COSA was established to fight the widespread problem of human trafficking in Northern Thailand. It is a unique and complex cultural phenomenon, where an ingrained sense of familial obligation makes children – especially girls – feel duty-bound to financially support their families.
A non-definitive definition.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) defines human trafficking as the act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving persons through use of force, coercion or deception for the purpose of exploiting them.
This definition is accepted internationally but, in our view, it tends to place too much emphasis on movement. We see human trafficking as a form of modern-day slavery, where people profit from the control and exploitation of others.
Every country is affected by trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination. It is a lucrative criminal industry, second only to drug trafficking, generating billions of dollars annually. The U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons has estimated that 27 million people are currently enslaved worldwide – the highest rate in human history.
A contentious and confusing topic.
There are numerous myths and misconceptions about human trafficking, which may explain why it doesn’t get as much attention as it undoubtedly deserves.
Myth #1: Human trafficking always involves elements of physical restraint, force or physical bondage.
Reality: A wide range of trafficking occurs in which this is not the case. Often, there are much more subtle forms of coercion or force within families and communities.
Myth #2: Sex trafficking is the only form of human trafficking.
Reality: Broadly speaking, there are two main types of human trafficking: sex trafficking and labor trafficking. The latter type includes things like domestic servitude, field labor, child soldiers, factory labor, bridal and reproductive slavery, and organ trade.
Myth #3: The largest perpetrators fueling the demand for sexual services in Southeast Asia are Western men.
Reality: While Western sex tourism does drive demand for commercial sex work in Southeast Asia, by far the largest demand comes from local Asian men. Many rural ethnic minority villages have one or more ‘community brothels’ for the servicing of local men and villagers passing by. These are commonplace and accepted within the communities, and the men are notorious for paying lower rates for sexual services, having higher demands and being more abusive towards the girls.
Myth #4: Human trafficking only occurs within well-organized underground criminal networks.
Reality: Human trafficking can occur within families, with well-trusted members of one’s community, within legal and legitimate business settings, as well as organized and disorganized underground networks.
Myth #5: Trafficked persons can only be foreign nationals or immigrants from other countries.
Reality: Human trafficking encompasses both transnational trafficking, where borders are crossed, and domestic or internal trafficking within a country.
Myth #6: Human trafficking is a crime that must involve some form of travel, transportation or movement across national borders.
Reality: Although transportation, travel or border crossing are often involved, trafficking can occur without these things.
Myth #7: Human trafficking is another term for human smuggling.
Reality: There are fundamental differences between human trafficking and human smuggling. Both are entirely separate crimes under US federal law. Human trafficking is a crime against a person, whereas smuggling is a crime against a country’s borders because it requires illegal border crossings.
Myth #8: People who have been trafficked understand their rights and understand they have been trafficked.
Reality: Many of those who fall victim to trafficking have no understanding of their rights and aren’t aware of the term ‘trafficking’. In cultures where child labor is the norm, there is no broader sense that something illegal or immoral is happening. It’s also important to understand that ‘trafficking’, ‘child labor’ and ‘exploitation’ are Western terms.
Two streams of suffering.
There are two main categories of human trafficking, affecting men, women and children all over the world.
1. Sex trafficking
When an adult or minor is coerced, forced, deceived or sold into prostitution that person is a victim of sex trafficking. All of the people involved in recruitment, transportation, harboring, receiving and obtaining the person for that purpose have committed a trafficking crime.
Sex trafficking can also occur alongside debt bondage, where women and girls are forced to continue providing sexual services through the enforcement of real or imaginary ‘debts’ incurred through their transportation, recruitment and sale, which must be paid in full before the victim can be freed.
2. Labor trafficking
The same practices as above are used in labor trafficking, which includes ‘bonded labor’ or ‘debt bondage’, as well as ‘domestic servitude’ and ‘forced child labor’.
With bonded labor or debt bondage, an individual is held responsible for repaying arbitrarily assigned ‘debts’ to a trafficker, recruiter or employer. Laborers may also inherit intergenerational debt.
Domestic servitude is a unique form of forced labor. The trafficked person is kept in an informal workplace where labor is easily exploited outside the vision of local authorities. Laborers are often socially isolated and subjected to sexual abuse.
Arguably the vilest form of trafficking is forced child labor, such as child soldiers, child begging, child field labor and child sex trafficking. According to UNICEF, as many as two million children are subjected to prostitution in the global commercial sex trade.
Who’s at risk?
Human trafficking does not exist solely because people are vulnerable to exploitation. It also exists because there is a global demand for cheap labor or services, including commercial sex acts.
People who are most at risk include undocumented migrants, ethnic minority groups, women and children, oppressed, marginalized and/or impoverished groups, broken families, families with substance abuse, and individuals fleeing armed conflict and natural disaster.
UNESCO asserts that lack of legal status is the single greatest risk factor for trafficking and exploitation.
Thailand: an international hub.
Thailand borders Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar (Burma) and Malaysia, and is a centralized location for both sex and labor trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region. Both internal and cross-border trafficking occurs in and from Thailand.
The majority of people trafficked into Thailand come from Myanmar (Burma), Lao PDR, Cambodia and Southern China and are subjected to forced or bonded labor and commercial sexual exploitation. Thai nationals are trafficked from the relatively poorer region of northeastern Thailand to urban and tourist areas, or internationally.
According to the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP), urban and rural Thai women are sent to work in sex and domestic industries in almost all regions of the world, particularly Malaysia, Japan, Australia, USA, Canada, and Germany. This international trafficking is often under the guise of seemingly legal employment contracts that are not honored.
Migrants, ethnic minority Hill Tribe groups and stateless individuals are at a higher risk of being trafficked than Thai nationals. For example, around two million undocumented Burmese migrants live in Thailand having voluntarily or involuntarily left areas of military conflict or instability.
Hill Tribe people are predominately subsistence farmers working on small yields of rice, corn, tea and coffee. Despite many having lived in Thailand for generations, they lack full recognition from the Thai government. They are unable to own land or businesses and their access to education, health care and viable employment is severely reduced.
For these people, trafficking their children is one of the few ways they can increase their family’s income. It can even seem ‘an easy way out’.
It is important to understand that an ingrained sense of familial obligation makes children feel duty-bound to support their families financially. This cultural obligation is a major factor in perpetuating trafficking in Thailand, especially among the indigenous groups living in the mountainous regions.
Thailand is unique in that there is a fair amount of internal trafficking of men, women and children for commercial sexual exploitation and labor. Ethnic Thais are regularly trafficked from the poorer rural regions of Chiang Rai, Phayao and Nong Khai to more urbanized areas in Bangkok, Pattaya, Hua Hin and Phuket.
Even though prostitution is illegal in Thailand, it is widely available. Sex tourism is a big industry, however there is also a large demand from local Thai men for commercial sex in both rural and urban areas.
Child labor is prevalent throughout Thailand particularly in agriculture, factories, the fishing industry and through street begging.
The global response.
Being such a complex social, cultural and political problem, there are no easy answers to address human trafficking. Different strategies include prevention, rescue, protection, prosecution, rehabilitation, repatriation, reintegration, reducing demand, advocacy, raising awareness, and building international and regional initiatives.
While many organizations focus on prevention and protection, others focus on rescue, rehabilitation and repatriation, and others work to assess regional trends through research and data collection. To date, collaborative efforts in the region are not strong and, unfortunately, this tends to be the global trend. We work primarily on prevention, protection, and raising awareness at a community level with the goal of effecting long-term social change in our target communities.
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