Two months after psychiatric treatment that included shock therapy, the 24-year-old woman is much recovered. Yet she still does not know her name or where she is from. All she can remember is that she has a child and that an acquaintance lured her to Bangkok from her village in Burma by promising her a job as a servant. Instead, she ended up in a karaoke bar where she was forced into prostitution and regularly beaten by her pimps.
When she finally managed to escape, she rushed to a policeman for help. But worse was to come. The woman was deported and was left to find her way home from the Thai border. Walking through the jungle, she was repeatedly raped by groups of Karen guerrillas. Traumatised and lost, she was eventually rescued by a stranger who took her to a refugee camp in Mae Hong Son, from where she was sent to Suan Prung Mental Hospital in Chiang Mai when camp staff realised she had lost her mind.
While poor women from neighbouring countries enter Thailand in pursuit of work, many Thai women head overseas for the same reason. And many end up in similarly hellish conditions, said psychologist Pornsri Boonthanasathit who has worked with many victims of human trafficking.
"For example, a Chiang Mai woman in her thirties was lured to Japan by a job broker from Bangkok who had offered her a job at a home for the elderly, with a monthly salary of 30,000 baht. Upon arrival in Japan, she realised she had been tricked. She ended up in a brothel owned by a yakuza gang, but managed to escape and get to the Thai embassy before she was raped." On returning to Thailand, the woman had to go into hiding after associates of the traffickers tracked her down and attacked her. She is now a spokesperson for an anti-trafficking programme in Chiang Mai.
Saisuree Chutikul, chairwoman of the Social Development and Human Security Ministry's Sub-Committee on Co-ordination for Combating Trafficking in Children and Women, says Thailand serves as a portal for international trafficking. "The international community sees Thailand as a human trafficking hub. This is true because Thailand has 56 border checkpoints and 300 informal crossings where people can just walk across the borders." Because state authorities see them first and foremost as illegal aliens, victims of trafficking are usually arrested and jailed when they are discovered, rather than being provided with help.
To change that, a memorandum of understanding was recently signed between the relevant state agencies to ensure that assistance is provided to all trafficking victims regardless of their gender or nationality (or absence of nationality, in the case of stateless people). Formerly, only local women and children were officially viewed as victims of trafficking, a position that resulted in foreign women and girls, as well as men, who are often trafficked into slave-like working conditions, being overlooked.
The initiative, entitled the Memorandum of Understanding on Common Guidelines for Practices for Concerned Agencies in the Seventeen Northern Provinces in the Prevention, Suppression and Solution of Human Trafficking, was recently signed by the Social Development and Human Security Ministry, UNICEF Thailand, Plan Thailand and state agencies in 17 northern provinces. It seeks to cover all forms of trafficking, and specifically identifies every scenario that can be construed as trafficking.
Children are trafficked to toil on farms, in factories, plantations, sawmills and fisheries, to work as beggars and to be used for sex. While statistics show that less Thai children are becoming victims of trafficking, the number of children from neighbouring countries is increasing, said Amanda Bissex, head of Child Protection for UNICEF Thailand.
Chief of the Chiang Mai Home for Boys, Boonme Swangthamma, who also works at the Chiang Mai Centre for Protection of Child Rights, said the centre regularly receives tip offs directing it to child beggars and children who have been forced into prostitution. Of the 114 victims it rescued last year, 90 per cent were non-Thais. The majority of them were being prostituted.
After the centre rescues a child from prostitution, they are first sent for a check-up and to have their age identified through dental and bone checks since they usually claim, as ordered by their keepers, to be 20 years old. To avoid lengthy and traumatic court cases, the victims are interviewed by a social worker and a psychologist. With the victims' consent, the interviews are taped for use against the traffickers.
Rossukon Tariya, a social worker for the Social Development and Human Security Ministry, said information about each victim is sent to the ministry to co-ordinate home visits and family interviews by the relevant agencies in the victims' countries of origin (necessary to ensure the victim will not be subject to further abuse or simply trafficked again when they are returned home). Pending a trial or their return home, the victim is provided with occupational training, legal assistance and medical care.
Assisting child beggars requires a different approach as many of the children exploited have been rented out by their own parents or relatives. According to Suriya Kasemsirisawat of the Anti-Trafficking Coordination Unit Northern Thailand (Trafcord), gangs rent children, mostly Burmese, through traffickers or directly from a child's family for around 2,000 baht per month. "To generate sympathy, the gangs wrap bandages around the youngsters' heads, arms and legs," said Suriya. "Many of them have health problems, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia."
In the north of Thailand, the majority of trafficking is undertaken to meet the needs of the flesh trade. Most foreign women trafficked to Thailand for sex are ethnic Shans or Laotians, said Dr Manoj Chokchaemsai, a forensic doctor at Maharaj Nakhon Chiang Mai Hospital, who is a member of Trafcord's multidisciplinary team. Despite the extensive sex industry in the upper north, only two cases of human trafficking in the region were judged in court between 2003 and 2006. Most attempts to charge traffickers failed because the victims fled after being threatened by influential sex industry operators.
Yet Mr Wanlop Ploytubtim, permanent secretary of the Social Development and Human Security Ministry, argued that Thailand is doing its best to fight human trafficking, which he described as a serious violation of human rights and a transnational crime. He said the government has declared that the suppression of human trafficking is on the national agenda and has set aside 500 million baht for programmes to help trafficking victims. He added that the government has a national centre against trafficking at the ministry as well as similar centres at provincial halls around the country and at Thai embassies abroad. To tackle the problem in the countries where people are trafficked from, Thailand has signed anti-trafficking MOUs with Cambodia and Laos. Similar MOUs with Vietnam and China are being developed, said Wanlop.
Meanwhile, the government is in the process of passing the Anti-Human Trafficking Bill, which will give protection and assistance to victims and more severe punishments to traffickers. The bill will also empower law enforcement officers to conduct searches without warrants if they receive information that a trafficked person's life is in danger.
"Thailand has become a regional leader in the fight against human trafficking and is extending support to all victims of it, both Thai and foreign, with a range of comprehensive services," said Tomoo Hozumi from UNICEF Thailand. He said the new MOU covering men and non-Thais will further help the country fight human trafficking. Yet he added that the crucial step following implementation will be enforcement.
Human trafficking can be reported to the Social Development and Human Security Ministry's Prachabodi Centre on the hotline number 1300. Trafficking in the northern regions can also be reported directly to Trafcord by calling 08-7174-5797 or online at www.trafcord.org/.
Adapted from: "Trading in People: To ensure adults and children trafficked in Thailand receive help, state and international agencies have signed an agreement to not discriminate between victims." The Bangkok Post (Outlook), 21 May 2007 (edited). (Source: UNIAP Thailand).
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