Battle against the infodemic

Reading the news about vaccines arriving in Viet Nam, I feel reassured that we will one day defeat this virus and maybe return to “normal”. Like many other migrants, whether you are a foreigner living in Viet Nam or Vietnamese worker overseas or even domestic migrants working in the industrial zones, I cannot help thinking about the day that we can all freely travel without restrictions.  These days there is little difference between a Hanoian working in Bac Giang or a Korean working in Hanoi. We equally cannot return home to see our family (and our dog) freely. This is why any news on the vaccines is so welcoming. 

But the availability of vaccines is not the only challenge we face. We are not only fighting the virus itself but also the infodemic about the COVID-19. 

The sharp increase in people’s access to internet and development and use of diverse social media platforms have given people ability to share their views, experience as well as news and promotions with almost no regulations. As a result, we can all access useful information quickly and easily, but there is also inaccurate, exaggerated, unverified, false, fraudulent information reaching millions of people very easily and quickly. This has made COVID-19 response and now vaccine roll-out very challenging in many places. 

This is also true for migration. The amount of migration related infodemic both online and offline are incredible. And just like COVID-19, it is having a disastrous impact on the lives of millions of people. 

Last May, 165 Vietnamese in Da Nang were deserted by smugglers who promised to take them to South Korea by boat. Let me tell you as a South Korean, it is not possible to reach Korea by boat from Viet Nam. If anyone tells you so, it is a flat out lie.

There was also a report that Vietnamese are being cheated by human traffickers to work in casinos, gambling and online game facilities in Cambodia. Their mobility restricted, they are being exploited and forced to work 15-16 hours per day. Many were tortured and beaten brutally when they tried to escape or refused to work. Those who wished to return to Vietnam had to sign a debt of thousands of dollars or were sold to other companies. 

Unfortunately, these are all too familiar stories we hear from the migrants we assist as the UN agency for migration.

 
Decisions that migrants make about where to travel, what routes to take, and how to make a living are some of the most consequential choices they make. Without the right information, accessed at the right time and in the right way, migrants make decisions that can put them and their families in serious dangers, even death.

A recent research conducted by IOM Viet Nam and the University of Bedfordshire, UK showed that Vietnamese victims of trafficking have made their migration decision rationally but based on limited or unreliable information about costs, length, risks, legal requirements, alternatives or the situation en route or at the destination. Once their journeys begin, their situation becomes progressively more precarious with individuals facing new and rapidly changing vulnerabilities.

 
Misinformation and disinformation cost lives. We are still mourning the tragic deaths of 39 Vietnamese in the UK in 2019.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 crisis will very likely exacerbate human trafficking. The pandemic has not only made many more people economically vulnerable to seek livelihood opportunities overseas, but it has also made migration process even more complex and costly with increased requirements and restrictions on travel and entry, pushing people to seek irregular risky channels. Meaning more potential victims for traffickers and smugglers to exploit and take advantage of.

So how can we protect ourselves from being tricked by criminals and make an informed migration decision? I find the WHO’s top tips for navigating the COVID-19 related infodemic quite relevant and useful. 

Assess the source to ensure it is official, go beyond the headlines as they are often made intentionally sensational (if they sound too good to be true, they are not true); identify the author to check if the person is credible (your neighbor or friends do not know what the UK immigration regulations are); check the date to see if it is up-to-date (regular migration channels do often change), examine if their claims are backed up with facts (go to official websites), and lastly, check your biases to see if it is affecting your judgement (if you are desperate to take the journey, you will not be accurately assessing if it is accurate information, misinformation or disinformation).

These are not vaccines against the mis- and dis-information virus, but preventive measures that anyone of us can easily apply. 

We have learned that wearing masks and washing hands save lives and are effective against SARS-CoV-2. Which is why, IOM, in close cooperation with the Government of Viet Nam as well as CSOs, UN agencies and destination countries like the UK, Australia and the US, we are engaging with communities and the public to help people “wear masks" - equip themselves with safe migration knowledge and be vigilant of mis and disinformation, and “wash hands" - identify and stay away from traffickers and smugglers. We are also working to support alternative livelihood opportunities in the country - providing economic incentives so that they would be less vulnerable to this virus. 

We don’t have vaccine against misinformation and disinformation, but we can wear our information masks and wash hands against misinformation regularly to boost our immunity against the infodemic.

It is a long and arduous battle ahead. Reaching ‘herd immunity’ seems almost unlikely for COVID-19, infodemic, or even human trafficking, but if we all do our parts, be responsible in discerning and sharing information, and always try to make informed decisions based on facts, we will one day reach it. 

Op-ed by IOM Viet Nam Chief of Mission, Park Mi Hyung on the occasion of National Day against trafficking in persons

*WHO defines infodemic as “an overabundance of information and the rapid spread of misleading or fabricated news, images, and videos”.