Mobile Spans Language Gap to Aid Human Trafficking Victims

Posted March 6th, 2015 at 2:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Technological wizardry is quick to provide solutions to many of the world’s problems these days — from sanitation and water purification to connectivity. The latter is now coming to the aid of millions of enslaved people around the world.

A mobile solution from the Mekong Club, a non-profit group dedicated to fighting slavery, helps identify potential trafficking victims among populations where the person’s country of origin and language is unknown, and lets law enforcement agencies communicate with them.

The Android app was the product of collaboration between the Mekong Club, the United Nations Action for Cooperation Against Trafficking in Persons, and MotherApp, a private company that developed the app for free.

To communicate with potential victims, users press an icon which brings up a sample of flags on the phone’s screen, said Mathew Friedman, CEO of the Mekong Club, in an email interview.

A screenshot from the human trafficking mobile app shows potential human trafficking victims the flags of several countries. Once users choose thee one that corresponds to them, a video in their language comes on and asks them questions about whether they are being exploited and need help.

A screenshot from the human trafficking mobile app shows potential human trafficking victims flags of several countries corresponding to the language they speak. (The Mekong Club)

Users then tap the flags that correspond to their countries of origin. “Once this has been done,” Friedman added, “a video in the language of the country comes up informing the respondent of his/her rights, assuring them of confidentiality, and explaining that the officials playing the video to them are there to help should they require assistance.”

The videos pose a number of questions for users to respond to by pressing either a green button for an affirmative answer or a red button for a negative response.

The questions help law enforcement officials determine if the respondent is a victim of human trafficking.

“If all of the users’ answers are in the affirmative, then that would indicate a potential problem,” said Friedman.

Organizations that tested the app found it useful in bridging the translation gap. Friedman said the easy-to-use app offers an option for responders to triage potential victims in locations where translation is absent and allows the user to take notes and record audio/visual information.

A screenshot from the Mekong Club's mobile app shows some of the questions users are asked to determine if they are victims of human trafficking. (The Mekong Club)

A screenshot from the Mekong Club’s mobile app shows some of the questions users are asked to determine if they are victims of human trafficking. (The Mekong Club)

During field testing in July 2014, Friedman said the Mekong Club gathered feedback and recommendations from counter-trafficking responders, victims and potential victims.

“The app was tested on more than 100 potential victims,” he said. “The outcome was that approximately 20 percent of those interviewed were identified as trafficked persons. These represent individuals who would not have been identified if the app was not used.”

Friedman found the results promising. He said they demonstrate that this tool “can significantly increase the number of people identified in an efficient and cost-effective manner.”

Once developed, Friedman said the app will be cost-effective because “putting it on responder phones doesn’t cost anything.” But he lamented that it was only able to help “about 48,000” trafficking victims last year — “well below one percent,” he said.

An estimated 35.8 million men and women live in slavery around the world, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index. Up to 23 million people or about 66 percent of slaves are found in Asia.

Friedman attributes this density to Asia’s large population and remnants of its feudal systems that have not been fully dismantled in some countries, including India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand.

“There are more slaves today than any other time in history,” he said — and they can be found in nearly every country in the world.

“To put this number into perspective,” he added, “it is more than the number of people in Canada, Uganda or Saudi Arabia or more than the combined total populations of the 100 smallest countries in the world.”

Additional changes are still needed before the app is released and made available to governments and NGO counterparts. And the Mekong Club is working with several tech companies to explore other solutions to the human trafficking scourge. But Friedman warns that these solutions take time to develop “before they really add value to the issue.”

“Not everything can be solved with technology,” he cautioned. “But there are a lot of things that can be done. We simply need to open our minds to these options and make them happen.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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