignore the problem of child sex slavery altogether and put our own children at risk of being abused. Acceptance of something such as sexual harassment and abuse entertains the idea of child marriages and human trafficking. It is like running from a zombie and throwing a friend to them as bait so that you can buy yourself time to escape. Not much of a survival strategy in the long run.

I’ve seen a lot of scenarios around sexual abuse. I’ve known people who wanted to commit suicide or started shooting up because of past trauma, emotional or sexual. Most of the time it is because of stigma around mental health or victims of sexual abuse. I always wonder how many more children would be saved from being raped thousands of times if we skipped the pointless gossip about someone who spoke up about being sexually assaulted and instead tried to come up with solutions to avoid something like that from happening? This stupid gossip is the result of the #2 cause of suicides on college campuses. Some say the victims just want attention, why would anyone want this kind of attention? If they want attention, it’s probably because they are on the brink of losing their life and need help. I just think these sorts of silent and gossipy mindsets are sick and dangerous and it’s mind-boggling that people who look like the nicest people can turn out to be so destructive to their friends. When you witness something like this, it is hard to believe that they did not mean to be hurtful and really tried all they could to be there for that friend. I want to say if they had the time to gossip, then they did not try everything they could, but in my mind, they probably didn’t know any better and that is just another proof of the gravity of the problem.

Despite their experiences, the kids in the Riruta Satellite settlement in Nairobi were eager to learn to make a positive contribution to the world, and I believe that if they had the opportunity to do so, they could make a real difference. There was something about their spirit, almost as if they knew their mission in life as if they knew that this is happening all around the world and they have ideas on how to fight it. Their knack for self-awareness and their connection to their communities comes through their experiences to learn the ropes of survival at an early age. They are very good at figuring another person out and spotting signs of danger. It’s different and a lot more extreme for the children who are sold into sex slavery. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes they are sold by their parents or relatives or simply kidnapped. How does one find the end of the tunnel when this happens? Sharing their stories to raise awareness is a big part to make the eradication of modern-day slavery possible and sometimes they are afraid to share, conditioned not to trust anyone, including mental healthcare providers. They rejoin the world believing that everyone is out to get them, needing space and privacy and at the same time assistance. It’s tough for mental healthcare professionals to understand someone who has experienced something as tragic as they have. Personally, I was astonished by their attitude and bravery to restore their sense of self, from children who ran away to avoid being sold to a husband four times their age to children who have experienced burns as a result of domestic violence. The process of getting acquainted with society again can seem never-ending, and there were times I questioned the treatment they faced at the orphanage. Fighting the expanding network of traffickers is quite a labyrinth. It is mentally hard to swallow just the basic knowledge of what happens to the victims, but it is one of the most important problems for humanity to sort out. When I brought this up in a humanitarian hackathon in 2020, I realized that this problem exists not necessarily due to people’s ambivalence, but mostly because there is a lack of awareness. When we talked about how to spot potential human trafficking scenarios, some of us suddenly remembered instances in our lives, where we have possibly encountered one of these scenarios without knowing. When one learns these signs, one sees the world differently. They become more inquisitive and observant, which can save not only their lives but also the lives of others, including their loved ones.

I recognized how crucial HCI is in the fight against human traffickers. Helping victims requires not only user experience design expertise, but service design skillset in order to figure out how to build integrated experiences. More often than not, the victims do not have access to mobile or any digital device, and awareness of their ecosystem is pivotal to reaching out to them without putting them in danger. One example of that is “Truckers Against Trafficking”, which is a fantastic way to spot signs of human trafficking and report it. I used the idea of enabling volunteers who spend time abroad to network for information purposes and tips to observe these ecosystems as a way to get more familiar with the dangers that victims face and the possibilities to effectively reach out to them. This is just an example of many, ranging from digital tools to help with the psychological harms of past trauma to spotting traffickers.

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