A Q&A with the Senior Director of Human Trafficking at McCain Institute about her recent educational mission to uncover the driving forces behind refugee asylum in Mexico.

Kristen Leanderson Abrams provides strategic leadership and operational management to the Institute’s efforts to combat human trafficking. While many see Mexico as a temporary stop for refugees attempting to enter the United States, Abrams recognizes the country for its potential to provide safety, security and jobs to asylum-seekers. Abrams sat down with Bailey Thixton, McCain Institute’s Communications Program Intern and a third-year student at the University of Texas at Austin, to describe the conditions that are forcing people to flee their homes in search of safety and security wherever that can be found.

McCain Institute: What are the main focuses of the Human Trafficking program at the Institute?

Kristen Abrams: I think about our work falling into three buckets. First, we serve as a neutral convener and connector for a range of stakeholders working to address human trafficking and forced labor, in the United States and around the world. We are able to uniquely bring people together, whether in a formal or informal setting, to have really difficult conversations that aren’t happening in other places.

The second thing is we support research. The Institute is part of an academic institution, Arizona State University, and our team in Arizona has been very supportive of furthering academic research.

The third piece, which is a much larger chunk of our work, is we run programs to address human trafficking needs from several angles. The program is growing rapidly. We are about to embark on a new education assessment to learn what works, and what doesn’t work, in terms of prevention education curriculum in schools in the United States, and we continue to grow the Student Alliance Against Trafficking. The Student Alliance is a program to bring awareness of both sex and labor trafficking to young people on campuses in the United States and around the world. There is a lot of misinformation out there, so part of that work is ensuring that we’re providing good, reliable information into the hands of this important group.

MI: What was the purpose of your recent trip to Mexico?

KA: We are considering new programs to prevent and end human trafficking. One area that Mrs. McCain has always been really passionate about – and that we would like to continue exploring – is, what can we do as an Institute to better protect people vulnerable to human trafficking, whether they be in the United States or outside the United States? One of those populations would be refugees and people on the move, who can be incredibly vulnerable to all forms of exploitation, including human trafficking.

When the McCain Institute’s Human Trafficking program started, we were very mindful that we wanted to look close to home and in our own backyard before we expanded nationwide, and then internationally. And I’m taking that same approach if we’re going to consider working with refugees. We need to look close to our borders, and that means Mexico, which has thousands of refugees from the Northern Triangle countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

I was offered the opportunity to join a UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] mission to Mexico to examine the refugee situation. I joined this trip to learn more about what the Mexican government is doing to protect these refugees from trafficking and other forms of exploitation, and what other international organizations like UNHCR, civil society or private companies are doing. It was an educational mission for me.

MI: What did this trip mean for the expansion of McCain Institute’s Human Trafficking program?

KA: It’s still early to tell right now, but I think as we look to expand our work to better protect vulnerable populations, refugees are at the top of that list. What I found were really willing partners at UNHCR, a really dynamic institution doing some innovative work on how to better integrate and better support refugees in Mexico.

I think a lot of people believe Mexico to be simply a transit country for people fleeing the Northern Triangle and that most really just want to come to the United States. That isn’t the case. While in Mexico, we met with refugees in their temporary homes, meet with agency officials and meet with people who are running shelters and educational programs. We learned that the driving force isn’t simply coming to the United States: these people are just fleeing absolutely atrocious situations, including incredibly high levels of violence and exploitation in their home countries.

These people are looking for a safe place to live with their families. For a small percentage, that may mean going to the United States because they have family or connections here. But, for most, if they can find a decent place to live, a job that allows them to provide for their family and the legal ability to work and to remain safely, they will stay in Mexico.

MI: What did you observe in Mexico and at the border of Guatemala that surprised you?

KA: The situations that these individuals are fleeing are shocking. These families are leaving their home countries as a result of extreme violence including murder, rape, extortion, abduction and forced recruitment of kids into gangs. The families who live in these territories where the gangs operate are just in an incredibly difficult situation. The region has a staggeringly high homicide rate. We also see children and adolescents being forced into gang recruitment, so their families are pulling them away. There’s sexual exploitation and human trafficking that happens. As a result, families flee for their lives.

I was also surprised by how willing the Mexican government appears to be to welcome these individuals and provide them with a range of social services. The Mexican government is ready and willing to welcome these individuals into their country. And there are jobs for them. After they have been granted asylum, UNHCR is working to relocate interested refugees who arrive at the southern border to the north where there are major manufacturing facilities that are hiring refugees. There is a very clear path for these refugees to move from complete desolation to a sustainable livelihood in Mexico.

For reliable human trafficking and global supply chain information, visit the sources below.

The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking
The Business and Human Rights Resource Center
The Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign
The Institute for Human Rights and Business
The International Justice Mission
Know the Chain
Verite – Responsible Sourcing Tool

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.