“Thank you for giving me my voice back. I thought my traffickers had taken it forever. I know this is not true because you have taught me that it is not true and I can use my voice to fight human trafficking.” (Testimony from a victim)
Last year at this time, we were preparing to receive 31 women who had been trafficked for forced labor in Libya. It had taken us five months to get this far and all this had been done remotely through Facebook and WhatsApp. The hopelessness of the situation was debilitating. There was nothing that we could do at that moment but offer words of comfort and encouragement until we figured out a rescue plan. We never anticipated that this would take five months.
The first time we heard about this case was through our Facebook page. A woman in Libya was concerned that her friend was being mistreated and she was requesting for HAART’s intervention in the matter. This was in June and by late July the war in Libya had escalated and we got more information that 16 women were stuck in the Kenyan embassy and had no means to get home. We quickly started following up the issue with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get these women back home. Their stories revealed that all of them were victims of trafficking and had been recruited by agents in Kenya promising good jobs. When they arrived in Libya, their passports were taken and many were also physically and sexually abused. None of them received the promised salaries and some did not receive anything at all.
We soon found out that there were more women stuck in houses around the country. The women had formed a WhatsApp support group and as soon as we started working on the cases, the other women who were not at the embassy reached out to us through WhatsApp to see if they could also be rescued. In one case we followed updates the whole day on WhatsApp as a woman were trying to travel the 1,200 kilometers from Benghazi to Tripoli through the warzone. We guided them to the embassy and eventually worked with the International Organization for Migration and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring them back home just before Christmas.
Fast-forward to December 2015 and most of the women that came back are reintegrated back to society. The process included offering psychosocial support, medical aid for those that needed it and economic empowerment. When reintegrating victims there isn’t a one size fits all process, you have to treat each victim as an individual and cater for their specific needs. Sometimes we are not always able to meet those needs but we do our best. The women who survived this ordeal are stronger and are slowly healing from all the scars that they got and we are happy that we are a small part of that experience.
In the fight against human trafficking, social media can be used for prevention by creating awareness through the different social media. HAART has a vibrant Facebook page and we have used it to give people reliable information about human trafficking. Social media can also be used for protection purposes, especially in cases where victims are outside the country. Victims and families of victims have reached out to HAART through social media and through it we have managed to follow up on cases and in some cases ensured that the victims were rescued.
Human trafficking is a crime that evolves. Those working in counter- trafficking like us have to learn to adapt to these changes. Today, learning how to effectively use social media to fight human trafficking is very crucial because traffickers are using it as a tool to further their agenda.
Human trafficking is a complete violation of the most basic human rights. Most victims of trafficking go through more than one form of abuse, making the reintegration process slow and difficult. Some of the issues the women went through in Libya, they have only now started to share after a year of psychosocial support. The process needs to be comprehensive to be effective. To completely eradicate human trafficking, we have to continue learning and being vigilant in the efforts that we adapt and using social media as a tool is one of the many crucial lessons learned one year later.
By Sophie Otiende