Liza and Her Friends Travelling the World is a board game developed by IOM to help children and young people become aware of human trafficking. Photo: Studii Rozvytku 

The autumn sun lights the classroom in Ternopil, Western Ukraine, where children laugh as Mr. Possum asks 11-year-old Sasha to deliver a package to his nephew in another country. Sasha hesitates, while her classmates give her advice: some suggest that she should help a stranger, others believe it’s risky.

It’s all a game, but with a deeply serious subtext. “Liza and Her Friends Travelling the World” was developed by IOM, and Mr Possum is Sasha’s teacher.

By the end of the game Sasha, who has never left Ukraine, already knows how dangerous it is to take packages from strangers. She also learns that she should not trust her passport to anyone but the relevant authorities and she comes up with a code word which would signal to her parents that she is in danger. Additionally, she gets basic tips about working contracts she can share with her parents. Sasha is young and still treats life as a game. But now she knows there are rules that are there to protect her.

A child interacts with the game in Western Ukraine. Photo: Studii Rozvytku 

Angelina’s story

When Angelina was 17-year-old she lived with her grandparents and younger sister. Her father died in 2014 and her mother worked in another part of Ukraine. To fund surgery for a severe eye condition she took up an offer from a local modeling agency to work in China. The contract looked fine to her – it was in English and said that she would earn USD 1,000 per month. The receiving agency was supposed to arrange her flight and accommodation. However, Angelina never got a signed and stamped copy of the contract.

When she got to China, a manager from the receiving agency took Angelina’s and other girls’ passports and threatened that the police would arrest them should they seek help. Angelina wanted to go home, but the manager claimed that she owed him USD 2,500 for the visa, tickets and accommodation, so she would have to work for free for at least two months before she could go.

Instead of modeling, Angelina had to advertise alcohol in night clubs in a revealing attire and later worked there as a waitress tasked with “keeping up the mood” of male clients, encouraging them to buy expensive drinks. Refusing to provide additional sexual services, Angelina was bullied by other girls, humiliated and beaten by the managers. She mostly starved as the money she received for food was not enough and the “debt” never decreased as her managers found new reasons to penalize her. After two months she managed to call home. Rescuing her took coordinated efforts from her family, the police of Ukraine and China, diplomats and international organizations.

Unfortunately, thousands of similar stories will forever remain untold.

The game is full of charismatic and quirky characters to keep it interesting. Photo: Studii Rozvytku 

Two-thirds of vulnerable children and youth in Ukraine from 13 to 20 are ready to accept at least one risky offer which might make them victims of human trafficking, according to IOM research. Those proposals include agreeing to work without a proper contract in an unfamiliar region, accepting well-paid, suspicious or illegal work, visiting a stranger’s home or entering their vehicle, or an offer to borrow a large sum of money.  

Since the year 2000, IOM Ukraine has assisted almost 700 victims of trafficking who were minors and who suffered from sexual and labour exploitation, forced begging and criminal activities, as well as other forms of exploitation.

Among almost 16,000 trafficking survivors assisted by IOM Ukraine since 2000, the youngest victim was aged just three, and the eldest 83. People trafficked in and from Ukraine have different social, educational and economic backgrounds.

“Sometimes it all comes down to is the ability to stay alert, think critically and not give the benefit of the doubt to the people you think you know,” says Anh Nguyen, Acting Chief of Mission at IOM Ukraine. “Critical thinking and ability to recognize a risky proposal when it comes, especially when under emotional pressure means behavioral change, which requires training from a very young age. This puts increasingly more importance on early trafficking prevention”.

IOM has implemented multiple trafficking prevention initiatives in Ukraine, but the latest project, “Liza and Her Friends Travelling the World”, stands apart. Developed by IOM Ukraine’s Counter-Trafficking Programme Assistant Yelyzaveta Blinova and produced with funding from Global Affairs Canada and the U.S. Department of State, it is packed with charismatic game characters, interesting tasks and models of potentially risky situations, which in real life may lead to human trafficking. The choice made by children in each situation determines the outcome of the game, teaching them to take responsibility for their actions and think about the consequences of their decisions.

“There’s only so much you can teach a child during a lecture, there’s even less information which will remain after the lecture is over. That is why when it comes to getting the attention of children for a prolonged period, games are excellent,” says Blinova.

Moving around the game board – a cartoon map of the world – players meet different fictional characters, making decisions based on the information presented by the host of the game (usually a teacher, or another specialist, who acts according to the colorful book of instructions).

The game encourages teamwork and is not competition-based. Each situation can be discussed in the team with host acting as a facilitator, as the children learn safe travel rules and tips on how to avoid human trafficking. For example, one of the situations requires them to call the IOM-supported National Toll-Free Counter-Trafficking and Migrant Advice Hotline 527.

In rural Ukraine where the internet access is rare, colorful board game bridges the gap between traditional methods of education and the digital world.

IOM Ukraine publicized the game on its Facebook page, reaching over 30,000 social media users. More than 1,600 board games have already been distributed, targeting vulnerable children from eight to 14 years old, especially those staying at specialized childcare institutions (orphanages, foster families and others) as well as in secondary schools. The game is expected to be frequently used by psychologists and social pedagogues in their daily practice.

“It makes children communicate and learn from each other, which is excellent in an era of smartphone addiction,” said Nataliia Zaikina, a psychologist from Zaporizhia. “Multiple iterations of different situations help to better learn the basic safe travel rules, while calling the counter-trafficking hotline teaches children not to be shy to ask for help.”

Tetiana Kalinchuk from Vinnytsia Regional Psychosocial Rehabilitation Centre for Children noted “the game will help the minors to consider that the reality does not always correspond with their expectations. I will definitely use it for working with my pupils who, sadly but predictably, tend to get into trouble,” she said.