Human Trafficking: MRICRH

January 10th, 2007

NEAR MAE SAI, THAILAND – Standing on a hard pack floor beneath a blue canopy the teacher used a long pointer to tap out words on a white board.

“Noong Kon Koy,” she said. 17 children, ages 4 to 18, repeated the words in unison.

I watched from a row of tall trees shading the grassy field, the sunlight falling soft and gold through the canopy. A camera hung useless from my shoulder; I could only watch. (at left: Sompop Jankatra lectures on trafficking)

“Sook Sam Lang,” the teacher moved on to the next phrase. One of the girls bounced her baby as the group repeated the words.

I was at the Mekong Regional Indigenous Child Rights Home (MRICRH), a cooperative project between the non-governmental organization (NGO) Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities Center (DEPDC) and the government-run Hill Tribe Development Center (HDC). MRICRH is a halfway home and child protection center for victims of human trafficking. Trafficked children rarely receive an education, so education is an important component of rehabilitation and these children, whose identities were to remain anonymous, were some of those victims. To protect their identities I, and 15 students and faculty from the University of Wisconsin, were only to observe. (at right: UWSP students and faculty in an Akha hill tribe village)

In spite of the broad age range, it was easy to see this class as “normal” until one girl was brought to a straw mat, her gait awkward enough to warrant the support of her peers. Seemingly one step from catatonic I was left to imagine a horrific experience. At the same time her presence was a reminder of a child’s resilience and ability to cope; those around her likely suffered some similar experience and yet they laughed and played like any child.

In its simplest definition, trafficking is the transport of individuals into a forced labor situation; that labor may be in the sex industry or it may be domestic servitude, but what it comes down to is trafficking is slavery. And it is very profitable. (at left: a rural hill tribe village)

This is an illegal industry with hard-to-verify statistics; various agencies report a range from 700,000 to 4 million persons trafficked worldwide for a global revenue between $7-$10 billion annually. Proclaimed to be the fastest-growing global criminal industry its commodity, unlike drugs, can be sold again and again.

Here, in Thailand, a child may first be sold as a virgin to a sex tourist and later simply as a prostitute. If she does not succumb to HIV/AIDS, she can continue to be sold to less and less discriminating clientele, eventually ending up going for less than a dollar a trick to Thai day laborers. (at right: UWSP student Katie Hopkins and hill tribe children)

The founder of DEPDC, Sompop Jankatra, likes to use a simple diagram to explain what he calls the “Bloodsucker Cycle.” Starting with the child, and focusing on the sex industry, a chain spirals outward showing all those who profit from the trafficking. Jankatra placed the child’s parents first.

It is not always that parents willingly sell their children because they want a new tv or car like their neighbor. Frequently parents believe they are sending their child to a city with better job opportunities or education. Trafficking agents, who are often community members, will groom their poor and poorly educated neighbors, playing on ignorance to convince parents to send a child away to a better opportunity. According to Jankatra, in one Akha hill tribe village an agent would say “I even sent my own nephew” which, in fact, he had. (at left: buying locally made garments and accessories)

The chain goes on; a village chief may get a cut, the drivers who transport the children or young women get paid, corrupt police at check points are paid not to look, immigration, pimps, brothels; individual are sold up a chain, moving from one place to the next. Japan is an importer, Germany, the United States. Taxi drivers are paid to know the right brothels, clinic doctors get a cut for under-the-table medical services, banks make money off the trafficker’s profits.

The cost of moving a person like this is expensive; everyone wants a piece. The child or young woman is told they now have a debt to pay and their papers, if they have any, are kept by the traffickers. Often traffickers will ‘break’ their victim through a series of beatings or brutal rapes after which they are turned out for work. (at right: a tourist moment)

One of the things Jankatra made a point to emphasize, particularly considering Thailand’s extensive sex industry, is that prostitutes have the option of quitting their work. Trafficking victims are held through psychological or physical means; they can not leave. However, Jankatra concedes, if the individual ever repays his or her ‘debt’ and is released, often that person knows only one thing: sex for money. Compounding this is the psychology of trauma.

Trafficking isn’t always about the sex industry; in the United States, besides the sex trade, there is farm labor, domestic servants, restaurant workers, and sweatshops. Human trafficking is about false promises and slavery; it preys upon the poor, disadvantaged, desperate, and ignorant.

A lunch of fried rice and requisite Thai chili peppers followed Jankatra’s pre
sentation. While waiting for our scheduled trip to an Akha hill tribe village I wandered over to the outdoor kitchen where the staff enjoyed a desert of tapioca pudding and corn on banana leaves. They shared with me while I watched the MRICRH children’s group activity in the shade of the trees. (at left: the obligatory cute Akha village kid)

I don’t have any photos of them, but I will remember them huddled in a circle laughing, singing, touching each other and then, as the 20 odd foreigners boarded the bus, they waved and bowed, calling out the Thai greeting of “sawadee-ka.” (at left: the bus ride down from the hills)

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