In a small Burmese village 35 kilometres outside of Bago, a 14 year old girl called Aye is preparing tea for her family. They have a visitor, a renowned local merchant, who has heard about the family’s bad crops and has a proposal for them. Why not send Aye to Thailand, where she can work as a waitress in a nice restaurant for a couple of years and earn a lot of money for the family while learning Thai. He will take care of everything and even pay them 10,000 baht in advance. They come to an agreement and Aye starts packing some belongings in a backpack. Just before dawn, one week later, three men usher Aye through the jungle near the Thai-Burmese border in the Mae Sai District along with seven other girls around her age. As they enter Thailand, Aye is told that there are no vacant jobs in the restaurant at the moment, but to help her, her caretaker has arranged a better and more lucrative position for her. Aye is transported to a Chiang Mai brothel. She has no passport, no money and nowhere to go. As she requests to be taken back to her home, she is told that she will then have to pay back the money her parents have already used to buy new sowing seeds. For months Aye services customers and slowly but surely loses her confidence, self-respect and will to live. A child is ruined in the process of wealth generation. This dramatisation is based on the many cases supplied by two of the people who work to fight human trafficking in Northern Thailand.
Human trafficking is in fact modern day slavery. It is the illegal commerce and trade of people. Trafficked individuals are often transported from poor developing countries to more prosperous nations. Here they are exploited and used for prostitution and forced labour. They are lured into their despair through deceit, caught in debt bondage or straight out abducted. Human trafficking is the fastest growing global criminal business with an estimated yearly income of between five and nine billion US dollars. Men, women, and children are trafficked from, in our region, Burma, Cambodia and Laos. Children are also often used in the growing sex industry and as slave workers, in sweatshops or for organised begging.
Coordinating the effort
Rossukon Tariya is a social worker from the Chiang Mai Coordination Centre for Protection of Child and Woman Rights (CCPCWR). CCPCWR, founded in 1989, is an organisation comprised of about sixteen NGOs and several government organisations working as a team to deal with trafficking cases in the Chiang Mai region. They cooperate with the Royal Thai Police, hospitals and shelters. In a toy-filled room at the Chiang Mai Provincial Hall, which is normally used for interviewing rescued children, Rossukon talks about her work; “Our objective is, among other things, to protect and help children up to the age of 18, who are being abused and exploited by criminal networks. We coordinate and partake in the joint effort to free them from brothels and sweatshops and process them individually.”
The organisation Rossukon represents works very closely with the Chiang Mai police force. They take care of the victims while the cops handle the criminals. Their network receives intelligence from many different sources. Remorseful brothel customers, suspecting parents and undercover NGO-agents, directly or through the CCPCWR call-centre, provide information about suspected cases. A rescue mission is planned and after the victims are rescued they are examined, interviewed and when needed, treated by doctors and psychologists. Often, they need to do dental examinations to determine their age. “The girls we locate in brothels, especially, need medical attention,” says Rossukon. “They are tested for sexually transmitted diseases and receive crisis therapy. All of the kids are then sent to stay in shelters such as the Ping Jai Emergency Shelter, Chiang Mai Home for Boys or the Christian New Life Center while their cases are processed.”
According to Rossukon, Northern Thailand is both a final destination point and transit area for contemporary slave workers. Especially Burmese and hill tribe people end up here in brothels and karaoke-bars directed towards Thai-customers. “Some time ago, we freed a sixteen year old hill tribe girl who was being used as a brothel sex slave,” she provides an example from their files. “Her impoverished mother had sent her to stay with her aunt. The aunt was in desperate need of money and sold her to some traffickers. In their custody she was beaten daily and forced to service men, even when she was menstruating.”
The young boys, who enter Thailand by means of trafficking mostly end up doing forced labour, Rossukon explains, but sometimes they are also used as prostitutes. CCPCWR workers and a task force team recently raided a gay bar located in the Night Bazaar area. Here underage boys were being sold to paedophile customers.
TRAFCORD to the rescue
The Anti-Trafficking Coordination Unit (TRAFCORD), an NGO established in 2002, was created in response to the problem of human trafficking in upper Northern Thailand. The unit was formed in cooperation with CCPCWR with whom they work closely. It acts as a coordination centre between government and non-government agencies and receives funds from USAID, UNICEF the US Consul General in Chiang Mai and the Asia Foundation. Manager Duean Wongsa, who has a background in law, agrees with Rossukon on the point that Northern Thailand has a growing problem, explaining, “trafficking is the third most profitable crime in the world after drug and weapon sales. It is a business in growth and we feel this in Thailand.”
According to her, the individuals behind this systematic exploitation of human beings are a mix of organised criminals and lone operators, which makes it hard to fight the problem. She states that in the northern part of the country victims are usually used for prostitution, while sweatshops are mostly found in the south. The intelligence concerning victims originates from many sources. TRAFCORD however goes actively about disclosing exploitation. In cases with suspected sexually exploited victims, special trained workers, some of them volunteers from her organisation, enter brothels acting like customers. They ask to spend some ‘special time’ with the girls/boys/women they think might be victims of trafficking. While in privacy they use interview techniques to get the needed information without giving any hint that they are not normal customers. “To get around having intercourse or other sexual interaction with the suspected victims,” explains Duean, “our agents will act overly intoxicated by alcohol and soon after having gotten the needed information, leave the brothel.”
The information obtained is scrutinised and if verified an operation is planned. Workers from both organisations will be present when the police carry out the raid and perpetrators are taken into custody. NGO workers and social workers such as Rossukon will make efforts to ensure that the victims do not suffer during the raids, though she concedes, “sometimes the police have to use force and get heavy handed.”
After having provided the needed medical attention, the interview phase begins. They try to obtain an insight into how the victims were intercepted, who brought them to Thailand and what they have been exposed to. Often a translator takes part in this stage of the procedure. Aside from attaining information the interviews have a therapeutic quality, Duean explains, since the victims are often in a state of shock and need to talk about what has happened to them. Some terrible stories are told during these conversations. “In some incidences the parents themselves actually sold their daughters knowing that they would be used as sex slaves,” Duean says.
After the trafficking victims have received treatment, their destiny is then decided. If the rescued victims are Thai citizens, TRAFCORD will make sure they receive further aid. Children and young individuals will be secured an education so they can be reinstated into society. One slither of a silver lining is that non-Thai victims of trafficking are not processed as illegal immigrants, which they would be otherwise. There is a legal memorandum of understanding in Thailand which ensures this. But since the victims are not Thai citizens, after they have been processed, they are still sent back to their countries of origin. The CCPCWR does have a network consisting of NGOs in Burma, which will try to help – some of – the victims. And there are ongoing bilateral Thai/Burmese conferences being held, which address the matter. In Laos however there are no NGOs and it is uncertain what happens to the victims sent back there.