Andrew Wasuwongse in the International Justice Mission Thailand office

Fighting to end modern-day slavery

June 21, 2021

Alumnus leads efforts to combat human trafficking in the Thai fishing industry

The accused human trafficker entered wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs. From his seat in the small, tightly packed Thai courtroom, Andrew Wasuwongse, ’06, watched as the survivors—Cambodian men formerly enslaved in the Thai fishing industry—faced the defendant one by one and identified him as their trafficker.

“It was a great moment,” said Wasuwongse, the International Justice Mission (IJM) field office director in Thailand. “These young men had been sold onto Thai fishing boats, subjected to hard labor and physical and verbal abuse, and threatened if they sought release. They escaped when their boat docked in Malaysia. When our IJM social worker first met them, they were very quiet. Two years later, they were confident and able to testify against their oppressor.”

Based in Washington, D.C., IJM is a nongovernmental organization working in 14 developing countries to end slavery. Worldwide, over 40 million people are enslaved today, more than ever before in human history, according to the organization’s website. As IJM’s Thailand field office director, Wasuwongse leads his team in working with government partners to leverage the power of the law to protect the most vulnerable.  

“Most countries have good laws, but many do not have the capacity to fully enforce laws that would safeguard people who are poor,” he said. “By working with law enforcement, prosecutors, and social workers, IJM supports individual victims. Then we take what we learn from casework to advocate for policy changes.”    

Wasuwongse traces his interest in humanitarian work to his undergraduate years at University of Richmond, where he majored in leadership studies and international studies (now global studies) and joined the University’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter.

“In one of my leadership studies classes, I learned about educational inequalities and philosopher Jonathan Rawls’ theories on justice and fairness,” he said. “We discussed how to design a society that would offer the optimum level of fairness for all. This class and my international development policy class got me thinking about global issues of inequities and justice.”

While attending an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship conference, Wasuwongse was introduced to “Good News about Injustice” by IJM founder and CEO Gary Haugen. The book challenged Wasuwongse to think about his response as a Christian to the violence impacting the world’s poorest, most vulnerable citizens, he said.

To fulfill a requirement for his international studies major, he embarked on an independent study in 2005 in his father’s native Thailand. While there, he also taught English in a rural village to complete his Jepson School of Leadership Studies internship. He returned to Thailand for a one-year internship with IJM after graduating from Richmond a year later.

“During my IJM internship, I assisted the director in the roll-out of our logical frameworks—something I studied in my international development policy class,” Wasuwongse said. “A logframe identifies the big picture or aspiration a program seeks to achieve and then spells out the logical steps needed to get there. It delves into problems and their root causes.”

Following his internship, the budding humanitarian held a variety of roles with international development organizations. He received an M.A. in international relations and international economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. In 2014, he landed what he described as his dream job as the Southeast Asia program manager at IJM. Several promotions later, the dual U.S.-Thai citizen is IJM’s field office director for Thailand.

“I love my job,” said Wasuwongse, grinning broadly. “It is wonderful to work on an issue I really care about. Once I learned about the injustice of human trafficking, I had a responsibility to do something about it.”