This is the second in a short series of blog posts dedicated to the situation of statelessness among Thailand’s ethnic minority people (the ‘hill tribes’). They are inspired by our current research into the impact of statelessness on women in Thailand, which aims specifically to map the link with human trafficking – a project funded by the US Department of State’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration.
Statelessness, trafficking and Thailand
Numerous articles and reports point to the link between statelessness and trafficking in persons. In particular, they discuss how international trafficking victims may be at heightened risk of ending up “not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law” (definition of a stateless person under international law), primarily due to problems of establishing their identity and their connection to their state of origin thanks to the circumstances under which they migrated. At the same time, scholars, NGOs and policy makers agree that the fact of statelessness puts a person at greater risk of becoming a victim of trafficking in persons. This is explained by a variety of logical and compelling reasons, including the problem that stateless people face – due to their lack of nationality – limited opportunities for formal employment or for accessing regular migration channels such that they are more likely to become entwined in illicit and exploitative movements.
One of the specific country contexts in which this link between statelessness and increased vulnerability to human trafficking is commonly cited is Thailand. There, the lack of nationality of the ethnic minority (hill tribe) population has been described as “the single greatest risk factor” for trafficking in this community. What better place, then, to pilot a new methodology that aims to better map and more fully understand how and why statelessness heightens the risk of trafficking in persons. This is precisely the ambition of the project for which the Statelessness Programme received funding from the US Department of State Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration and for which we travelled to Thailand in February 2013.
Reaching workable hypotheses
The first step in exploring the relationship between statelessness and trafficking is to develop a hypothesis to test. Given the existing literature on the causal link between these phenomena and the statements made about Thailand, our hypothesis is that:
A stateless person is more likely to become a victim of trafficking in persons than a person with citizenship.
For example, if we measured the rate of trafficking in the hill tribe community and found the average rate of trafficking cases to be 1 in 10,000, we might expect to find the rate of trafficking cases among stateless people from the same community to be 5 in 10,000 (i.e. for a stateless person to be 5 times more likely to be trafficked). However, to measure the relative vulnerability to trafficking in this way, you would have to find a way to comprehensively identify victims of trafficking from a particular, defined and measurable community and count the number of stateless versus the number of citizens. This is a very tricky quest indeed, since trafficking often goes unreported and unidentified, plus the victims of trafficking may be found in many different destinations spread across Thailand and even abroad. As such, this kind of methodology would be unfeasible. Nor would such a statistic tell us very much about why stateless people are more exposed to trafficking, so it would do little to inform anti-trafficking policy, which is the ultimate objective of the research.
Instead, we needed to think more carefully about how the process of trafficking in persons works and further break down our hypothesis. We came up with the following two sub-hypotheses:
A stateless person is more likely to move away from home to seek a better life
A stateless person is more likely to become exploited in the process of seeking a better life away from home
In other words, if the rate by which a person who moves away from home becomes a victim of trafficking is the same for everyone, stateless people will be trafficked more often because they are more often on the move. Or, if the rate by which a person moves away from home to seek a better life is the same for everyone, stateless people will be trafficked more often because this more often goes “wrong” for them, leading to their exploitation. Or both rates are higher for stateless people than those with citizenship.
Focusing on intrinsic factors
In addition to elaborating these more focused hypotheses, we also decided to focus on the intrinsic or internal factors that contribute to a greater or smaller risk of trafficking: i.e. what is happening at the supply side, in the lives and minds of the people who are the potential victims. An alternative would have been to look at other, external factors, such as what is happening at the demand side or the behaviour of traffickers (e.g. another explanation for a higher risk of trafficking among stateless populations is that they are more “in demand” by the employers who would exploit them or that traffickers are deliberately identifying and targeting only those people without citizenship in their schemes). Our focus on the intrinsic or internal factors – on people’s own capacity, attitudes and decision-making patterns – is the best match for our aim of informing anti-trafficking projects that target the at-risk population. By getting a better picture of whether and at what point in the migration or opportunity-seeking process statelessness plays a part in a person’s ultimate vulnerability to trafficking, the effectiveness of anti-trafficking activities which include stateless people can be improved because they can be tailored to deal with this area of vulnerability.
The field research
To summarise, the field research that we travelled out to Thailand to set up, looks at whether the capacity, attitude and decision-making patterns of stateless hill tribe people makes them relatively more likely – as compared to hill tribe people with citizenship – to seek to improve their lives by moving away from their village and/or to become exploited if they move away from their village. The main tool that we are using for this is a survey which will capture data from 450 randomly selected members of Thailand’s hill tribe communities in and around Chiang Mai province. The same questionnaire will be used for all respondents, but roughly half of the people interviewed will be stateless and half will hold citizenship, so that we are able to compare the results and establish the relative vulnerability. We will supplement the survey results with some qualitative research (in-depth interviews with trafficking victims) that looks more closely at the process by which hill tribe people become victims of trafficking, so that we are fully equipped to interpret the survey results.
The questionnaire relies heavily on the theory of Subjective Legal Empowerment: i.e. by measuring a person’s self-belief in his or her ability to resolve a dispute or conflict you get a measure of how likely that person is to indeed be able to resolve the situation (based on the psychological theory of self efficacy – if you believe you can do something, you are more likely to put in the time and effort necessary and to indeed be successful). For the purposes of our research, that means we will be presenting the respondents with scenarios that describe problems they could encounter in their everyday lives and ask whether and through what channels they think they could resolve these issues. When the survey is complete and we can analyse the data, we hope to understand whether stateless people have a lower Subjective Legal Empowerment in particular areas of their lives which make them more prone to take the decision to move away in order to deal with their problems or to get trapped in exploitation. We are already unreasonably excited about seeing, analyzing and understanding the survey results!
Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager, Statelessness Programme